1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Isaac D'Israeli, "Disappointments Disordering the Intellect" in Calamities of Authors (1812); Works (1881) 5:178-86.



Another example of literary disappointment disordering the intellect may be contemplated in the fate of the poet COLLINS.

Several interesting incidents may be supplied to Johnson's narrative of the short and obscure life of this poet, who, more than any other of our martyrs to the lyre, has thrown over all his images and his thoughts a tenderness of mind, and breathed a freshness over the pictures of poetry, which the mighty Milton has not exceeded, and the laborious Gray has not attained. But he immolated happiness, and at length reason, to his imagination! The incidents most interesting in the life of Collins would be those events which elude the ordinary biographer; that invisible train of emotions which were gradually passing in his mind; those passions which first moulded his genius, and which afterwards broke it! But who could record the vacillations of a poetic temper, its early hope and its late despair, its wild gaiety and its settled frenzy, but the poet himself? Yet Collins has left behind no memorial of the wanderings of his alienated mind but the errors of his life!

At college he published his Persian Eclogues, as they were first called, to which, when he thought they were not distinctly Persian, he gave the more general title of "Oriental." The publication was attended with no success; but the first misfortune a poet meets will rarely deter him from incurring more. He suddenly quitted the university, and has been censured for not having consulted his friends when he rashly resolved to live by the pen. But he had no friends! His father had died in embarrassed circumstances; and Collins was residing at the university on the stipend allowed him by his uncle, Colonel Martin, who was abroad. He was indignant at a repulse he met with at college; and alive to the name of author and poet, the ardent and simple youth imagined that a nobler field of action opened on him in the metropolis than was presented by the flat uniformity of a collegiate life. To whatever spot the youthful poet flies, that spot seems Parnassus, as applause seems patronage. He hurried to town, and presented himself before the cousin who paid his small allowance from his uncle in a fashionable dress with a feather in his hat. The graver gentleman did not succeed in his attempt at sending him back, with all the terror of his information, that Collins had not a single guinea of his own, and was dressed in a coat he could never pay for. The young bard turned from his obdurate cousin as "a dull fellow;" a usual phrase with him to describe those who did not think as he would have them.

That moment was now come, so much desired, and scarcely yet dreaded, which was to produce those effusions of fancy and learning, for which Collins had prepared himself by previous studies. About this time [author's note: in a letter to Joseph Warton] Johnson has given a finer picture of the intellectual powers and the literary attainments of Collins than in the life he afterwards composed. "Collins was acquainted not only with the learned tongues, but with the Italian, French, and Spanish languages; full of hopes and full of projects, versed in many languages, high in fancy, and strong in retention." Such was the language of Johnson, when, warmed by his own imagination, he could write like Longinus; at that after-period, when assuming the austerity of critical discussion for the lives of poets, even in the coldness of his recollections, he describes Collins as "a man of extensive literature, and of vigorous faculties."

A chasm of several years remains to be filled. He was projecting works of labour, and creating productions of taste; and he has been reproached for irresolution, and even for indolence. Let us catch his feelings from the facts as they rise together, and learn whether Collins must endure censure or excite sympathy.

When he was living loosely about town, he occasionally wrote many short poems in the house of a friend, who witnesses that he burned as rapidly as he composed. His odes were purchased by Millar, yet though but a slight pamphlet, all the interest of that great bookseller could never introduce them into notice. Not an idle compliment is recorded to have been sent to the poet. When we now consider that among these odes was one, the most popular in the language, with some of the most exquisitely poetical, it reminds us of the difficulty a young writer without connexions experiences in obtaining the public ear; and of the languor of poetical connoisseurs who sometimes suffer poems, that have not yet grown up to authority, to be buried on the shelf. What the outraged feelings of the poet were, appeared when some time afterwards he became rich enough to express them. Having obtained some fortune by the death of his uncle, he made good to the publisher the deficiency of the unsold odes, and, in his haughty resentment at the public taste, consigned the impression to the flames!

Who shall now paint the feverish and delicate feelings of a young poet such as Collins, who had twice addressed the public, and twice had been repulsed? He whose poetic temper Johnson has finely painted, at the happy moment when he felt its influence, as "delighting to rove through the meadows of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, and repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens!"

It cannot be doubted, and the recorded facts will demonstrate it, that the poetical disappointments of Collins were secretly preying on his spirit, and repressing his firmest exertions. With a mind richly stored with literature, and a soul alive to the impulses of nature and study, he projected a History of the Revival of Learning, and a translation of Aristotle's Poetics, to be illustrated by a large commentary.

