1765 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

John Langhorne, Memoir in William Collins, Poetical Works (1765) i-xv.



The enthusiasm of poetry, like that of religion, has frequently a powerful influence on the conduct of life, and either throws it into the retreat of uniform obscurity, or marks it with irregularities that lead to misery and disquiet. The fits of imagination bring the heaviest task upon the vigilance of reason; and to bear those faculties with unerring rectitude, or invariable propriety, requires a degree of firmness and of cool attention, which doth not always attend the higher gifts of the mind. Yet, difficult as nature herself seems to have rendered the task of regularity to genius, it is the supreme consolation of dulness and of folly, to point with gothic triumph to those excesses, which are the overflowings of faculties they never enjoyed. Perfectly unconscious that they are indebted to their stupidity for the consistency of their conduct, they plume themselves on an imaginary virtue, which has its origin in what is really their disgrace. — Let such, if such dare approach the shrine of COLLINS, withdraw to a respectful distance, and, should they behold the ruins of genius, or the weakness of an exalted mind, let them be taught to lament that nature has left the noblest of her works imperfect.

Or such men of genius as have borne no public character, it seldom happens that any memoirs can be collected, of consequence enough to be recorded by the biographer. If their lives pass in obscurity, they are generally too uniform to engage our attention; if they cultivate and obtain popularity, envy and malignity will mingle their poison with the draughts of praise; and through the industry of those unwearied fiends, their reputation will be so chequered, and their characters so much disguised, that it shall become difficult for the historian to separate truth from falsehood.

Of our exalted poet, whose life, though far from being popular, did not altogether pass in privacy, we meet with few other accounts than such as the life of every man will afford, viz. when he was born, where he was educated, and where he died. Yet even these simple memoirs of the man, will not be unacceptable to those who admire the poet: for we never receive pleasure without a desire to be acquainted with the source from whence it springs; a species of curiosity, which, as it seems to be instinctive, was, probably, given us for the noble end of gratitude, and finally, to elevate the enquiries of the mind to that fountain of perfection from which all human excellence is derived.

Chichester, a city in Sussex, had the honour of giving birth to the author of the following poems, about the year 1721. His father, who was a reputable tradesman in that city, intended him for the service of the church; and with this view, in the year 1733, he was admitted a scholar of the illustrious seminary of genius and learning, Winchester college, where so many distinguished men of letters, so many excellent poets have received their classical education. Here he had the good fortune to continue seven years under the care of the very learned Dr. Burton; and at the age of nineteen, in the year 1740, he had merit sufficient to procure a distinguished place in the list of those scholars, who are elected, upon the foundation of Winchester, to New College in Oxford. But as there were then no vacancies in that society, he was admitted a commoner of Queen's College in the same university; where he continued till July 1741, when he was elected a demy of Magdalen College. During his residence at Queen's, he was at once distinguished for genius and indolence; his exercises, when he could be prevailed upon to write, bearing the visible characteristics of both. This remiss and inattentive habit might probably arise, in some measure, from disappointment: he had, no doubt, indulged very high ideas of the academical mode of education, and when he found science within the fetters of logic and of Aristotle, it was no wonder if he abated of his diligence, to seek her where the search was attended with artificial perplexities, and where, at last, the pursuer would grasp the shadow for the substance.

While he was at Magdalen College, he applied himself chiefly to the cultivation of poetry, and wrote the epistle to Sir Thomas Hanmer, and the Oriental Eclogues, which, in the year 1742, were first published under the title of Persian Eclogues. — The success of these poems was far from being equal to their merit; but to a novice in the pursuit of fame, the least encouragement is sufficient: if he does not at once acquire that reputation to which his merit intitles him, he embraces the encomiums of the few, forgives the many, and intends to open their eyes to the striking beauties of his next Publication.

With prospects such as these, probably Mr. Collins indulged his fancy, when, in the year 1743, after having taken the degree of a batchelor of arts, he left the university, and removed to London.

