1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Nathan Drake, "On the Government Imagination; on the Frenzy of Tasso and Colins" Literary Hours (1800) 1:51-72.



Imagination, that fruitful source of the beautiful and sublime, when duly tempered and chastised by the strict ratiocination of science, throws a fascinating charm over all the walks of life; unveils, as it were, scenes of fairy texture, and draws the mind, with salutary influence, from the sordid cares, and selfish pursuits, the sanguinary tumult, and materialized enjoyments of the herd of mankind, to repose on all that is good and fair, on all that the Almighty Architect, in animate or inanimate nature, has poured forth to excite the admiration, the love and gratitude of his intellectual creatures.

But should this brilliant faculty be nurtured on the bosom of enthusiasm, or romantic expectation, or be left to revel in all its native wildness of combination, and to plunge into all the visionary terrors of supernatural agency, undiverted by the deductions of truth, or the sober realities of existence, it will too often prove the cause of acute misery, of melancholy, and even of distraction.

In the spring of life, when reason and experience are necessarily confined, almost every object rises clothed in vivid hues; earth appears, a paradise, and its inhabitants little short of perfection; alas! as the man advances, as he becomes acquainted with his fellow man, how are all these splendid visions scattered on the winds! he beholds passions the most baneful devastate this beauteous globe, and witnesses, with horror and dismay, its wretched inhabitants immolate each other on the altars of avarice, and ambition. Starting from the dream of youth, he turns disgusted from the loathsome scene; perhaps, retires to commune with himself, to pause upon the lot of mortality.

To this important crisis many of the characters which adorn or blot the records of humanity, owe their origin. He, who can call religion and literature to his aid, will pass along the road of life intent on other worlds, and alone employed in this, in accelerating the powers of intellect, and in meliorating the condition of his species. From the crimes and follies of mankind, from the annals of blood, and the orgies of voluptuousness, will this man fly to no unprofitable solitude; here will he trace the finger of the Deity, and here amid the pursuits of science, the charms of music, and the pleasures of poetry, with simplicity of heart, and energy of genius, will adore the God who gave them.

Effects, however, such as these, are, unfortunately, no common result; for that intensity of feeling and ardour of expectation which usually accompany our early years, meeting with a sudden and unexpected check, sometimes lead to a train of idea the very reverse of all that pleased before, and misanthropy, and even scepticism close the scene, and chill every social and benevolent exertion. But far more common is that character which when once awakened from the delusion of inexperience, and become acquainted with the vices of mankind, passes on with wily circumspection, intent only on moulding the crimes and passions which surround it, to instruments of pecuniary gain, or desolating ambition. Many of this class there are, whose principal object being the accumulation of property, preserve, as a mean toward its attainment, an imposing exterior, and travel through life with, what is called, "a fair character," yet possessing no one benevolent feeling or liberal sentiment that can properly designate them for man, or rank them beyond the animal they consume.

But some there are gifted with an imagination of the most brilliant kind; who are accustomed to expatiate in all the luxury of an ideal world, and who possess a heart glowing with the tenderest sensations. These men too frequently fall a sacrifice to the indulgence of a warm and vigorous fancy, and which is, unhappily, not sufficiently corrected by a knowledge of mankind, or the rigid deduction of scientific study. The lovely scenes they had so rapturously drawn, and coloured, find no architype in the busy paths of life, but fade beneath the gloomy touch of reality, and leave to the astonished visionary, a cheerless and a barren view; or the mind long and intensely employed in giving form and place to the fascinating fictions of fancy, or the wild delusions of superstition, is apt, on the first pressure of neglect and misfortune, to suffer derangement, and to assume for truth, the paintings of enthusiasm. Thus, the clear current of exalted thought, or generous feeling, driven from its course by sudden opposition, and vexed with unexpected tempests, not seldom spreads terror and amazement in its progress.

Many instances might be adduced of the fatal effects of giving up the reins to imagination, and of cherishing a morbid sensibility; but I shall confine myself, in this sketch, to three, and these shall be taken from the class of poets.

Poetry, to attain its highest point of perfection, demands an invention fertile in the extreme, and practised in the art of combination, and which, seizing hold of the superstitions and fears of mankind, pours forth fictions of the most wild and horrible grandeur. The actions and conceptions of superhuman Beings preserve, in the creations of Genius, a certain verisimilitude which rivets attention, and wins even upon incredulity itself; and he who wishes powerfully to impress upon others the mingled emotions of terror and delight, must himself be tinctured with some portion of belief in the interference of immaterial agency. The metaphysic wonders of gothic superstition were in the sixteenth century absolutely a part of the creed of all ranks of society, and the poetic productions of that period, being deeply tinged with the popular ideas, operated an effect upon the mind nearly, or, perhaps, altogether unfelt in our sceptical and philosophic age. The ideas, however, relative to the re-appearance of the departed, still linger among us, and are occasionally known to exert all their wonted influence; and he who has a true taste for poetry, yet dwells, with unsated rapture, on the dreadful and mysterious imagery of our elder bards.

