Robert Southey, Esq. Poet Laureate, 1813-1845
To Robert Southey, Esq.
Vicarage, Tavistock, Devon,
March 17th, 1831
My dear Sir,
From the kind interest you have taken in behalf of Mary Colling, I am induced to give you in this letter a more detailed account of her than I have yet been able to do in my former communications. After she sent her little poems to me, I heard a good deal about her from various quarters; but these accounts not always agreeing together, I determined to learn what I could from the poor girl herself. The first time I saw her, she was so agitated that \I gained little intelligence; but the second, taking her into my own room, I did all I could to conciliate her feelings, and having in a great degree overcome her timidity, I obtained from her a regular account of herself, given in the most artless manner. I shall here repeat the substance of it with every attention to fidelity. My information respecting her singular worth, her early talents, and the excellence of her character, I derived from a lady who has known her from childhood, and from the worthy gentleman in whose family she has lived for so many years.
Before entering, however, on these particulars, it may not be amiss to state that about four or five years since I first observed a young woman, of the humbler class, dressed exceedingly neat, and remarkable on account of the intellectual character of her countenance, who used to sit amongst several poor women immediately under the reading desk of Tavistock Church.
I was induced to enquire who she was, and learned that her name was Mary Colling, that she was a servant in a gentleman’s family in the place, a clever girl, and fond of poetry. Some time after, I observed she was removed from where I first saw her, and usually took her seat in the pew near our own (belonging to the family in which she lived), where her expressive features and her decorous behaviour, always made me look upon her with peculiar interest: it was not, however, till the 4th of March, 1831, that I became fully aware of her remarkable talents; since on that day I first received from her, through the hands of one of my own servants, a small parcel, containing a few of her poems, with a request, very modestly preferred, that I would be kind enough to look over them at my leisure, and say what I thought of them. Having stated these few circumstances, I now proceed to mention others of more, I think, than ordinary interest respecting her.
Mary Maria Colling, the daughter of Edmund Colling, husbandman, by his wife Anne, was born at Tavistock, August the 20th, 1805. In her childhood, she was sent to school to an old woman; not so much to learn any thing, as to be kept out of the way. But little Mary was not to be so neglected, for hearing others taught to read, she had a wish to learn also; and her school-mistress finding she made no progress either in sewing or knitting, undertook the task, more congenial to her pupil, of initiating her into a knowledge of the alphabet and the first rudiments of learning. These she speedily acquired; and being possessed of Watt’s Hymns, and a sixpenny book that had in it sundry little stories, with some few pieces in verse, she soon became so perfectly well acquainted with their contents, that she knew both books, from beginning to end, by heart; not, however, making the good old woman fully acquainted with the tenacity of her memory in thus storing itself with what then constituted her whole range of knowledge: so that when her mistress, on account of her negligence with the needle, would sometimes keep her in, after school hours, as a punishment, Mary often managed to soften her displeasure and to gain her own liberty, by repeating something, with the utmost exactness, out of the six-penny book in which she was set her daily lessons. Before she was five years old, she could read well enough to entertain her grandmother, who was very fond of her.
At ten years of age, she was entered at the free school as a pupil to learn needle-work: there however, some kind ladies – Miss Mary Beauford and Miss Charlotte Bedford – became friends to her, and taught her to read perfectly well, which she could not do till then, though she could write a little before, but can scarcely tell how she learnt to do so. At this school, likewise, she received small praise for sewing, but she wrote from copies, and was considered the spelling wonder amongst the children. Her memory also was surprising; she could repeat anything by heart with scarcely more trouble than that of reading it over.
However her schooling amounted to very little, for her object there having been to learn needlework, she rarely went upon writing days, and her mother also, being repeatedly ill, and having a young family, Mary was obliged to stay at home and nurse her brothers and sisters for weeks together.
When about thirteen years old, she entirely quitted school; and at this period a beautiful incident occurred in her life. I wish, in repeating it, I could convey to you any idea of the feeling manner with which she related it to me. “It grieved her heart,” she said, “to see that her father could neither write nor read, for his Bible could not speak to him; and so she taught him both, herself, before she went to place.” On hearing this account of her teaching her father to write and read – the latter that he might be enabled to read his Bible – Mr. Bray remarked that she was no less deserving praise for her filial piety than the Roman daughter who fed her father from her breast; the latter sustained her parent by supplying food for the body, the former gave her father the means of finding it for the mind, and sustaining his spirit with the bread of life – the word of God. And may I here remark that Miss Charlotte Bedford was first induced to notice her on account of finding that when a mere child Mary was so amiable and affectionate to her father.
