Trooper Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke

This article was contributed by It was transcribed from a copy of Abinger Harvest (Meridian Books, New York, 1955).

Trooper Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke

The workhouse at Henley-on-Thames has, or rather had, a garden attached to it, in the midst of which stood a solitary hut, reserved for inmates who were suffering from infectious diseases. At the moment our eyes rest upon this hut--that is to say at a moment during the February of 1794--it was occupied by two troopers of the King¹s Light Dragoons. One of them was sick of the confluent smallpox; he raved in delirium, and the other, who held him down, was covered with ominous spots. The unfortunate men had been left behind by their regiment to look after themselves as best they could, and their situation was appalling, for the weather was bitter, the hut possessed four windows and little else, and though the paupers in the main building were sympathetic they approached with circumspection. We do not know the name of the trooper who had the smallpox, but the one covered with spots was called Comberbacke.

Comberbacke was a clumsy young man, with a drooping lower lip and aspiring eyes, and somewhat of a puzzle to his mates. They saw easily enough that he was a ³natural² but he was a talking natural, a are and rather agreeable species; he could speak and even write upon a variety of topics with a fluency they felt bound to admire. Although he could neither mount his horse nor groom it, he was grand when he came to the wars of the past, and he was always willing to describe them in an interminable and interesting way. There was an expedition entailing the Hellespont--probably the mouth of the Thames being a broad space of water--leading to Thermopple (sic) a place up north, and General Alexander--no doubt from Truro, where it is a well-known name. He talked an laughed, didn¹t ,mind being teased, changed from subject to subject; he was superb; nothing could stop him when once he had started, and if asked to write a letter for you it was the same: the ink poured out in a torrent, so that by the time she had got to the fourth page the girl couldn¹t do otherwise than give in. Thus he gained a curious reputation, where even his imbecilities were admired. For instance,

"Whose rusty gun is this?"the inspecting officer would ask.

"Is it very rusty?" replied Comberbacke, "because if it is I think it must be mine."

What a reply! But how successful! For the inspecting officer was dumbfounded. And again, Comberbacke¹s idea that a horse ought to 'rub himself down and so shine in all his native beauty' --well, it as the idea of a zany, still when the letter was written and the girl on the way there or back there was no reason you shouldn¹t brighten his horse up for him; it didn¹t take long, and you knew which end kicked and which bit, more than he did. At last he proved so incompetent that his horse was withdrawn from beneath him permanently, and he was employed upon matters relating to sanitation; that was why he was in the garden-hut now. When his comrade¹s delirium lessened, he procured pen and ink and wrote the following letter:

"My assumed name is Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke, 15th or King's Regiment of Light Dragoons, G Troop. My number I do not know. It is of no import. The bounty I received was six guineas and a half: but a light horse man's bounty is a mere lure: it is expended for him in things which he must have had without a bounty--gaiters, a pair of leather breeches, stable jacket, and shell; horse-cloth, surcingle, watering bridle, brushes and the long etc. of military accoutrement. I enlisted the 2nd of December 1793, was attested and sworn the 4th. I am at present nurse to a sick man, and shall, I believe, stay at Henley another week. There will be a large draught from our regiment to complete our troops abroad. The men were picked out today. I suppose I am not one, being a very indocile equestrian. Farewell."

Love, extravagance, and a too reckless support of Unitarianism had combined to put him in this plight. A clergyman¹s son, he had been sent by his brothers up to Cambridge, where he had successfully composed a Latin declaration on Posthumous Fame, and a poem entitled To a Young Ass, and seemed to be settling down. Then he ran away and enlisted. He was always like that. He would start suddenly and collapse suddenly, and he was about to collapse now. The hut, his mate¹s illness, his own eruptive spots, were going to be too much for him, and to induce in him his favourite reaction--a sense of guilt. For the moment he played the man, and a beautiful girl even ventured into the garden and flirted with him from a distance. Though he mourned for a lost girl of his own, he was touched, and in after years he thought of writing a poem called The Soother in Absence to commemorate the visitor, but like so much else that he planned this was never accomplished. He seldom did what he or what others hoped, and posterity has marked him as her prey in consequence. She has never ceased to hold up her plump finger to him, and shake it and say that he has disappointed her. And he has acquiesced because he is a darling. But if one turns on posterity and says,

"Well! what else do you want him to do? Would you rather have Comberbacke as he is or not at all?" she is apt to be silent or to change the conversation.

His Cambridge career included typical irregularities.

"We have veal, sir, tottering on the verge of beef," he had shouted out in Hall upon one occasion; and on another, when the Master of his college met him and said,

"When will you get rid of that shameful gown?" he had retorted, "Why, sir, I think I have got rid of the best part of it already."

More serious was the unholy row in the Senate House on the occasion of the expulsion of a Mr. Frend for his Unitarian principles. The undergraduates sympathized with Mr. Frend, because they associated him with revolutionary ideas and they attended in great numbers to applaud his defence. Comberbacke clapped with the rest, and when the Proctor approached him he deftly exchanged places with a man who had scarcely any arms.

"Sir, you were applauding," said the Proctor; the man retorted,

"Would that I could" showing his stumps.

And there were drinking parties. Nothing very much, but on to it all fell a love-disappointment: his affection for the sister of an old schoolfellow was not returned. So one night he crossed the court from his rooms to the entrance gate, passed down the long paved passage called 'the chimney', gained the street and entered the world. It was not his first escapade. At the age of seven he had nearly killed his brother Frank in a quarrel over some toasted cheese; then, stricken with remorse, he had rushed into the twilight and had watched the river and some calves on the further side of it, and so poignant had been the misery that in later years a chance sound would invoke the whole scene: ³There would come on my mind that night I slept out at Ottery and the calf across the river whose lowing so deeply impressed me. Chill and child and calf and lowing.² And he was to have other escapades in the future: there was another journey--alas! someone interrupted it--along the course of an underground river, and there was a voyage--perhaps the most marvellous any navigator has ever undertaken--into the Antarctic seas.