To a man of small fortune, a liberal spirit, and uncertain dependencies, the metropolis is a very dangerous place. Mr. Collins had not been long in town before he became an instance of the truth of this observation. — His pecuniary resources were exhausted, and to restore them by the exertion of genius and learning, though he wanted not the power, he had neither steadiness nor industry. His necessities, indeed, sometimes carried him as far as a scheme, or a title page for a book; but, whether it were the power of dissipation, or the genius of repose that interfered, he could proceed no farther. — Several books were projected, which he was very able to execute; and he became, in idea, an historian, a critic, and a dramatick poet by turns. At one time he determined to write an history of the revival of Letters; at another to translate and comment upon Aristotle's Poetics; then he turned his thoughts to the Drama, and proceeded so far towards a tragedy — as to become acquainted with the manager.

Under this unaccountable dissipation, he suffered the greatest inconveniences. Day succeeded day, for the support of which he had made no provision, and in which he was to subsist either by the long-repeated contributions of a friend, or the generosity of a casual acquaintance. — Yet indolence triumphed at once over want and shame; and neither the anxieties of poverty, nor the heart-burnings of dependence had power to animate resolution to perseverance.

As there a degree of depravity into which if a man falls, he becomes incapable of attending to any of the ordinary means that recall men to virtue, so there are some circumstances of indigence so extremely degrading, that they destroy the influences of shame itself; and most spirits are apt to sink, under their oppression, into a sullen and unambitious despondence.

However this might be with regard to Mr. Collins, we find that, in the year 1746, he had spirit and resolution enough to publish his Odes descriptive and allegorical. Mr. MILLAR, a bookseller in the strand, and a favourer of genius, when once it has made its way to fame, published them ON THE AUTHOR'S ACCOUNT. — He happened, indeed, to be in the right not to publish them on his own; for the sale was by no means successful, and hence it was that the author, conceiving a just indignation against a blind and tasteless age, burnt the remaining copies with his own hands.

Allegorical and abstracted poetry was above the taste of those times, as much, or more than it is of the present. It is in the lower walks, the plain and practical paths of the muses only that the generality of men can be entertained. The higher offices of imagination are above their capacity; and it is no wonder therefore, if the Odes descriptive and allegorical met with few admirers.

Under these circumstances, so mortifying to every just expectation, when neither his wants were relieved, nor his reputation extended, he found some consolation in changing the scene, and visiting his uncle, colonel MARTIN, who was, at that time, with our army in Flanders. Soon after his arrival, the colonel died, and left him a considerable fortune.

Here, then, we should hope to behold him happy; possessed of independence, and removed from every scene, and every monument of his former misery. But, fortune had delayed her favours till they were not worth receiving. His faculties had been so long harrassed by anxiety, dissipation, and distress, that he fell into a nervous disorder, which brought with it an unconquerable depression of spirits, and at length reduced the finest understanding to the most deplorable childishness. In the first stages of his disorder he attempted to relieve himself by travel, and passed into France; but the growing malady obliged him to return; and having continued, with short intervals [author's note: It seems to have been in one of these intervals, that he was visited by an ingenious friend, who tells us, he found him with a book in his hand, and being asked what it was, he answered, that "he had but one book, but that it was the best." It was the New Testament in English.], in this pitiable state till the year 1756, he died in the arms of a sister at Chichester.

Mr. Collins was, in stature, somewhat above the middle size; of a brown complexion, keen, expressive eyes, and a fixed, sedate aspect, which from intense thinking, had contracted an habitual frown. His proficiency in letters was greater than could have been expected from his years. He was skilled in the learned languages, and acquainted with the Italian, French, and Spanish. — It is observable that none of his poems bear the marks of an amorous disposition, and that he is one of those few poets, who have sailed to Delphi, without touching at Cythera. The allusions of this kind that appear in his Oriental Eclogues were indispensable in that species of poetry; and it is very remarkable that in his Passions, an ode for music, love is omitted, though it should have made a principle figure there.