The letters in these volumes provide an inimitable record of Coleridge's middle years. So various in subject-matter, so rich in self-revelation, they portray the mind and character of one of the most baffling yet fascinating figures in English literature.
Letter-writing was to Coleridge a means of self-expression, and his epistolary style, now sparkling with poetic language, now burdened with amplifications and qualifications, varies with mood and subject. His formal prose, as Chambers remarks, 'yields but few examples of that swift felicity of phrase which often illumines his private correspondence'. In the present letters, however, Coleridge shows a growing tendency to write long, involved sentences, and his use of parentheses—frequently extended ones— has become habitual. He recognized, indeed, the discursive nature of his mind. 'My Thoughts are like Surinam Toads', he once wrote, & as they crawl on, little Toads vegetate out from back & side, grow quickly, & draw off the attention from the mother Toad.' The digressions, it is true, may be more arresting than the matter in hand. In a discussion of Anton Wall's Amatonda, for example, Coleridge turns aside to speak of 'long & deep Affection suddenly, in one moment, flash-transmuted into Love':
In short, I believe, that Love (as distinguished both from Lust and from that habitual attachment which may include many Objects, diversifying itself by degrees only), that that Feeling (or whatever it may be more aptly called), that specific mode of Being, which one Object only can possess, & possesses totally, is always the abrupt creation of a moment—tho' years of Dawning may have preceded. I said, Dawning— for often as I have watched the Sun-rising, from the thinning, diluting Blue to the Whitening, to the fawn-coloured, the pink, the crimson, the glory, yet still the Sun itself has always started up, out of the Horizon—! between the brightest Hues of the Dawning and the first Rim of the Sun itself there is a chasm—all before were Differences of Degrees, passing & dissolving into each other—but this is a difference of Kind—a chasm of Kind in a continuity of Time. And as no man who had never watched for the rise of the Sun, could understand what I mean, so can no man who has not been in Love, understand what Love is—tho' he will be sure to imagine & believe, that he does. Thus, Wordsworth is by nature incapable of being in Love, tho' no man more tenderly attached—
This passage not only reveals something of Coleridge's turn of mind but also offers an illustration of his epistolary manner.