1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 429-30.



COLLINS published his Oriental Eclogues while at college, and his lyrical poetry at the age of twenty-six. Those works will abide comparison with whatever Milton wrote under the age of thirty. If they have rather less exuberant wealth of genius, they exhibit more exquisite touches of pathos. Like Milton, he leads us into the haunted ground of imagination; like him, he has the rich economy of expression haloed with thought, which by single or few words often hints entire pictures to the imagination. In what short and simple terms, for instance, does he open a wide and majestic landscape to the mind, such as we might view from Benlomond or Snowden, when he speaks of the hut

That from the mountain's side
Views wilds and swelling floods.

And in the line, "Where faint and sickly winds for ever howl around," he does not merely seem to describe the sultry desert, but brings it home to the senses.

A cloud of obscurity sometimes rests on his highest conceptions, arising from the fineness of his associations, and the daring sweep of his allusions; but he shadow is transitory, and interferes very little with the light of his imagery, or the warmth of his feelings. The absence of even this speck of mysticism from his Ode on the Passions is perhaps the happy circumstance that secured it unbounded popularity. Nothing is commonplace in Collins. The pastoral eclogue, which is insipid in all other English hands, assumes in his a touching interest, and a picturesque air of novelty. It seems that he himself ultimately undervalued those eclogues, as deficient in characteristic manners; but surely no just reader of them cares any more about this circumstance than about the authenticity of the tale of Troy.

In his Ode to Fear he hints at his dramatic ambition, and he planned several tragedies. Had he lived to enjoy and adorn existence, it is not easy to conceive his sensitive spirit and harmonious ear descending in mediocrity in any path of poetry; yet it may be doubted if his mind had not a passion for the visionary and remote forms of imagination too strong and exclusive for the general purposes of the drama. His genius loved to breath rather in the preternatural and ideal element of poetry, than in the atmosphere of of imitation, which lies closest to real life; and his notions of poetical excellence, whatever vows he might address to the manners, were still tending to the vast, the undefinable, and the abstract. Certainly, however, he carried sensibility and tenderness into the highest regions of abstracted thought: his enthusiasm spreads a glow even among "the shadowy tribes of mind," and his allegory is as sensible to the heart as it is visible to the fancy.