I read every book that came in my way without distinction.
Coleridge about his reading mania before he was eight years old.
Coleridge, 'library cormorant'
Coleridge was not even eight years old when he had read all the books in the library of his father, a learned minister, co-editor of a Hebrew bible edition and author of a Latin Grammar book. He had read all the books, even those far beyond his comprehension. 'My whole being was, with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner, and read, read, read,' he later wrote. By the age of fourteen, he claimed, he had devoured the entire stock of a circulating library in King Street, London, where he attended boarding school. He borrowed the maximum allowance of two books a day. Insatiable as he was, one subject naturally leading to another, a footnote to yet another book. He was constantly tempted onward, as he himself explained,
By an increasing sense of the imperfection of my knowledge, and by the conviction that, in order to fully comprehend and develop any one subject, it was necessary that I would make myself master of some other, which again as regularly involved a third, and so on with an ever-widening horizon.
Tattered piece of tapestry
According to the contemporary literary critic William Hazlitt, Coleridge ultimately covered the entire field of human knowledge:
Hardly a speculation has been left on record from the earliest time, but it is loosely folded up in Mr. Coleridge's memory, like a rich, but somewhat tattered piece of tapestry: we might add (with more seeming than real extravagance), that scarce a thought can pass through the mind of man, but its sound has at some time or other passed over his head with rustling pinions. On whatever question or author you speak, he is prepared to take up the theme with advantage.
At twenty-four year, Coleridge called himself a 'library cormorant'.
I am, and ever have been, a great reader, and have read almost everything—a library cormorant. I am deep in all out of the way books.
The speed with which he absorbed books was phenomenal, as is witnessed by Colerige's late life complaint that his reading speed had severely slowed:
Alas! Thro' weakness of the body & over-activity of the suggestive mind I now crawl thro' a book like a fly thro a milk splash on a Tea-tray! I, who 20 years ago, used to read a volume, stereotype-wise by whole pages at a glance.
Whole pages verbatim
The ability to quickly digest a text is useful, but of little value if that text is not committed to memory. The opposite was the case with Coleridge. He was able to reproduce almost literally what he read long afterwards. Two years after the storming of the Bastille in Paris, Coleridge went to study in Cambridge. The French Revolution was the talk of the day and inspired many students. Coleridge and his friends often stayed up late in his rooms, discussing developments in France and the need for political and economic changes in their own country. The topic of discussion was often one of the many lengthy political pamphlets that constantly rolled off the printing presses. 'What evenings I have spent in those rooms!' said one of the participants, 'there was no need of having the book before us. Coleridge had read it in the morning, and in the evening he would repeat whole pages verbatim.'
Dante on the beach
His memory had not lost strength a quarter of a century after his university years. In the summer of 1817 on Littlehampton beach, Coleridge saw a father and his son reciting Homer, raising their voices above the noise of the waves. When he curiously addressed the father, the man turned out to be the first great English translator of Dante's works. A lively conversation ensued and an invitation to dinner extended to Coleridge. Coleridge took home a copy of the translator's Inferno from that dinner. To the amazement of father and his thirteen year old son, who met Coleridge again on the beach next morning, the poet was able to recite whole passages from the translation by heart, also recalling the parallel sections of the Italian original, and commenting on the translation.