1783 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

John Ragsdale to William Hymers, "Particulars of Mr. William Collins, the Poet," 1783; Monthly Magazine 21 (July 1806) 494-95.



Hill street, Richmond in Surrey, July 1783.

Sir,

Your favour of the 30th June I did not receive till yesterday. The person who has the care of my house in Bond-street, expecting me there every day, did not sent it to Richmond, or I would have answered sooner. As you express a wish to know every particular, however trifling, relating to Mr. William Collins, I will endeavour (so far as can be done by a letter) to satisfy you. There are many little anecdotes which tell well enough in conversation, but would be tiresome for you to read or me to write, so shall pass them over. I had formerly several scraps of his poetry, which were suddenly written on particular occasions. These I lent among our acquaintance, who were never civil enough to return them; and being then engaged in extensive business, I forgot to ask for them, and they are lost: all I have remaining of his are about twenty lines, which would require a little history to be understood, being written on trifling subjects. I have a few of his letters, the subject of which are chiefly on business; but I think there are in them some flights which strongly mark his character, for which reason I preserved them. There are so few of his intimates now living, that I believe I am the only one who can give a true account of his family and connections. The principal part of what I write is from my own knowledge, or what I have heard from his nearest relations.

His father was not the manufacturer of hats, but the vender. He lived in general style at Chichester, and, I think, filled the office of mayor more than once; he was pompous in his manner, but at his death he left his affairs rather embarrassed. Colonel Martyn, his wife's brother, greatly assisted his family, and supported Mr. William Collins at the University, where he stood for a fellowship, which to his great mortification he lost, and which was his reason for quitting that place, at least that was his pretext. But he had other reasons: he was in arrears to his bookseller, his tailor, and other tradesmen. But, I believe, a desire to partake of the dissipation and gaiety of London was his principal motive. Colonel Martyn was at this time with his regiment; and Mr. Payne, a near relation, who had the management of the Colonel's affairs, had likewise a commission to supply the Collins's with small sums of money. The Colonel was the more sparing in this order, having suffered considerably by Alderman Collins, who had formerly been his agent, and forgetting that his wife's brother cash was not his own, had applied it to his own use. When Mr. Wm. Collins came from the University, he called on his cousin Payne gaily dressed, and with a feather in his hat; at which his relation expressed surprise, and told him his appearance was by no means that of young man who had not a single guinea he could call his own. This gave him great offence; but remembering his sole dependence for subsistence was in the power of Mr. Payne, he concealed his resentment: yet could not refrain from speaking freely behind his back, and saying he thought him a d—d dull fellow, though indeed this was an epithet he was pleased to bestow on every one who did not think as he would have them. His frequent demands for a supply obliged Mr. Payne to tell him he must pursue some other line of life, for he was sure Colonel Martyn would be displeased with him for having done so much. This resource being stopped, forced him to set about some work, of which his History of the Revival of Learning was the first; and for which he printed proposals (one of which I have), and took the first subscription-money from many of his particular friends: the work was begun, but soon stood still. Both Dr. Johnson and Mr. Langhorne are mistaken when they say the Translation of Aristotle was never begun: I know the contrary, for some progress was made in both, but most in the latter. From the freedom subsisting between us, we took the liberty of saying any thing to each other. I one day reproached him with idleness; when, to convince me my censure was unjust, he showed me many sheets of his translation of Aristotle, which he said he had so fully employed himself about as to prevent him calling on many of his friends so frequently as he used to do. Soon after this he engaged with Mr. Manby, a bookseller on Ludgate-hill, to furnish him with some Lives for the Biographia Britannica, which Manby was then publishing. He shewed me some of the Lives in embryo, but I do not recollect that any of them came to perfection. To raise a present subsistence, he set about writing his Odes; and having a general invitation to my house, he frequently passed whole days there, which he employed in writing them, and as frequently burning what he had written after reading them to me: many of them which pleased me I struggled to preserve, but without effect; for pretending he would alter them, he got them from me, and thrust them into the fire. He was an acceptable companion every where; and among the gentlemen who loved him for his genius, I may reckon the Doctors Armstrong, Barrowby, and Hill, Messrs. Quin, Garrick, and Foote, who frequently took his opinion on their pieces before they were seen by the public. He was particularly noticed by the geniuses who frequented the Bedford and Slaughter's coffee-houses. From his knowledge of Garrick, he had the liberty of the scenes and green room, where he made diverting observations on the vanity and false consequence of that class of people; and his manner of relating them to his particular friends was extremely entertaining. In this manner he lived with and upon his friends, until the death of Colonel Martyn, who left what fortune he died possessed of unto him and his two sisters. I fear I cannot be certain as to dates, but believe he left the University in the year 43. Some circumstances I recollect make me almost certain he was in London that year; but I will not be so certain of the time he died, which I did not hear of till long after it happened. When his health and faculties began to decline, he went to France, and after to Bath, in hope his health might be restored, but without success. I never saw him after his sister removed him from M'Donald's mad-house at Chelsea, to Chichester, where he soon sunk into a deplorable state of idiotism, which, when I was told, shocked me exceedingly; and even now the remembrance of a man for whom I had a particular friendship, and in whose company I have passed do many pleasant happy hours, gives me a severe shock. Since it is in consequence of your own request, Sir, that I write this long farrago, I expect you will overlook all inaccuracies. I am, Sir,

Your very humble servant,

JOHN RAGSDALE.

Mr. Wm. Hymers,

Queen's College, Oxford.