But "his great fault," says Johnson, "was his irresolution; or the frequent calls of immediate necessity broke his schemes, and suffered him to pursue no settled purpose." Collins was, however, not idle, though without application; for, when reproached with idleness by a friend, he showed instantly several sheets of his version of Aristotle, and many embryos of some lives he had engaged to compose for the Biographia Britannica; he never brought either to perfection! What then was this irresolution but the vacillations of a mind broken and confounded? He had exercised too constantly the highest faculties of fiction, and he had precipitated himself into the dreariness of real life. None but a poet can conceive, for none but a poet can experience, the secret wounds inflicted on a mind of romantic fancy and tenderness of emotion, which has staked its happiness on its imagination; for such neglect is felt as ordinary men would feel the sensation of being let down into a sepulchre, and buried alive. The mind of Tasso, a brother in fancy to Collins, became disordered by the opposition of the critics, but perpetual neglect injures it not less. The HOPE of the ancients was represented holding some flowers, the promise of the spring, or some spikes of corn, indicative of approaching harvest — but the HOPE of Collins had scattered its seed, and they remained buried in the earth.

The oblivion which covered our poet's works appeared to him eternal, as those works now seem to us immortal. He had created HOPE with deep and enthusiastic feeling!—

With eyes so fair—
Whispering promised pleasure,
And bade the lovely scenes at distance hail;
And Hope, enchanted, smiled, and waved her golden hair!

The few years Collins passed in the metropolis he was subsisting with or upon his friends; and, being a pleasing companion, he obtained many literary acquaintances. It was at this period that Johnson knew him, and thus describes him: — "His appearance was decent, and his knowledge considerable; his views extensive, and his conversation elegant." He was a constant frequenter at the literary resorts of the Bedford and Slaughter's; and Armstrong, Hill, Garrick, and Foote, frequently consulted him on their pieces before they appeared in public. From his intimacy with Garrick he obtained a free admission into the green-room; and probably it was at this period, among his other projects, that he planned several tragedies, which, however, as Johnson observes, "he only planned." There is a feature in Collins's character which requires attention. He is represented as a man of cheerful dispositions; and it has been my study to detect only a melancholy, which was preying on the very source of life itself. Collins was, indeed, born to charm his friends; for fancy and elegance were never absent from his susceptible mind, rich in its stores, and versatile in its emotions. He himself indicates his own character, in his address to [John] Home:—

Go! nor, regardless while these numbers boast
My short-lived bliss, forget my social name.

Johnson has told us of his cheerful dispositions; and one who knew him well observes, that "in the green-room 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:" but the same friend acknowledges that "some letters which he received from Collins, though chiefly on business, have in them some flights which strongly mark his character, and for which reason I have preserved them." We cannot decide of the temper of a man viewed only in a circle of friends, who listen to the ebullitions of wit or fancy; the social warmth for a moment throws into forgetfulness his secret sorrow. The most melancholy man is frequently the most delightful companion, and peculiarly endowed with the talent of satirical playfulness and vivacity of humour. But what was the true life of Collins, separated from its adventitious circumstances? It was a life of want, never chequered by hope, that was striving to elude its own observation by hurrying into some temporary dissipation. But the hours of melancholy and solitude were sure to return; these were marked on the dial of his life, and, when they struck, the gay and lively Collins, like one of his own enchanted beings, as surely relapsed into his natural shape. To the perpetual recollection of his poetical disappointments are we to attribute this unsettled state of his mind, and the perplexity of his studies. To these he was perpetually reverting, which he showed when after a lapse of several years, he could not rest till he had burned his ill-fated odes. And what was the result of his literary life? He returned to his native city of Chichester in a state almost of nakedness, destitute, diseased, and wild in despair, to hide himself in the arms of a sister.

The cloud had long been gathering over his convulsed intellect; and the fortune he acquired on the death of his uncle served only for personal indulgences, which rather accelerated his disorder. There were, at times, some awful pauses in the alienation of his mind — but he had withdrawn it from study. It was in one of these intervals that Thomas Warton told Johnson that when he met Collins travelling, he took up a book the poet carried with him, from curiosity, to see what companion a man of letters had chosen — it was an English Testament. "I have but one book," said Collins, "but that is the best." This circumstance is recorded on his tomb.

He join'd pure faith to strong poetic powers,
And in reviving reason's lucid hours,
Sought on one book his troubled mind to rest,
And rightly deem'd the book of God the best.

At Chichester, tradition has preserved some striking and affecting occurrences of his last days; he would haunt the aisles and cloisters of the cathedral, roving days and nights together, loving their "Dim religious light." And, when the choristers chanted their anthem, the listening and bewildered poet, carried out of himself by the solemn strains, and his own too susceptible imagination, moaned and shrieked, and awoke a sadness and a terror most affecting amid religious emotions; their friend, their kinsman, and their poet, was before them, an awful image of human misery and ruined genius!