“At fourteen years old,” she said, “it pleased God to give her a good service;” for Mrs. General Hughes being in want of a young person to assist in the family, directed one of her servants to enquire after some little girl, who could fill such an easy station, till one, more competent, could be engaged. The servant, in returning home, after a fruitless search, chanced to meet our Mary, who, on hearing the circumstance, most gladly offered her services. The next day she presented herself before Mrs. Hughes, who was so much interested by the artless manners, and the intelligence of the child, that she immediately engaged her; and Mary remained with her kind protectress as long as she lived. “The dear old lady,” she said, “was very good to her, and grew as fond of her as if she had been her own child. She died in her arms: and, when upon her death-bed, she charged her son to be a kind friend to poor Mary, and to take care of her; which he has done from that hour to the present: there could not be a better master,” she said, “nor a better man in the world.”
I must not omit stating, that not long before she became servant to Mrs. Hughes, Mary, ever anxious to gain her own bread, had taken to a loom to learn the business of weaving; and some neighbour, who saw her thus employed, prophesied, and, as it turned out, truly, “that Providence had designed that child for better things.”
On receiving her wages, it had been her custom to spend as small a sum as she possibly could upon her clothes, and to but little books with the remainder. I have heard also (though not from herself) that she has been very dutiful and generous out of her small means to her family, giving them assistance whenever she could do so. “Her master,” she told me, “had been very kind to her; for though ill-natured people had endeavoured to set him against her, because she loved reading, he had never listened to them, but had bought her several good books for her benefit, and some sermons as a present at Christmas.” Indeed, it appears that the poor girl’s simple accomplishments, and keeping herself from idle company and gossips, have excited a good deal of envy amongst the narrow-minded in her own station and degree. Since her old mistress died, her sister had assisted in the family, though Mary manages, and does nearly all the work herself. Not the least interesting portion of her narrative was the good practical sense she displayed in telling me her method of housekeeping, &c. Since a severe illness, however, (and, like most poetical temperaments, she is at all times very nervous,) she is not allowed to do any laborious work beyond her strength.
Some few books have been lent to her by her first benefactress, Miss C. Bedford, a lady who, to this day, continues her kind friend. Yet, putting all her reading together, I found it amounted to very little; excepting that she had made herself perfectly well acquainted with that one true book, which, independent of its sacred character, is, perhaps, of all books the most calculated to elevate the mind, and to form a pure, just, and simple taste – the Bible. Here she is quite at home, and knows whole chapters of it by heart. Indeed, her memory is surprising, and her comprehension exceedingly quick.
In the course of conversation I told her, that I had heard, from a lady, she was fond of astronomy: was it true? She replied, “she had once read a book that came in her way; on the subject, as she liked to learn any thing she could, but she knew very little about it; only that she could never look at the beautiful moon and the stars without wishing to understand their courses.”
Finding, excepting in her Bible, that she had really read very little poetry, I asked her how she came to understand such words as zephyrs, Aurora, &c., and that Flora was the goddess of flowers, as I observed allusions to such persons and things continually in her poems. I also asked how she had formed her way of writing, and learns such bold and forcible expressions? To the former question she replied, “That she had a dictionary; at the end of it there was an explanation about the gods and goddesses, and there she had learnt it: that if she met with a word in reading which she did not understand, she never past it over, but looked it out in her dictionary, and seldom forgot how a word was spelt if she once saw it in print; and as to her language, she had gained that from hearing Mr. Bray preach. To listen to him was her greatest delight, and she thought she owed much to his sermons. As a proof of it,” she said, “he had inspired her to attempt poetry.” It was on the following occasion, about six years ago, he preached a sermon on the power of God manifested in the creation of the world; she was struck with it, and, on her return home, composed the following, being her first essay in verse, on
Eternal, self-existent God!
Nature thy goodness doth display;
Thy wonders are dispersed abroad;
Creation owns thy sovereign sway.
These products of creating skill,
To speak thy glorious praise combine;
They are subservient to thy will,
And all proclaim thy hand divine.
The spacious firmament* was rear’d, –
Soon as the dread command was given;
Unnumber’d worlds at once appear’d
And gemm’d the azure arch of heaven.
Nature thy sovereign voice obeyed;
Angelic songs it did employ;
Ten thousand forms at once were made;
The morning stars they sang for joy.
