1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:30-31.



None of our poets have lived more under the "skiey influences" of imagination than that exquisite but ill-fated bard, COLLINS. His works are imbued with a fine ethereal fancy and purity of taste; and though, like the poems of Gray, they are small in number and amount, they are rich in vivid imagery and beautiful description. His history is brief but painful. William Collins was the son of a respectable tradesman, a hatter, at Chichester, where he was born on Christmas day, 1720. In his "Ode to Pity," the poet alludes to his "native plains," which are bounded by the South Down hills, and to the small river Arun, one of the streams of Sussex, near which Otway, also, was born.

But wherefore need I wander wide
To old Ilissus' distant side?
Deserted stream and mute
Wild Arun, too, has heard thy strains,
And Echo 'midst my native plains
Been soothed by Pity's lute.

Collins received a learned education, in which he was aided by pecuniary assistance from his uncle, Colonel Martin, stationed with his regiment in Flanders. While at Magdalen college, Oxford, he published his "Oriental Eclogues," which, to the disgrace of the university and the literary public, were wholly neglected. Meeting shortly afterwards with some repulse or indignity at the university, he suddenly quitted Oxford, and repaired to London, full of high hopes and magnificent schemes. His learning was extensive, but he wanted steadiness of purpose and application. Two years afterwards, in 1746, he published his Odes, which were purchased by Millar the bookseller, but failed to attract attention. Collins sunk under the disappointment, and became still more indolent and dissipated. The fine promise of his youth, his ardour and ambition, melted away under this baneful and depressing influence. Once again, however, he strung his lyre with poetical enthusiasm. Thomson died in 1747: Collins seems to have known and loved him, and he honoured his memory with an Ode, which is certainly of the finest elegiac productions in the language. Among his friends was also Home, the author of "Douglas," to whom he addressed an Ode, which was found unfinished after his death, on the Superstitions of the Highlands. He loved to dwell on these dim and visionary objects, and the compliment he pays to Tasso, may be applied equally to himself—

Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind
Believed the magic wonders which he sung.

At this period, Collins seems to have contemplated journey to Scotland—

The time shall come when I perhaps may tread
Your lowly glens o'erhung with spreading broom;
Or o'er your stretching heaths by Fancy led;
Or o'er your mountains creep in awful gloom!
Then will I dress once more the faded flower,
Where Jonson sat in Drummond's classic shade;
Or crop from Teviotdale each lyric flower,
And mourn on Yarrow's banks where Willy's laid.

In the midst of the poet's difficulties and distresses, his uncle died and left him £2000; "a sum," says Johnson, "which Collins could scarcely think exhaustible, and which he did not live to exhaust." He repaid Millar the bookseller the loss sustained by the publication of his "Odes;" and buying up the remaining copies, committed them all to the flames. He became still more irregular in his habits, and sank into a state of nervous imbecility. All hope and exertion had fled. Johnson met him one day, carrying with him as he travelled an English Testament. "I have but one book," said Collins, "but it is the best." In his latter days he was tended by his sister in Chichester; but it was necessary at one time to confine him in a lunatic asylum. He used, when at liberty, to wander day and night among the aisles and cloisters of Chichester cathedral, accompanying the music with loud sobs and moans. Death at length came to his relief, and in 1756 — at the early age of thirty-six, ten years after the publication of his immortal works — his troubled and melancholy career was terminated: it affords one of the most touching examples of accomplished youth and genius, linked to personal humiliation and calamity, that throws its lights and shades on our literary annals.

Mr. Southey has remarked, that, though utterly neglected on their first appearance, the "Odes" of Collins, in the course of one generation, without any adventitious aid to bring them into notice, were acknowledged to be the best of their kind in the language. "Silently and imperceptibly they had risen by their own buoyancy, and their power was felt by every reader who had any true poetic feeling." This popularity seems still to be on the increase, though the want of human interest and of action in Collins's poetry prevent its being generally read. The "Eclogues" are free from the occasional obscurity and remoteness of conception that in part pervade the "Odes," and they charm by their figurative language and descriptions, the simplicity and beauty of their dialogues and sentiments, and their musical versification. The desert scene in "Hassan, the Camel Driver," is a finished picture — impressive and even appalling in its reality. The "Ode on the Passions," and that on "Evening," are the finest of his lyrical works. This former is a magnificent gallery of allegorical paintings; and the poetical diction is equally rich with the conception. No poet has made more use of metaphors and personification. He has individualised even metaphysical pursuits, which he terms "the shadowy tribes of Mind." Pity is presented with "eyes of dewy light" — a felicitous epithet; and Danger is described with the boldness and distinctness of sculpture—

Danger, whose limbs of giant mould
What mortal eye can fixed beheld?
Who stalks his round, a hideous form,
Howling amidst the midnight storm,
Or throws him on the ridgy steep
Of some loose hanging rock to sleep.