This interesting circumstance is thus alluded to on his monument:—

Ye walls that echoed to his frantic moan,
Guard the due record of this grateful stone:
Strangers to him, enamour'd of his lays,
This fond memorial of his talents raise.

A voluntary subscription raised the monument to Collins. The genius of Flaxman has thrown out on the eloquent marble all that fancy would consecrate; the tomb is itself a poem.

There Collins is represented as sitting in a reclining posture, during a lucid interval of his afflicting malady, with a calm and benign aspect, as if seeking refuge from his misfortunes in the consolations of the Gospel, which lie open before him, whilst his lyre, and The Ode on the Passions, as a scroll, are thrown together neglected on the ground. Upon the pediment on the tablet are placed in relief two female figures of and PITY, entwined each in the arms of the other; the proper emblems of the genius of his poetry.

Langhorne, who gave an edition of Collins's poems with all the fervour of a votary, made an observation not perfectly correct: — "It is observable," he says, "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. In the Ode to the Passions, Love has been omitted." There, indeed, Love does not form an important personage; yet, at the close, Love makes his transient appearance with Joy and Mirth — "a gay fantastic round."

And, amidst his frolic play,
As if he would the charming air repay,
Shook thousand odours from his dewy wings.

It is certain, however, that Collins considered the amatory passion as unfriendly to poetic originality; for he alludes to the whole race of the Provencal poets, by accusing them of only employing

Love, only love, her forceless numbers mean.

Collins affected to slight the urchin; for he himself had been once in love, and his wit has preserved the history of his passion; he was attached to a young lady who was born the day before him, and who seems not to have been very poetically tempered, for she did not return his ardour. On that occasion he said "that he came into the world a day after the fair."

Langhorne composed two sonnets, which seem only preserved in the Monthly Review, in which he was a writer, and where he probably inserted them; they bear a particular reference to the misfortunes of our poet. In one he represents Wisdom, in the form of Addison, reclining in "the old and honoured shade of Magdalen," and thus addressing

The poor shade of Collins, wandering by;
The tear stood trembling in his gentle eye,
With modest grief reluctant, while he said—
"Sweet bard, belov'd by every muse in vain!
With pow'rs, whose fineness wrought their own decay;
Ah! wherefore, thoughtless, didst thou yield the rein
To fancy's will, and chase the meteor ray?
Ah! why forget thy own Hyblaean strain,
Peace rules the breast, where Reason rules the day.

The last line is most happily applied; it is a verse by the unfortunate bard himself, which heightens the contrast with his forlorn state! Langhorne has feelingly painted the fatal indulgences of such a character as Collins.

Of fancy's too prevailing power beware!
Oft has she bright on life's fair morning shone;
Oft seated Hope on Reason's sovereign throne,
Then closed the scene, in darkness and despair.
Of all her gifts, of all her powers possest,
Let not her flattery win thy youthful ear,
Nor vow long faith to such a various guest,
False at the last, tho' now perchance full dear;
The casual lover with her charms is blest,
But woe to them her magic bands that wear!

The criticism of Johnson on the poetry of Collins, that "as men are often esteemed who cannot be loved, so the poetry of Collins may sometimes extort praise when it gives little pleasure," might almost have been furnished by the lumbering pen of old Dennis. But Collins from the poetical never extorts praise, for it is given spontaneously; he is much more loved than esteemed, for he does not give little pleasure. Johnson, too, describes his "lines as of slow motion, clogged and impeded with clusters of consonants." Even this verbal criticism, though it appeals to the eye, and not to the ear, is false criticism, since Collins is certainly the most musical of poets. How could that lyrist be harsh in his diction, who almost draws tears from our eyes, while his melodious lines and picturing epithets are remembered by his readers? He is devoured with as much enthusiasm by one party as he is imperfectly relished by the other.

Johnson has given two characters of this poet; the one composed at a period when that great critic was still susceptible of the seduction of the imagination; but even in this portrait, though some features of the poet are impressively drawn, the likeness is incomplete, for there is not even a slight indication of the chief feature in Collins's genius, his tenderness and delicacy of emotion, and his fresh and picturesque creative strokes. Nature had denied to Johnson's robust intellect the perception of these poetic qualities. He was but a stately ox in the fields of Parnassus, not the animal of nature. Many years afterwards, during his poetical biography, that long Lent of criticism, in which he mortified our poetical feeling by accommodating his to the populace of critics — so faint were former recollections, and so imperfect were even those feelings which once he seemed to have possessed — that he could then do nothing but write on Collins with much less warmth than he has written on Blackmore. Johnson is, indeed, the first of critics, when his powerful logic investigates objects submitted to reason; but great sense is not always combined with delicacy of taste; and there is in poetry a province which Aristotle himself may never have entered.