every generous mind . . . feels its Halfness – it cannot think without a symbol – neither can it live without something that is to be at once its Symbol and its Other half . . . – Hence I deduce the habit, I have most unconsciously formed, of writing my inmost thoughts – I have not a soul on earth to whom I can reveal them – . . . and therefore to you, my passive, yet sole < true & > kind, friends I reveal them. Burn you I certainly shall, when I feel myself dying; but in the Faith, that as the Contents of my mortal frame will rise again, so that your contents will rise with me, as a Phoenix from its pyre of Spice & Perfume.
(CN iii, 3325)
One of the great frustrations for the student of Coleridge arises from the fleeting quality of his literary achievement, its inconsistency, patchiness and fragmentation. The voice which animates the finest of the 'Conversation' poems or the power which makes the supernatural poems so compelling are all too easily lost in the rest of his poetic output; some of his finest theoretical writing threatens to dissolve under scrutiny into a tissue of plagiarism; and much of the remaining political, religious and philosophical prose seems to waver between the doctrinaire and the arcane. As one of his most perceptive critics has put it, 'he is eccentric, even peripheral, his texts a circle whose centre is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere'. In a curious way, the Notebooks offer one answer to these frustrations, giving free play to the very qualities that are elsewhere most problematic: a naturally fragmentary form, infinite freedom to digress, a licence to borrow from other sources, and an escape from the portentousness of his public figure into the realm of the private and the occasional. Here the great talker, lecturer and theorist writes without an audience (and the bombast into which it often tempted him). He creates in this form a private space, a site of secrecy and discovery, which offers a refuge from the anxieties and failures of the public sphere. In a fascinating generic hybrid of journal, travelogue, sketchbook and commonplace book, the Notebooks show us glimpses of a more humane Coleridge, and of his work in progress, in confessional, tentative or experimental mode.