Through the vales the breezes sigh;
Twilight opes her bashful eye;
Peeping from the East, she brings
Dewdrops on her dusky wings:
And the lark, with wakening lay,
Upsprings, the harbinger of day.
Now behold! the blushing sky
Tells the bridegroom Sun is nigh;
Nature tunes her joyful lyre,
And the trembling stars retire.
Him the East, in crimson drest,
Ushers, nature’s welcome guest.
And the mountains of the West
Seem to lift their azure heads,
Jealous of the smiles he sheds.
Glory, beaming from on high,
Charms devotion’s lifted eye;
Bliss, to which sluggards ne’er were born.
Waits the attendant of the morn.
Mary M. Colling (1805 – 1853)
Sometimes, the humblest beginnings hide the greatest talents…
Mary Maria Colling was born on the 20th August 1805 to Edmund and Anne Colling, labourer and wife in Tavistock, Devon at a time when the literary rate in the United Kingdom was barely above half and only 40% of English women could read (1). Her early education was at a local dame’s school, then entered Tavistock Free School at the age of ten to learn needlework. About this time, she attracted the notice of some ladies who taught her to read, developing an extra-ordinary memory and becoming a marvellous speller, when at thirteen years old she taught her father to read ‘as it grieved her,’ she said, ‘that his Bible could not speak to him. Her family were known to be more intelligent and shrewd than those of similar position
On leaving school she learnt weaving, but in 1819 she entered the family of a General Hughes, of Tavistock, and eventually became housekeeper. She spent little of her wages upon herself, but remitted the greater part to her parents. Her master, about his time, gave her a strip of garden ground, and she showed such a liking for her occupation that before long the whole garden was left to her care. Around this time she commenced writing poetical fables, chiefly on the subject of flowers, and in after-years, on being questioned as to what led her to write in this style, she replied she used to fancy the flowers talked to her, and thoughts came into her head in a moment, and then she turned them into verses and fables. These fables were not written out at the time, but retained in her memory (2).
Around the year 1830, a Mrs. Bray then made the acquaintance of Mary, and after taking down in writing two of her fables, sent them to Robert Southey, who in return sent Mary a copy of his own poem ‘Madoc.’ (3) Someone having lent her an old book containing extracts from the poets, she was asked which she liked the best, when she replied that there were some extracts from a person whose name was Shakespeare, and she thought she liked them the best. Not long after this, the publishers Messrs. Longman presented her with a copy of Shakespeare’s plays. Mrs. Bray addressed several long letters to Robert Southey, with specimens of Mary’s poems, and with his approbation collected and prepared for the press her poetical works, prefacing them with copies of the letters which had been sent to the Poet Laureate, which contained the particulars of the local poet’s career. This volume which contained an excellent likeness of the poetess from a drawing by William Patten, Jr, was published by Messrs. Longman in 1831, and was dedicated with some charming verses to the Marchioness of Tavistock (4). Nearly three hundred copies were subscribed for. The volume contains eighty pieces of poetry, some of them possessing considerable merit, most of them above the average of the effusions of so-called amateur poets.
The following extract from a letter by the late Vicar of Tavistock (Rev. D. P. Alford) is interesting as supplementing the information given above:
“All that remember M. M. Colling speak of her refinement of manner and appearance, and say that the portrait in Mrs. Bray’s book is very true to life. Others tell me it was a general impression that Mr. and Mrs. Bray corrected and gave a finishing polish to M. M. Colling’s published verse. Certainly they do seem very smooth and correct for a person of Mary’s very slight education. But I have seen many of her poems left in MS., and now in the possession of Miss Leamon of this town, which have just the same character of correctness and smoothness of language and rhythm, with scarcely anything worth altering, only a word or two not used in quite its right meaning. Mary’s poems would, in fact, be more interesting, because they would seem more original, if they were not quite smooth and correct. They have much of the careful propriety, and something of the artificiality, of the poetical language of the last century. Though Wordsworth had waged war against all this in theory, and Coleridge and other great poets in practice, it prevailed with people of the old school far into the present century. I fancy the Bray’s must have held to these old poetical traditions, and Mary, who looked upon the Brays’ as literary oracles, naturally followed their traditions, both in theory and in practice. Her language is not that of her own home, but of her friendly patrons.”
At the time of her employer’s death, she moved back to her parents’ home in Ford Street and spent time with family in Dolvin Road but during this time her mind failed, and she was sent by friends to Bude for a change, but got no good from it; so that ultimately she had to be sent to the asylum. Before that she was harmless, only very restless, and used to swear very much – a sad picture of one naturally so gentle. After a little while in the asylum, she came home quite well in mind, though feeble in body; and so she lived, with her mental powers quite restored, with a married sister, Mrs. Nicholls, in Bannawell Street, till her death.
Mary Colling died August 6, 1853 of dropsy (oedema, most likely congestive heart failure) aged 48 years old, surviving her mother who died a year before and leaving her father, who died in 1855. She was buried on 11 August 1853, most likely in the Dolvin Road “Old Cemetery” in the Church portion and opposite the house where she had lived for some years. The cemetery and family home at Dolvin Road still stand and can be visited, but no headstone or memorial marks the final resting place of this daughter of Devon.
‘Why I am here – I give the reason –
I come at my appointed season;
And though I am but weak and small,
I’ll never shrink from Nature’s call.’
THE SNOWDROP AND THE IVY, 1831
I’ll be visiting soon, and I’ll remember.
- Clark, G. (2008). A farewell to alms: a brief economic history of the world. Princeton University Press.
- Quarterly Review, March, 1832.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madoc_(poem) Accessed 13/05/2017.
- http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw147958/Mary-Maria- Colling?LinkID=mp07808&rNo=10 Accessed 13/05/2017.
- Wright, W.H.K., (1896) West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, pp.107-109.