Mr. William Collins was born at Chichester in Sussex, in the year 1721: in which city his father was a reputable tradesman. He was admitted a scholar of Winchester college, Feb. 23, 1733, where he spent seven years under the care of Dr. Burton. In the year 1740, in consideration of his merit, he was placed first in the list of those scholars who are elected from Winchester college to New college in Oxford: but no vacancy happening at the latter, he entered, the same year, a commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, and July 29, 1741, was elected a demy, or scholar, of Magdalen college in the same university. At school he began to study poetry and criticism, particularly the latter. The following epigram, written by him while at Winchester school, discovers a genius, and turn of expression, very rarely to be met with in juvenile compositions.
TO MISS AURELIA C—R, ON HER WEEPING AT HER SISTER'S WEDDING.
Cease, fair Aurelia, cease to mourn;
Lament not Hannah's happy state;
You may be happy in your turn,
And seize the treasure you regret.
With love united Hymen stands,
And softly whispers to your charms;
"Meet but your lover in my hands,
You'll find your sister in his arms."
His Latin exercises were never so much admired as his English. — At Oxford he wrote the epistle to Sir Thomas Hanmer, and Oriental eclogues, which were first published in 1742, under the title of Persian eclogues. About the year 1743, he left Oxford, having taken the degree of bachelor of arts, weary of the confinement and uniformity of an academical life; fondly imagining that a man of parts was sure of making his fortune in London; and struck with the name of author and poet, without consulting his friends, he immediately removed to town, and rashly resolved to live by his pen, without undertaking the drudgery of any profession. Here he soon dissipated his small fortune to compensate for which, he projected the history of the revival of learning in Italy, under the pontificates of Julius II. and Leo X. His subscription for this work not answering his expectations, he engaged with a bookseller, to translate Aristotle's Poetics, and to illustrate it with a large and regular comment. This scheme also being laid aside, he turned his thoughts to dramatic poetry, and being intimately acquainted with the manager, resolved to write a tragedy, which however he never executed. In the year 1746 he published his odes; and shortly after went abroad to our army in Flanders, to attend his uncle, Colonel Martin, who, dying soon after his arrival, left him a considerable fortune; which however he did not live long to enjoy, for he fell into a nervous disorder, which continued, with but short intervals, till his death, which happened in 1756, and with which disorder his head and intellects were at times affected.
For a man of such an elevated genius, Mr. Collins has wrote but little: his time was chiefly taken up in laying extensive projects, and vast designs, which he never even begun to put into execution.
We have been favoured with the following account of Mr. Collins by a gentleman [Samuel Johnson], deservedly eminent in the republic of letters, who knew him intimately well.
Mr. Collins was a man of extensive literature, and of vigorous faculties. He was acquainted not only with the learned tongues, but with the Italian, French, and Spanish languages. He had employed his mind chiefly upon works of fiction, and subjects of fancy; and, by indulging some peculiar habits of thought, was eminently delighted with those flights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature, and to which the mind is reconciled only by a passive acquiescence in popular traditions. He loved fairies, genii, giants, and monsters; he delighted to rove through the meanders of inchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens. This was however the character rather of his inclination than his genius, the grandeur of wildness, and the novelty of extravagance, were always desired by him, but were not always attained. But diligence is never wholly lost: if his efforts sometimes caused harshness and obscurity, they likewise produced in happier moments sublimity and splendour. This idea, which he had formed of excellence, led him to oriental fictions, and allegorical imagery; and, perhaps, while he was intent upon description, he did not sufficiently cultivate sentiment: his poems are the productions of a mind not deficient in fire, nor unfurnished with knowledge either of books or life, but somewhat obstructed in its progress, by deviation in quest of mistaken beauties.
His morals were pure, and his opinions pious. In a long continuance of poverty, and long habits of dissipation, it cannot be expected that any character should be exactly uniform. There is a degree of want by which the freedom of agency is almost destroyed, and long association with fortuitous companions will at last relax the strictness of truth, and abate the fervour of sincerity. That this man, wise and virtuous as he was, passed always unentangled through the snares of life, it would be prejudice and temerity to affirm. But it may be said, that at least he preserved the source of action unpolluted, that his principles were never shaken, that his distinctions of right and wrong were never confounded, and that his faults had nothing of malignity or design, but proceeded from some unexpected pressure, or casual temptation.
The latter part of his life cannot be remembered but with pity and sadness. He languished some years under that depression of mind which enchains the faculties without destroying them, and leaves reason the knowledge of right, without the power of pursuing it. These clouds, which he found gathering on his intellects, he endeavoured to disperse by travel, and passed into France, but found himself constrained to yield to his malady, and returned: he was for some time confined in a house for lunatics, and afterwards retired to the care of his sister in Colchester [for Chichester], where death at last came to his relief.
After his return from France, the writer of this character paid him a visit at Islington, where he was waiting for his sister, whom he had directed to meet him: there was then nothing of disorder discernible in his mind by any but himself, but he had then withdrawn from study, and travelled with no other book than an English testament, such as children carry to school; when his friend took it into his hand, out of curiosity to see what companion a man of letters had chosen, "I have but one book," says Collins, "but that is the best."