Thomas Poole and his Friends

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The Fall of Robespierre, Edited by Daniel E. White

From Mrs. Henry Sandford, Thomas Poole and his Friends, 2 vols. (London, 1888) 1.100-106.

    John Poole, the story begins, had brought the tidings of the death of Robespierre home with him from Oxford; but this is manifestly impossible, as we find by his journal that he arrived at Marshmill from Oxford on July 18, and Robespierre did not die till July 28. However, it is, of course, easily to be supposed that he may have brought the intelligence home from Bridgwater to Taunton. On his way, according to one tradition, he stopped at his uncle's house in Nether Stowey to tell his news; according to another it was at Marshmill itself that he found his Cousin Tom, in company with two young men, introduced to him by the names of Coleridge and Southey, who not only did not show the feelings any right-thinking people might have been expected to manifest at such a piece of intelligence, but one of them — Southey — actually laid his head down upon his arms and exclaimed, "I had rather have heard of the death of my own father."

    So runs the tale as it has been told to me, more often, I think, than any other story that I have ever heard of Coleridge's life at Stowey; indeed my own father and other members of the family of the same standing, have repeatedly assured me that they have themselves heard it related by Mr. John Poole himself. And yet all who remember how little sympathy either Coleridge or Southey had with the Jacobins, how deeply they felt the "murder of Brissot," how simply the dramatic fragment on the death of Robespierre relates, but does not lament, his overthrow, must feel that there is something here that requires explanation.

    [John Poole kept diaries in Latin. Entry for August 1794:]

    '... Horâ fere 7 Thos. Poole, et frater Richardus, Henricus Poole, et duo juvenes ei familiares huc veniunt. Duo isti ignoti, intelligo, è Cantabrigiâ exierant; et totam fere Walliam peragraverant. Unus Oxoniensis Alumnus; alter Cantabrigiensis. Uterque verò rabie Democratica, quoad Politiam; et Infidelis quoad Religionem spectat, turpiter fervet. Ego maxime indignor. Tandem verò, horâ fere 8, omnes discedunt ... Horâ ferme 1 Dns Reekes Stoweiâ venit; multum indignatur propter malitiam odiosam et detestandam juvenum istorum, quibus, apud Avunculi mei Thomae occurrerat. Illi plus videntur cogitationes suas, quam apud nos, illic indicâsse. Sed de talibus satis. . . .'

    Which may be thus translated: —

    '... About one o'clock, Thomas Poole and his brother Richard, Henry Poole, and two young men, friends of his, come in. These two strangers, I understand, had left Cambridge, and had walked nearly all through Wales. One is an undergraduate of Oxford, the other of Cambridge. Each of them was shamefully hot with Democratic rage as regards politics, and both Infidel as to religion. I was extremely indignant. At last, however, about two o'clock, they all go away ... About seven o'clock Mr. Reekes comes from Stowey; he is very indignant over the odious and detestable ill-feeling of these two young men, whom he had met at my Uncle Thomas's. They seem to have shown their sentiments more plainly there than with us. But enough of such matters. . . .'

    "Ego maxime indignor!" Here, no doubt, we have the germ of the whole history, though John Poole unluckily omits to record the particular nature of the utterances which so strongly moved him to wrath ... But putting this and that together, it is easy to understand that the death of Robespierre was certain to be mentioned as an awful event and the leading topic of the day, and that the talk of isti duo ignoti was wild enough to be the origin of the most extravagant rumours, as it became embedded in fragments in the gossip of a scandalised neighbourhood; where it was soon 'well known' that one of Tom Poole's literary friends - was it the young man Coldridge [sic], or the young man Southey? they were not quite sure; but it was certainly one of them - had positively said that Robespierre was a ministering angel of mercy, sent to slay thousands that he might save millions. Let us be accurate. It was not positively certain whether the words were hundreds and thousands, or thousands and millions; but that Robespierre had been called a 'ministering angel of mercy' everybody knew for a fact. 

    This is quite simple; but what is really perplexing is to imagine how Coleridge, or even Southey, who, according to Tom Poole, was, on that occasion, 'the most extreme' of the two, could have said anything so apparently opposite to their own convictions. I believe the solution is to be found in the mischievous enjoyment that they both experienced in the state of superlative indignation into which they provoked John Poole - especially Southey. Let us remember that he was an Oxford undergraduate, and a very insubordinate one, who had already amused himself by making remarks on the 'waste of wigs and want of wits' to be observed amongst the university authorities; the very sight of John Poole, serious and scholarly, with powdered locks, and precise attire, and a certain air of expecting every one to mean what he says, and to be reasonable, may have been quite enough to make him set himself, with that peculiar kind of wrongheadedness which is a not uncommon characteristic of very early manhood, to parade outrageous opinions, and to say whatever came into his head as most likely to shock a very proper young Don's sense of fitness.

Thomas Poole and his Friends

Published @ RC

March 2008