WILLIAM COLLINS, an unfortunate but excellent English poet, was born at Chichester, Dec. 25, about 1720, the son of a reputable hatter in that city. In 1733 he was admitted scholar of Winchester college under Dr. Burton, and at nineteen was elected upon the foundation to New-college in Oxford. He was first upon the list; and, in order to wait for a vacancy in that society, was admitted a commoner of Queen's college in the same university; but no such vacancy occurring, his tutor, very sensible of his desert, recommended him to the society of Magdalen; and this recommendation, backed by an uncommon display of genius and learning in the exercises performed on the occasion, procured him to be elected a demy of that college in July 1741. During his residence in this place, which was till he had taken a bachelor's degree; he applied himself to poetry, and published an epistle to sir Thomas Hanmer on his edition of Shakspeare, and the "Persian," or, as they have been since entitled, "Oriental Eclogues," which, notwithstanding their merit, were not attended with any great success; and it was objected to them, that though the scenery and subjects are oriental, the style and colouring are purely European. Of the force of this objection, Mr. Collins himself became sensible in the latter part of his life. Yet their poetical merit is very great; and Dr. Langhorne has not scrupled to assert, "that in simplicity of description and expression, in delicacy and softness of numbers, and in natural and unaffected tenderness, they are not to be equalled by any thing of the pastoral kind in the English language."
About 1744 he suddenly left the university, and came to London, a literary adventurer, with many projects in his head, and very little money in his pocket. He designed many works, but either had not perseverance in himself, or the frequent calls of immediate necessity broke his schemes, and suffered him to pursue no settled purpose. Among other designs he published proposals for a "History of the Revival of Learning;" and Dr. Johnson has heard him speak with great kindness of Leo X. and with keen resentment of his tasteless successor. But probably not a page of the history was ever written. He also planned several tragedies, but he only planned them. Yet there were times when his poetical genius triumphed over his indolence; and produced in 1746, his "Odes descriptive and allegorical." The success of this publication was inferior to that of the Oriental Eclogues. Mr. Millar, the bookseller, gave the author a handsome price, as poems were then estimated, for the copy, but the sale of them was not sufficient to pay the expence of printing. Mr. Collins, justly offended at the bad taste of the public, as soon as it was in his power, returned Mr. Millar the copy-money, indemnified him for the loss he had sustained, and consigned the unsold part of the impression to the flames. Highly as Mr. Collins's Odes deserved a superior fate, it is not surprising that they were not popular at their first appearance. Allegorical and abstracted poetry is not suited to the bulk of readers.
About this time Dr. Johnson fell into his company, who tells us, that "the appearance of Collins was decent and manly; his knowledge considerable, his views extensive, his conversation elegant, and his disposition cheerful. "By degrees," adds the doctor, "I gained his confidence; and one day was admitted to him when he was immured by a bailiff, that was prowling in the street. On this occasion recourse was had to the booksellers, who, on the credit of a translation of 'Aristotle's Poetics,' which he engaged to write with a large commentary, advanced as much money as enabled him to escape into the country. He shewed me the guineas safe in his hand. Soon afterwards his uncle, Mr. Martin, a lieutenant-colonel, left him about £2000 a sum which Collins could scarcely think exhaustible, and which he did not live to exhaust. The guineas were then repaid; and the translation neglected. But man is not born for happiness: Collins, who, while he studied to live, felt no evil but poverty, no sooner lived to study, than his life was assailed by more dreadful calamities, disease and insanity."
