1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 502.



WILLIAM COLLINS, a distinguished modern poet, was born at Chichester, in 1720 or 1721, where his father exercised the trade of a hatter. He received his education at Winchester College, whence he entered as a commoner of Queen's College, Oxford. In 1741, he procured his election into Magdalen college as a demy; and it was here that he wrote his poetical Epistle to Sir Thomas Hanmer, and his Oriental Eclogues; of both which pieces the success was but moderate. In 1744, he came to London as a literary adventurer, and various were the projects which he formed in this capacity. In 1746, however, he ventured to lay before the public a volume of Odes, Descriptive and Allegorical; but so callous was the national taste at this time, that their sale did not pay for the printing. Collins, whose spirit was high, returned to the bookseller his copy-money, burnt all the unsold copies, and as soon as it lay in his power, indemnified him for his small loss; yet among these odes, were many pieces which now rank among the finest lyric compositions in the language. After this mortification, he obtained from the booksellers a small sum for an intended translation of Aristotle's Poetics, and paid a visit to an uncle, Lieutenant-colonel Martin, then with the army in Germany. The Colonel dying soon after, left Collins a legacy of 2000, a sum which raised him to temporary opulence; but he now soon became incapable of every mental exertion. Dreadful depression of spirits was an occasional attendant on his malady, for which he had no remedy but the bottle. It was about this time, that it was thought proper to confine him in a receptacle of lunatics. Dr. Johnson paid him a visit at Islington, when there was nothing of disorder in his mind, perceptible to any but himself. He was reading the New Testament. "I have but one book," said he, "but it is the best." He was finally consigned to the care of his sister, in whose arms he finished his short and melancholy course, in the year 1756.

It is from his Odes, that Collins derives his chief poetical fame; and in compensation for the neglect with which they were treated at their first appearance, they are now almost universally regarded as the first productions of the kind in our language with respect to vigour of conception, boldness and variety of personification, and genuine warmth of feeling. They are well characterised in an essay prefixed to his works in an ornamented edition published by Cadell and Davies, with which we shall conclude this article. "He will be acknowledged (says the author) to possess imagination, sweetness, bold and figurative language. His numbers dwell on the ear, and easily fix themselves in the memory. His vein of sentiment is by turns tender and lofty, always tinged with a degree of melancholy, but not possessing any claim to originality. His originality consists in his manner, in the highly figurative garb in which he clothes abstract ideas, in the felicity of his expressions, and his skill in embodying ideal creations. He had much of the mysticism of poetry, and sometimes became obscure by aiming at impressions stronger than he had clear and well-defined ideas to support. Had his life been prolonged, and with life had he enjoyed that ease which is necessary for the undisturbed exercise of the faculties, he would probably have risen far above most of his contemporaries."