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to others. She, good Mrs. Bray, seems to think that she has discovered in the gentle maiden, Mary Maria Colling, a gem of “purest ray serene,” a rose which had hitherto blushed altogether invisible to other eyes, and a real prize of extraordinary value. We would venture to say, that there is scarcely a large village or town in the kingdom, in which more than one person might not be found capable of writing verses quite as good as those of Miss Colling, if not a great deal better. It is very far from being our wish to wound the feelings of this person, in so tender a point as her poetical talent: but she must blame Mrs. Bray for the injudicious use which she has made of the manuscripts that were confided to her care; for the moment that by publication they are submitted to the critical tribunals, it becomes the duty of those tribunals to pronounce upon them according to their real merits, without being led away by those false notions of delicacy and humanity, which have nothing whatever to do with the canons of poetical taste. We cannot help noticing the mawkish style of the letters, in which Mrs. Bray commnnicates to Mr. Southey, the history of the grand discovery which she made, of Mary Colling’s wondrous powers: and of the difficulty which she had in persuading the poor girl herself, that she was neither more nor less than a genius. It is remarkable, that all the letters are upon Mrs. Bray’s side, and that we have not even so much as a line expressive of the poet laureate’s opinion on the subject. Perhaps it would not be too much to infer from this omission, that his judgment, with respect to these verses, was not of a nature quite so flattering to the author of them, as Mrs. Bray would have wished. Indeed, we think we might go farther," and state, that Mr. Southey thought them altogether unworthy of his attention, and declined to have any thing to do with them in " an editorial character. We must add, that if he did not think so, his taste must have been very much altered for the worse, for a set of more imbecile verses than those which Mrs. Bray has here given to the world, never, perhaps, courted its contempt before. But let us hear her account of her fair protegée. * “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 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 inquire 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 Watts'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 me"mory 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 sixpenny 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 any thing 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 needle-work, 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.” —pp. 1–5.
Mrs. Bray then proceeds, in a most verbose manner, to relate how Mary taught her father to read, thereby, in the opinion of Mr. Bray, assimilating herself to the Grecian daughter; how she got into the service of Mrs. General Hughes, previously to which she occupied herself in learning the business of weaving, and how, from ‘the poor girl’s simple accomplishments, and keeping herself from idle company and gossips, she had excited a good deal of envy amongst the narrow-minded in her own station and degree.” The editor adds, that putting all Mary’s reading together, it amounted to very little, excepting that she had made herself perfectly acquainted with the Bible. ‘Here she is quite at home, and knows whole chapters of it by heart.” We shall, by and by, see how easy it is to know whole chapters of the Bible by heart, and to suffer the same heart to remain insensible to some of its most essential precepts. Mary, it seems, moreover, is an astronomer!— for she read some book about it : and the whole Mythology of Greece, the Auroras, and Floras, and Pomonas, &c., she became acquainted with, from seeing an account of such matters at the end of an old dictionary. But her language—her way of writing—her “bold and forcible expressions,”—whence did she draw for auxiliaries so important, in every point of view, to a poet 2 From the Bible 7 No. From Watts's Hymns 2 No. From the little sixpenny book, with its sundry stories and pieces in verse ? No. The cunning rogue acknowledges that “as to her language, she had gained that from hearing Mr. Bray preach P No wonder that, after this admission, Mrs. Bray has the fortitude to hold up Mary Colling as a poet. 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.” . Thus we learn the secret by degrees. Mr. Bray inspired the maiden to write verses, and Mrs. Bray very naturally publishes them. It is all a family concern.
But how did Mary happen, if this were the case, to turn her poetical attention particularly to fables " . One would have thought that Mr. Bray's sermons ought to have given a more serious direction to her muse, and have taught her to compose not fables, but hymns. We are afraid that the allegation about the power of Mr. Bray’s discourses could not have been in fact well founded, for we find that her true inspirers after all were the prose tales in her sixpenny book, and Gay's Fables, which somebody had lent her. These, however, were not all. Mary gives a highly poetical account of another source, whence she derived her fabulous propensities.
‘“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 truth, though she was afraid to speak it, lest I should think her mazed;" but when of an evening she was amongst the flower beds, and 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 ?” —pp. 11, 12. Very possibly she may be a poet of nature, but her fables show that she is rather too little of the poet of art, the business of which is to improve the natural impulse, and clothe the poetical thought in a poetical dress. But before we produce any of her compositions, we must dismiss the remaining portion of her biography, which is not without interest, whatever we may think of her talents. The manner in which Mrs. Bray speaks of her own ‘all-powerful secret,” is amusing. It reminds us of the grand notion which school-girls entertain of the slightest whisper which wears the mysterious form of a secret, not to be told on any account for a certain number of hours—the result of which, is that it is forth with blabbed round the whole school. We must confess, however, that we never heard of an omnipotent secret before. It is something new. It is equally novel to hear of a country girl being frightened on hearing mentioned the name of the Poet Laureate—the King's Poet ! There is no disputing about tastes: we suppose that Mrs. Bray knows her man, and was probably courting Southey for an article upon her novels in the Quarterly; otherwise common delicacy must have prevented her from penning such trash.
* “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 inquired 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 who 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 had sent two of her fables to no less a person than Mr. Southey and asked her if she really knew 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
* “Mazed is a Devonshire expression, meaning mad.'
last letter), that he would not despise her little verses, but would read them with every indulgence. * “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 Shakspeare, and she thought she liked them the best.’ “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 too 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 is 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 this particular. Her features are regularly handsome, especially the forehead, eyebrows, and eyes; the latter peculiarly 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