Dr. Johnson's character of him, while it was distinctly impressed upon that excellent writer's memory, is here at large inserted: "Mr. Collins was a man of extensive literature, and of vigorous faculties. He was acquainted, not only with the learned tongues, but with the Italian, French, and Spanish languages. He had employed his mind chiefly upon works of fiction, and subjects of fancy; and by indulging some peculiar habits of thought, was eminently delighted with those flights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature, and to which the mind is reconciled only by a passive acquiescence in popular traditions. He loved fairies, genii, giants, and monsters; he delighted to rove through the meanders of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the water-falls of Elysian gardens. This was, however, the character rather of his inclination than his genius; the grandeur of wildness, and the novelty of extravagance, were always desired by him, but were not always attained. Yet as diligence is never wholly lost; if his efforts sometimes caused harshness and obscurity, they likewise produced in happier moments sublimity and splendour. This idea which he had formed of excellence, led him to Oriental fictions and allegorical imagery; and, perhaps, while he was intent upon description, he did not sufficiently cultivate sentiment. His poems are the productions of a mind not deficient in fire, nor unfurnished with knowledge either of books or life, but somewhat obstructed in its progress by deviation in quest of mistaken beauties. 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 fortuitous companions will at last re-lax 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 o 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. He languished some years under that depression of mind which enchains the faculties without destroying them, and leaves reason the knowledge of right without the power of pursuing it. 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. He was for some time confined in a house of lunatics, and afterwards retired to the care of his sister in Chichester , where death, in 1756, came to his relief. 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 be had withdrawn from study, and travelled with no other book than an English Testament, such as children carry to the school: when his friend took it into his hand out of curiosity, to see what companion a man of letters had chosen: 'I have but one book,' says Collins, 'but that is the best.' Such was the fate of Collins, with whom I once delighted to converse, and whom I yet remember with tenderness. He was visited at Chichester in his last illness by his learned friends Dr. Warton and his brother; to whom he spoke with disapprobation of his 'Oriental Eclogues,' as not sufficiently expressive of Asiatic manners, and called them his 'Irish Eclogues.' He shewed them, at the same time, an ode inscribed to Mr. John Hume, 'On the Superstitions of the Highlands;' which they thought superior to his other works, but which no search has yet found. His disorder was not alienation of mind, but general laxity and feebleness, a deficiency rather of his vital than intellectual powers. What he spoke wanted neither judgment nor spirit; but a few minutes exhausted him, so that he was forced to rest upon the couch, till a short cessation restored his powers, and he was again able to talk with his former vigour. The approaches of this dreadful malady he began to feel soon after his uncle's death; and with the usual weakness of men so diseased, eagerly snatched that temporary relief with which the table and the bottle flatter and seduce. But his health continually declined, and he grew more and more burthensome to himself.
"To what I have formerly said of his writings may added, that his diction was often harsh, unskilfully laboured, and injudiciously selected. He affected the obsolete when it was not worthy of revival; and he puts his words out of the common order, seeming to think, with some later candidates for fame, that not to write prose is certainly to write poetry. His lines commonly are of slow motion, clogged and impeded with clusters of consonants. As men are often esteemed who cannot be loved, so the poetry of Collins may sometimes extort praise when it gives little pleasure."
From this opinion of Collins's genius many critics have differed, whose more favourable sentiments appear to have revived his reputation of late years; and Mrs. Barbauld's prefatory Essay to an elegant edition of his works, published in 1797, has contributed, not a little to the same effect. It is necessary, however to add, that the Ode on the "Superstitions of the Highlands," mentioned in Dr. Johnson's account as having been lost, has been recovered. The manuscript, in Mr. Collins's hand-writing, fell into the hands of Dr. Alexander Carlyle, among the papers of a friend of his and Mr. John Home's, who died in 1754. Soon after Dr. Carlyle found the poem, he shewed it to Mr. Home, who told him that it had been addressed to him by Mr. Collins, on his leaving London in the year 1749, and that it was hastily composed and incorrect. This is apparent from the ode itself. It is evidently the "prima cura" of the poem, as will easily be perceived from the alterations made in the manuscript, by the blotting out of many lines and words, and the substitution of others. In particular, the greatest part of the twelfth stanza is modelled in that manner. The poem, which is entitled "An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, considered as the subject of Poetry," was first published in the first volume of the "Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh," with the fifth stanza and part of the sixth, which were lost, supplied by Mr. Mackenzie. Though there are evident proofs that it was hastily composed, it evinces, at the same time, the vigour of the author's imagination, and the ready command he possessed of harmonious numbers. The construction of the stanza is different from what Mr. Collins has used on any former occasion, not perfectly pleasing, and too operose and formal. That the poem is highly beautiful, every man of taste must strongly feel; but still there will probably be found persons who will give the preference to the "Ode upon the Passions."
In 1795 a monument of exquisite workmanship was erected by public subscription to the memory of Collins, the whole executed by Flaxman, with an epitaph by Mr. Hayley.