LETTER TO JOSEPH COTTLE
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Observe the march of Milton—his severe application, his laborious polish, his deep metaphysical researches, his prayers to God before he began his great poem, all that could lift and swell his intellect, became his daily food. I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine—then the mind of man—then the minds of men—in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years—the next ﬁve to the com- position of the poem—and the ﬁve last to the correction of it.
So I would write haply not unhearing of that divine and rightly whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestinated Garlands, starry and unwithering.
God love you,
S. T. Coleridge
Writers read. In many, perhaps most cases, we can only intuit the process by which authors of great literature navigate the transposition of previous work, but occasionally we get a peek behind the veil. When John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he kept a detailed journal of the process now published as Journal of a Novel. With Coleridge, we benefit both from his extensive correspondence as well as detailed marginalia in his library.
As Malcolm Guite wrote in Chapter Four of Mariner:
Coleridge was reading, absorbing, remembering and reimagining almost every story of travel, sea-voyage, sea-discovery, and shipwreck that was available to him. Presumably all these books available to Coleridge also had many other readers. The difference with Coleridge was that he did not simply remember what he had read. He could take and transform the images he found in his memory and, by the shaping spirit of his imagination, mold them into a vessel capable of containing our joys and sorrows as well as his.