The wonders of thy mighty hand
Show us thy wisdom is immense;
For there’s display’d through every land
Memorials of Omnipotence.
From heaven, thine own eternal seat,
Thine eye survey’d this lovely frame,
And when the system was complete,
Man was brought in to praise thy name.
The new-born day rose at thy word;
‘Twas usher’d in with seraphs’ lays;
They tuned their harps, and forth was pour’d
A universal tide of praise.
*In the sermon, Mt.Bray, I believe, quoted Addison’s Hymn, “The spacious firmament,” &c. This, probably, may account for her using the expression in the poem.
Some time after this, she began to compose her fables, before she had ever read any, excepting two or three in prose, in the sixpenny book she learnt by heart, when she was about five years old, at school. Lately somebody had lent her Gay’s Fables, but she had yet only read a few of them. In the history of this poor girl’s mind – which surely is replete with interest – I was anxious to learn what could have induced her to think of writing fables, not having been, from her own account, at all prompted to do so by reading them. She blushed like crimson when I asked her, smiled, and at last I drew out the confession. She said, “that her master, seeing she did not go out much, or run about like other girls, from kindness to her gave her a slip of garden to amuse herself with cultivating it in her leisure hours; till, at length, all the flower garden came under her care. The river Tavy flowed at the foot of it; and here she found the greatest delight. She would tell me the truth, though she was afraid to speak it, lest I should think her mazed (Mazed is a Devonshire expression, meaning mad.); but when of an evening she was amongst the flower beds, and she saw them all so lively and so beautiful, she used to fancy the flowers talked to her. Thus, a peony growing near her laurel tree, she fancied the one reproaching the other for not being so fine as itself, and so composed her little fable of the ‘Peony and the Laurel’. And these kind of thoughts used to come into her head in a moment, and then she turned them into verses and fables.” Is not this poor girl truly a poet of nature? I have not the slightest doubt of what she says; for almost all her fables – and her best fables – relate to flowers and trees. Here is that of
THE PEONY AND THE LAUREL
Invited by the smile of May,
A Peony did its blooms display;
Nigh to it grew a hardy Laurel,
With whom it thus began to quarrel:-
“Where is thy taste, how long thou’st been,
Array’d in that dark robe of green?
Sure thou shouldst now wear something gay,
Which well becomes the month of May.
“I need not to extol my powers,
For Peonies are majestic flowers;
Behold my lovely charms outvie
The blushes of the morning sky.”
The Laurel, conscious of its power,
Responded to the gaudy flower:-
“Frail boaster, thou display’st at once
Presumption, pride, and ignorance.
“Though now, in sooth, by thee I’m scorn’d,
Laurels have conquerors’ brows adorn’d;
And dost thou think so famed a tree
Can envy a weak flower like thee?
“When tempests howl and lightnings glare,
And thunders rend the boundless air,
And whirlwinds, with the hideous roar,
Augment the deep and rock the shore;
“Here, like a champion, I defy,
The insults of the inclement sky:
But shouldst thou dare to show thine head,
A single blast would strike thee dead!
” But what’s thy low abuse, that I
Should deem it worth the least reply?
Thus much I’ve said, to let thee know
My boast is strength, if thine is show.
“For since I’m by the wise respected,
I care not how by fools rejected;
Though owls and bats despise the morn,
The sun will ne’er regard their scorn.”
When I mentioned to Mr. Bray, that she said she used to fancy the flowers talked to her, and that she had composed fables before she had read any, he remarked, that this poor girl, like Aesop, was in a state of servitude; and possibly that persons of their stamp of mind so situated, feeling themselves so far beyond the ordinary society of their own sphere, might be led to seek it in a world they created for themselves by the vicinity of their own imaginations, and thus hold discourse, as it were, with flowers, and trees, and animals.
I mentioned, I believe, in a former letter, that she had not been in the habit of writing down her compositions, and that when I asked her how she managed to preserve them, she gave me a truly Devonian reply, assuring me that “she could mind them,” meaning she could retain them in her memory. I also enquired if any one in the place, besides ourselves, had ever heard her poems. She said “Yes, a few persons had. That some ill-natured people scorned her for writing them, and some thought it wrong in a poor girl at service; but an old man, whose name was Pearce (and it appears was the first person intrusted with her secret this way), and a few others, liked them pretty well. Her kind and generous master, also, approved them.”
