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The Foster-Mother's Tale by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

In this episode I will give you two extreme models of education. One is best represented in the tale of Petronilla and the other is best represented in that of Greta Thunberg.

A theme that runs throughout the 1798 Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth is that of nature as educator for a child. In this poem—a fragment from a theatrical play by Coleridge—we see multiple viewpoints on education. One critical question we must answer is how much, if any, of the outside world and its social ills should a child know about?

Education, knowledge and moral upbringing were of paramount importance to many of the romantics. This is a key theme not only in Lyrical Ballads but in much of the philosophers of this time as well as literary writers such as Mary Shelley. This poem is a first in exploring important ideas in action of sibling affection, taboo and the morality imposed upon young children.




By Samuel Taylor Coleridge



I never saw the man whom you describe.


’Tis strange ! he spake of you familiarly

As mine and Albert’s common Foster-mother.


Now blessings on the man, whoe’er he be,

That joined your names with mine ! O my sweet lady,

As often as I think of those dear times

When you two little ones would stand at eve

On each side of my chair, and make me learn

All you had learnt in the day ; and how to talk

In gentle phrase, then bid me sing to you—

‘Tis more like heaven to come than what has been.


O my dear Mother ! this strange man has left me

Troubled with wilder fancies, than the moon

Breeds in the love-sick maid who gazes at it,

Till lost in inward vision, with wet eye

She gazes idly !—But that entrance, Mother!


Can no one hear ? It is a perilous tale !


No one.


My husband’s father told it me,

Poor old Leoni !—Angels rest his soul !

He was a woodman, and could fell and saw

With lusty arm. You know that huge round beam

Which props the hanging wall of the old chapel ?

Beneath that tree, while yet it was a tree

He found a baby wrapt in mosses, lined

With thistle-beards, and such small locks of wool

As hang on brambles. Well, he brought him home,

And reared him at the then Lord Velez’ cost.

And so the babe grew up a pretty boy,

A pretty boy, but most unteachable—

And never learnt a prayer, nor told a bead,

But knew the names of birds, and mocked their notes,

And whistled, as he were a bird himself:

And all the autumn ’twas his only play

To get the seeds of wild flowers, and to plant them

With earth and water, on the stumps of trees.

A Friar, who gathered simples in the wood,

A grey-haired man—he loved this little boy,

The boy loved him—and, when the Friar taught him,

He soon could write with the pen : and from that time,

Lived chiefly at the Convent or the Castle.

So he became a very learned youth.

But Oh ! poor wretch !—he read, and read, and read,

’Till his brain turned—and ere his twentieth year,

He had unlawful thoughts of many things :

And though he prayed, he never loved to pray

With holy men, nor in a holy place—

But yet his speech, it was so soft and sweet,

The late Lord Velez ne’er was wearied with him.

And once, as by the north side of the Chapel

They stood together, chained in deep discourse,

The earth heaved under them with such a groan,

That the wall tottered, and had well-nigh fallen

Right on their heads. My Lord was sorely frightened ;

A fever seized him, and he made confession

Of all the heretical and lawless talk

Which brought this judgment : so the youth was seized

And cast into that hole. My husband’s father

Sobbed like a child—it almost broke his heart:

And once as he was working in the cellar,

He heard a voice distinctly ; ’twas the youth’s,

Who sung a doleful song about green fields,

How sweet it were on lake or wild savannah,

To hunt for food, and be a naked man,

And wander up and down at liberty.

He always doted on the youth, and now

His love grew desperate ; and defying death,

He made that cunning entrance I described :

And the young man escaped.


‘Tis a sweet tale :

Such as would lull a listening child to sleep,

His rosy face besoiled with unwiped tears.—

And what became of him ?


He went on ship-board

With those bold voyagers, who made discovery

Of golden lands. Leoni’s younger brother

Went likewise, and when he returned to Spain,

He told Leoni, that the poor mad youth,

Soon after they arrived in that new world,

In spite of his dissuasion, seized a boat,

And all alone, set sail by silent moonlight

Up a great river, great as any sea,

And ne’er was heard of more : but ’tis supposed,

He lived and died among the savage men.



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