The retainers of the Muses are seldom happy, yet the Heliconean maids are never in want of votaries. William Collins, who exemplifies our remark, was born at Chichester, in Sussex, 1721. His father was a hatter, and Alderman of that city. Having received the rudiments of classical learning in his native place, he was removed to Winchester school, where he continued seven years; but being disappointed in a vacancy at New College, Oxford, he entered a commoner of Queen's, and afterwards became a Demy of Magdalen, where he took a bachelors degree.
At the university he was equally remarkable for genius and indolence. Weary of an academical life, he fancied that he should be more in his element in London, to which he repaired full of literary enthusiasm, but with little fortune. His Persian or Oriental Eclogues, published while at Oxford, had met with little success; and when his Odes, Descriptive and Allegorical, appeared in 1746, they were at first very coldly received, and both the bookseller and the poet being disappointed, the latter in a fit of indignation paid the expense of printing, and committed the unsold copies to the flames.
Time, however, which distinguishes between works of merit and those which are merely popular, has reversed the sentence of the public, and the odes of Collins will ever remain a monument of his own genius, and an honour to English poetry to the latest posterity.
Chagrined at his ill success, and alas! often destitute of common necessaries, the susceptible mind of Collins began to give way; and though a legacy of £2000 relieved him from the most pressing external distresses, it came too late to brighten the mental horizon. He fell into great debility of body, which enchained rather than destroyed his intellectual powers.
"He was a man," says Johnson, "of extensive literature and vigorous faculties. 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 festuitous 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. These clouds which he perceived 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.
"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 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 to see what companion a man of letters had chosen, 'I have but one book,' said Collins, "but that is the best.'"
Mr. Anderson agrees with Warton, Knox, and Potter in giving Collins a much higher rank as a Poet than Johnson; and allows, that when every possible deduction is made from his merit, he will still stand entitled to a very large proportion of praise; and his Ode on the Passions must ever be joined with the St. Cecilia of Dryden, and the Bard of Gray, as among the boldest and brightest efforts of the lyric muse.