I then ventured to tell her my all-powerful secret (for I had not yet disclosed it to her) namely, that I has sent two of her fables to no less a person than Mr. Southey! and asked her if she really know who he was. She looked somewhat alarmed, and said, “Oh yes, she had heard that the gentleman was the King’s poet!” I told her not to be frightened, and assured her that the “King’s poet” was one of the kindest-hearted men in the world, and that I would venture to say in his name (for I had not then received your last letter*), that he would not despise her little verses, but would read them with every indulgence.
*In the letter here alluded to, Mr. Southey, with that generous feeling towards the luckless children of the muses by which he has ever been distinguished, not less than by his transcendent genius, offered, should a volume of Mary’s Fables, &c., be prepared for the press, not only to subscribe to it himself, but to endeavour to interest his friends in her behalf. Mr. Southey likewise, as a mark of kindness, did the poor girl the honour of presenting her with a copy of his beautiful poem of “Madoc.”
Another little anecdote must not be forgotten. She told me that somebody had lent her an old book, containing extracts from different poets. I asked her whose poetry she liked best in it? She answered me, with all the simplicity imaginable, “that there were some extracts from a person whose name was Shakespeare, and she thought she liked them the best.”#
# Messrs. Longman, Rees, & Co., with a kindness that did them honour, not long after this letter was written, presented Mary Colling with a copy of Shakespeare’s Plays.
Knowing how close a union there is at all times between poetry, flowers, and love, I ventured to ask if she had a sweetheart. She smiled and said, “Oh, no, she could read and amuse her mind, in her leisure hours, with making verses, and with her flower-garden, and that made her quite happy: she did not want one.”
I do not think there is any danger that this poor girl’s head will be turned by any notice of her. She is very modest, and seems imbued with a deep sense of religious feeling, the surest safeguard against vanity; since such a fault is seldom found in a mind accustomed to serious thoughts on sacred subjects. It is more frequently the vice of those who think to much about themselves, and too little about their God.
She has the Devonshire accent, but not coarsely; and, though a perfect country girl in every thing; – in her smile, her cap, her little straw bonnet, and her curtsy, – yet there in nothing vulgar about her. The elevated feelings of her character have given to her manners that indescribable mark of mind, which shows itself amidst the greatest simplicity, and is never to be mistaken.
As, in noticing those who are at all distinguished for talent or worth, it is customary to say something of their persons, I may be allowed, perhaps, to state, that nature has been liberal to her in the particular. Her features are regularly handsome, especially the forehead, eyebrows, and eyes; the latter particularly so when animated in conversation. And I may here observe, that Mary Colling the servant, and Mary Colling talking about poetry and flowers, scarcely appears to be one and the same person. If I had not seated her for a couple of hours by my side, and won upon her to open her heart, I should never even have guessed the animated interesting being she could become in conversation.
I do assure you, when I looked on the beautiful expression of her countenance, so tempered with modesty, and listened to the feeling modulation of her voice, “soft and low,” for she has that “excellent thing in woman,” as she repeated to me her own admirable lines on Creation, I could not help entertaining for her a degree of admiration that was not unmixed with reverence and regard. Should it be the will of God that this poor girl is to be benefited by our means, I can only say I shall most happily become the instrument.
I hope you will not think me superstitious, if I confess to you that I love to trace events through the most apparently trifling links of that chain which leads to their source. It certainly was something quite out of the usual course of things that Mary should have sent her little poems to me (and not the best of them either) at such a time – on the very day I was about to reply to your letter, and when my own feelings had been so recently impressed with your kindness to me, that mine were but the more open to her. I have only to add, that she bears an unblemished character, and I have every cause to think will not disgrace the good gifts Providence has so amply bestowed upon her. You will also be glad to learn, that, since I commenced my letter, a lady of this place, Miss Mary Beauford, whose good sense and kind heart are ever active in promoting welfare of the humbler classes, called upon me, and expressed her readiness to assist in any plan that might be set on foot for Mary’s benefit. Mary’s worthy master, Mr. Hughes, has likewise, in the most generous manner, expressed the same resolution; so I hope on my return from London, which I am soon about to visit, that we shall be able to bring out a little volume of her poems to do credit to Tavistock.
She has this moment sent me a beautiful plant from her garden, and a copy of verses, expressive of her grateful feelings for the little kindness I have shown her? Could there be a more graceful mode of returning it?
Praying you excuse the length of my letter in behalf of the poor poet, for whom you have expressed so kind an interest,
Allow me, my dear Sir,
The honour to remain, with grateful respect,
Most truly yours,
ANNA ELIZA BRAY