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Portrait Drawing of Mary Colling

MARY M. COLLING (1805-1853)

Mary Maria COLLING was the daughter of Edmund COLLING, a husbandman of Tavistock, and was born August 20, 1805.  Her early education was at a dame's school, but at the age of ten she was entered at the Free School to learn needlework.  About this time she attracted the notice of some ladies who taught her to read.  She developed an extra-ordinary memory, and also became a marvellous speller.  When only thirteen years old she taught her father to read, 'as it grieved her,' she said, 'that his Bible could not speak to him.'  Leaving school, she learnt weaving, but in 1819 she entered the family of Mrs. 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.  It was at 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 cam 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.

Abut the year 1830, Mrs. BRAY made the acquaintance of Mary Colling, 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.'  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, 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, junior, was published by Messrs.  Longman in 1831, and was dedicated with some charming verses to the Marchioness of Tavistock.  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.  Mary Colling died August 6, 1853.*

The following extract from a letter by the late Vicar of Tavistock (Rev. D. P. ALFORD) is interesting as supplementing the information given above:

'I find from the register of deaths, in which she is described as a "domestic servant", that she died August 6, 1853, of dropsy, being forty-eight years old.  Our church register of burials says she was buried August 11, 1853, being forty-nine years old.  She must have been buried in the church portion of the old cemetery in the Dolvin Road, as that was the only burial-ground then in ordinary use.  Her mother, Ann COLLING, died in August, 1852, aged seventy-eight, and her father, Edmund COLLING, "farm labourer," died in January, 1855, aged eighty-five.  An uncle, Henry COLLING, was a farm labourer at Crowndale, and is remembered as a shrewd old man, as well as a faithful servant.  There is an impression also that her parents were above the average cottager in intelligence.  I gather from surviving connections and others, that M. M. Colling was in service with a Colonel HUGHES till his death; that then she lived with her parents in Ford Street, and with a cousin in Dolvin Road; that 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 in 1853.  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 BRAYs 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.'

There is an article about her in the Quarterly Review, March, 1832, probably written by Southey.


Fast fell the rain, the winds did roar;
Her wintry robe Creation wore,
When, fearless, from a frost-bound bed,
A snowdrop raised its little head.

An ivy, through the winter green,
Its unprotected state had seen
And, by mistaken produced moved,
The fearless flow'ret thus reproved:

''Tis great presumption this, I vow,
In such a tender flower as thou,
That thus thou seem'st to dare the blast,
When lofty elms e'en are laid waste.

'Take my advice, lie by awhile
Till Sol resumes his vernal smile;
Then beauty will bedeck the vales,
And whirlwinds sink to gentle gales.

'Let not the storms display their power
On such a weak, unsheltered flower.'
So prudence may presumption chide,
But thus the fearless flower replied:

'I know not what my fate may be
You shall not raise distrust in me;
Learn, this suggestion makes me bold:
"The hand which form'd can well uphold."

'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 above is abridged from a MS. article by Mr. G.C.BOASE, editor of the 'Biblioteca Cornubiensis'.

Transcribed by Sandra Windeatt from: Wright, W.H.K., (1896) West-Country Poets:  Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, pp.107-109.

Last updated 22 Jul 2011 - Brian Randell.

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