1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Edward Gardner, in "Miss Seward, Dr. Darwin, Gray, and Collins" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 1:169-76.



To my favorie and beloved Collins, thus casually introduced, I cannot forbear paying the feeble tribute of my applause. If I am warmed with enthusiasm in my admiration of him, if that enthusiasm should proceed from false views, yet I may be pardoned, because it is perfectly harmless. In our opinions upon the productions of the poets, we are not criminal if our fancy gets the better of our judgment, we risque nothing if our zeal be not according to knowledge.

The poetry of Collins consists of natural simplicity, gothic fiction, fine allegory, plaintive tenderness, classical spirit, descriptive beauty and sublimity. I say descriptive, for the sublime in sentiment, upon the principles of Longinus is not perhaps to be found very frequently in Collins. Sentiment is a walk in his art which did not particularly excel; his oriental eclogues, where it is most to be met with, contain nothing which can in the most distant degree be compared with the pastoral ballads of Shenstone. Whenever he attempted it he failed, as may be seen by the wretched conceits with which he very unsuitably concludes his dirge, — his beautiful dirge in Cymbeline.

In his ode, Collins obviously imitated the songs of the Greek Chorus. Euripides was his master in the pathetic, but his chief excellence was in his allegorical painting, for which perhaps he was mostly indebted to nature and observation.

The ode to the passions is generally esteemed his masterpiece; but beauty rather than sublimity is its character. The picture of cheerfulness is very distinctly and exquisitely drawn. The idea in it

Satyrs and sylvan boys were seen
Peeping from forth their alleys green,

is very similar to one of the sportive positions in which the loves are exhibited in the celebrated painting of the marriage of Alexander, and Collins might have read "Du Bos," where it is described.

Nature, elegance, and a rich luxuriance of poetic fancy, shine with distinguished lustre throughout the works of Collins. The following lines are equal to Gray:

They would have thought who heard the strain
They saw in Tempe's vales her native maids,
Amidst the festal sounding shades,
To some unwearied minstrell dancing,
While as his flying fingers kiss'd the strings,
Love fram'd with mirth a gay, fantastic round—
Loose were her tresses seen, her zone unbound;
And he amidst his frolic play,
As if he would the charming air repay,
Shook thousand odours from his dewey wings.

The connection between Poetry and Sculpture, has often been noticed, and is at least as old as the Furor of Virgil, in the temple of Janus. Collins's short ode to mercy, the last four lines excepted, is a series of beautiful bas reliefs in the classical antique.

The ode to Liberty is truly sublime; it opens in the true spirit of a chorus song of SOPHOCLES. The fall of the Roman Empire is at all times a great object of contemplation. When Mr. Gibbon says at the conclusion of his history, "It was amidst the ruins of the capitol I conceived the first design of writing this history," the idea which is awakened in the mind is as vast as it is capable of receiving: yet Collins is hardly less sublime.

How Rome before thy weeping face
With heaviest sound a giant Statue fell,
Push'd by a wild and artless race
From off its wide ambitious base
When time his northern sons of spoil awoke,
And all the blended work of strength and grace
With many a rude repeated stroke,
And many a barb'rous yell to thousand fragments broke.

The idea is well pursued in the lines which follow it; an equally sublime part of this Ode is the Antistrophe, particularly the following lines:

To the blown Baltic then they say
The wild waves found another way,
Where Orcas howls his wolfish mountains rounding
Till all the banded west at once 'gan rise,
A wild wild storm ev'n nature's self confounding,
With'ring her giant sons with strange uncouth surprize.
This pillar'd earth so firm and wide,
By winds and inward labors torn,
In thunders dread was push'd aside,
And down the shoul'dring billows borne.

These lines are very grand, but the idea is not novel; the separation of an island from the continent had before exercised the muse of Virgil.

In the use of epithets, Collins is generally successful, but sometimes a little overstrained. "With'ring power," in the ode to fear, is exquisite; but "dark power," from the association of fear with darkness, is pushing common sense to the utmost verge of thought.

Eclogue 2.
A fan of painted feathers in his hand,
To guard his "shaded" face from scorching sand.

"Shaded" is here superfluous.

I shall conclude these observations on the odes and eclogues, with noticing the very beautiful figure in the ode to evening.

Winter "yelling" through the troublous air.

We need not seek for the cause why the poetry of Gray and Collins strikes the imagination with a sensation of which the term "rapture" conveys but a very feeble idea. They are the Poets of Nature, and Nature contains within herself abundant sources of pleasure.