The question of Coleridge’s plagiarisms, paraphrases, cryptomnesias, or borrowings has intrigued scholars and biographers for nearly two centuries, and is of special interest in view of his prodigious powers of memory, his imaginative genius, and his complex, multiform, sometimes tormented sense of identity. No one has described this more beautifully than Richard Holmes in his two- volume biography.
Coleridge was a voracious, omnivorous reader who seemed to retain all that he read. There are descriptions of him as a student reading The Times in a casual fashion, then being able to reproduce the entire paper, including its advertisements, verbatim. “In the youthful Coleridge,” writes Holmes,
this is really part of his gift: an enormous reading capacity, a retentive memory, a talker’s talent for conjuring and orchestrating other people’s ideas, and the natural instinct of a lecturer and preacher to harvest materials wherever he found them.Literary borrowing was commonplace in the seventeenth century—Shakespeare borrowed freely from many of his contemporaries, as did Milton. Friendly borrowing remained common in the eighteenth century, and Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey all borrowed from one another, sometimes even, according to Holmes, publishing work under each other’s names.
But what was common, natural, and playful in Coleridge’s youth gradually took on a more disquieting form, especially in relation to the German philosophers (Friedrich Schelling above all) whom he “discovered,” venerated, translated, and finally came to use in the most extraordinary way. Whole pages of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria consist of unacknowledged, verbatim passages from Schelling. While this unconcealed and damaging behavior has been readily (and reductively) categorized as “literary kleptomania,” what actually went on is complex and mysterious, as Holmes explores in the second volume of his biography, where he sees the most flagrant of Coleridge’s plagiarisms as occurring at a devastatingly difficult period of his life, when he had been abandoned by Wordsworth, was disabled by profound anxiety and intellectual self-doubt, and more deeply addicted to opium than ever. At this time, Holmes writes, “his German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.”
Earlier, as Holmes describes, Coleridge had found another extraordinary affinity, for the German writer Jean-Paul Richter—an affinity that led him to translate and transcribe Richter’s writings, and then to take off from them, elaborating them in his own way and then, in his notebooks, conversing and communing with Richter. At times, the voices of the two men became so intermingled as to be hardly distinguishable from one another.
We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.
Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.
-- Oliver Sacks, "Speak, Memory," in the New York Review of Books, February 21, 2013