He went by coach from Cambridge to London, got off at Holborn, bought a ticket for the Irish Lottery (not yet illegal), composed a poem on it beginning--

Promptress of unnumber¹d sighs,

O snatch that circling bandage from thine eyes.

--sent the poem to the Morning Chronicle, went to the King¹s mews, and enlisted.

An old schoolfellow was the first to find out what had happened; then it got round to the family; and as soon as his brothers started writing to him he fell to pieces. He rushed at once from heroics to morbidity ("Mine is a sensibility gangrened with inward corruption"), to mawkishness ("las, my poor mother!" --whom he did not like), to self-abasement ("Oh, my wayward soul! I have been a fool even to madness!"), to solemn fudge ("In a mind which vice has not utterly divested of sensibility, few occurrences can inflict a more acute pang than the receiving proofs of tenderness and love where only resentment and reproach were expected and deserved"), and finally to a deprecating and uneasy gaiety. But his troubles were not at an end. He had to be got out of the Dragoons, and it proved to be less easy than getting in; and he had to be got back into Cambridge, if Cambridge would receive him.

His brothers, one of whom held a commission, got in touch with the War Office, and, so far as we know, it is through this channel that he was released. But he never was very truthful, and in after years he used to tell dramatic tales. They centre round one of his own officers, a Captain Ogle. According to one of these tales, he was standing sentry outside a ballroom when Captain Ogle, who was passing in with another officer, quoted two lines in Greek, and ascribed them to Euripides.

"I hope your honour will excuse me," said Trooper Comberbacke, "but the lines you have repeated are not quite accurately cited; moreover, instead of being in Euripides they will be found in the second antistrophe of the Oedipus of Sophocles."

In another version, it is through Latin that he attracts the Captain¹s attention; he wrote up some pathetic lines in the stable where he had failed to groom his horse. At this point Miss Mitford, authoress of Our Village, takes up the thread. Captain Ogle¹s father and Miss Mitford¹s father were friends. They were at dinner at Reading and Captain Ogle was with them. To amuse them he told them of the scholar-trooper, and his yearnings for release, but, says Miss Mitford,

"kind and clever as Captain Ogle was, he was so indolent a man that without a flapper the matter might have slept n his hands until the Greek Kalends."

The company exerted themselves. The difficulty was to find a substitute, for troopers were scarce. One of the servants who was waiting at the table was called, and agreed to serve for a suitable honorarium. The matter was fixed up there and then, and so grateful was Comberbacke that in after years he looked through two of Miss Mitford¹s works, entitled Christina and Blanch, and gave her good advice, which was, however, of no use to her, she feared.

As release approached, he became more and more schoolboyish and hysterical. He was afraid of annoying his brothers further, particularly George the clergyman, and now asks advice on every detail. Should he, or should he not, order new clothes?

"They are gone irrevocably. My shirts, which I have with me, are, all but one, worn to rags, mere rags; their texture was ill adapted to the labour of the stables... I have ordered therefore a pair of breeches, which will be nineteen shillings, a waistcoat at twelve shillings, a pair of shoes at seven shillings and four pence. Besides these I must have a hat. Have I done wrong in ordering these things? I have so seldom acted right that n every step I take of my own accord I tremble lest I should be wrong. I forgot in the above account to mention a flannel waistcoat; it will be six shillings. The military dress is almost oppressively warm, and so very ill as I am at present I think it imprudent to Hazard cold."

Besides the clothes, there is a terrible confession about some books; he sold books that were worth forty shillings for fourteen; he will do all he can to buy them back. Moreover, should he wrote a contrite letter to DR. Pearce, the master of his College, imploring to be taken back, or would it show truer humility if he remained dumb? His brothers seem to have behaved decently--it cost them at least forty guineas to buy his discharge; and the college authorities were sympathetic and made no difficulties in receiving him. Some censure had to be administered, and consequently the Register of Jesus, Cambridge, contains the famous entry:

"1794 Apr: Coleridge admonitus est per magistrum in praesentia sociorum."

And now you know who Comberbacke is if you did not know it before.

As soon as Comberbacke felt himself Coleridge again, he began to perk up. He had really been treated most leniently, but ³Dr. Pearce behaved with great asperity,² he complains, and has confined him to college for a month and ordered him to translate the works of Demetrius Phalereus.

"All the fellows tried to persuade the Master to leniency, but in vain."

Then he turns cheeky:

"Without the least affectation, I applaud his conduct and think nothing of it. The confinement is nothing. I have the field and grove of the College to walk in, and what can I wish more? What do I wish more? Nothing. The Demetrius is dry."

He gets up at 5.0 A.M.; he has dropped all his old acquaintances; he is finishing a Greek Ode; really, his brother need not worry about him any more.

The rooms he occupied at Jesus' are still to be seen. They are in the front court, on the round floor--charming rooms--and Malthus, if one seeks for a contrast, once occupied the rooms opposite. It is natural to assume that after his military career he would settle quietly down. But it is dangerous to assume anything about Coleridge. If life is a lesson, he never learnt it. He did not settle down to his Demetrius, he did not proceed to his degree, and in the autumn of that same year the College register contains a second Latin entry, to the effect that Coleridge went away and did not return.

He had disgraced himself irretrievably, and three years later he wrote The Ancient Mariner.


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