But it is greatly to be lamented that, in some instances, the noblest mind has been laid in ruins by suffering a train of idea of this kind so far to intrude upon the common occurrences of life, as, in the end, to induce either profound melancholy, or absolute frenzy. The celebrated TASSO flourished in an era when the gothic mythology still retained its full influence, and possessing a vast and prolific imagination, together with an hypochondriacal temperament, and greatly attached, at the same time, to the Platonic philosophy, whose beautiful, but visionary doctrines, have misled the most superior minds, he mingled the two superstitions, and cherished his partiality for all that was greatly wonderful and singular. The composition of his immortal epic by giving scope to the boldest flights, and calling into effect, the energies of his exalted and enthusiastic fancy, whilst, with equal ardour, it led him to entertain hopes of immediate and extensive fame, laid, most probably, the foundation of his succeeding derangement. His susceptibility, too, and tenderness of feeling, were great, and when his sublime work met with unexpected opposition, and was even treated with contempt and derision, the fortitude of the poet was not proof against the keen sense of disappointment. He twice attempted to please his ignorant and malignant critics by recomposing the poem, and, during the hurry, the anguish, and irritation attending these efforts, the vigour of a great mind was entirely exhausted, and in two years after the publication of his GERUSALEMME LIBERATA, the unhappy Bard became an object of pity and of terror!

According to Giovanni Battista Manso, the great Friend and Biographer of Tasso, and from whom the causes of his alienation of mind, we have just assigned, are drawn, his madness was accompanied with the persuasion of his being under the influence of witchcraft, and attended by an apparition, and Tasso himself, in a letter to Mauritio Cataneo, thus notices this very extraordinary supernatural Being, whom he terms, folletto. "You must know that I was bewitched, and have never been cured; and, perhaps, have more need of an exorcist than of a physician; because my disorder proceeds from magical art. I would likewise write a few words respecting my daemon: the rascal hath lately robbed me of many crown pieces; I know not the amount, as I am by no means a miser in reckoning my money, but, I dare say, they amount to twenty. He hath likewise turned all my books topsy-turvy; opened my chests; robbed me of my keys, which I could not keep from him. I am at all times unhappy, but especially in the night. I know not whether my disease proceeds from frenzy, or not." After he had left the Hospital of St. Ann's at Ferrara, whither he had been sent by Duke Alfonzo, and where he had been attended by the most eminent physicians, he again, in a letter to Cataneo, mentions this spiritual thief. "This day, the last of the year, the brother of the reverend Signior Licino has brought me two of your letters; but one of them was taken from me, as soon as I had read it, and, I believe, the folletto must have carried it off, because it is that in which he is mentioned: and this is one of the miracles which I have seen often in the Hospital. These things I am certain are done by some magician; and I have many arguments of it; particularly of a loaf visibly stolen from me one afternoon, and a plate of fruit taken from before me the other day, when a Polish gentleman came to see me, worthy, indeed, to be a witness of such a wonder."

"Manso afterwards tells us that Tasso would frequently in company be quite abstracted in his frenzy; would talk to himself, and laugh profusely; and would fix his eyes keenly upon vacancy for a long time, and then say that he saw his familiar spirit; and describe him as under the semblance of an angelic youth, such as he paints him in his dialogue of Le Messagiero. Manso particularly mentions that once Tasso, angry at his incredulity, told him that he should see the spirit with his own eyes. Accordingly next day, when they were talking together and sitting by the fire, Tasso suddenly darted his eyes to a window in the room, and sat so intent, that, when Manso spoke to him, he returned no sort of answer. At last he turned to him and said. 'Behold the friendly spirit, who is courteously come to converse with me; look at him, and perceive the truth of my words.' Manso immediately threw his eyes toward the spot; but with his keenest vision could see nothing, but the rays of the sun shining through the window into the chamber. While he was thus staring, Tasso had entered into lofty discourse with the spirit, as he perceived from his share of the dialogue: that of the spirit was not audible to him; but he solemnly declares that the discourse was so grand and marvellous, and contained such lofty things, expressed in a most unusual mode, that he remained in extacy, and did not dare to open his mouth so much as to tell Tasso that the spirit was not visible to him. In some time, the spirit being gone, as Manso could judge, Tasso turned to him with a smile, and said, he hoped he was now convinced. To which Manso replied, that he had, indeed, .heard wonderful things; but had seen nothing. Tasso said, 'Perhaps you have heard and seen more than —,' he then paused; and Manso, seeing him in silent meditation, did not rare to perplex him with further questions."

Had Tasso not formed extravagant schemes of happiness and fame which are seldom, if ever, realized, and had corrected the fervor of an imagination too prone to admit the praeternatural and strange, by cultivating those sciences which depend upon demonstrative evidence, or by mingling more with the world, and discriminating its various characters and foibles, the integrity of his mind had, most probably, been preserved. Shakspeare possessed in a far superior degree, if I may be allowed the term, the powers of superhuman creation, and no poet ever enjoyed such an unlimited dominion over the fears and superstitions of mankind. Yet the acuteness, the inexhaustible variety of his genius, his talents for humour, and his almost intuitive penetration into the follies and vices of his species, enabled him to avoid, in a great treasure, that credulity which his wild, terrific, yet delightful and consistent fictions, almost rivetted upon others. Milton, too, had a peculiar predilection for traditionary tales, and legendary lore, and, in his early youth, spent much time in reading romantic narratives; but the deep and varied erudition which distinguished his career, for no man in Europe, at that time, possessed a wider field of intellect, sufficiently protected him from their delusive influence, though, to the latest period of life, he still retained much of his original partiality. Ossian, however, that melancholy but sublime Bard of other times, seems to have given implicit credit to the superstitions of his country, and his poems are, therefore, replete with a variety of immaterial agents; but these are of a kind rather calculated to soothe and support the mind, than to shake and harrow it, as the gothic, with malignant and mysterious potency.

In the present century when science and literature have spread so extensively, the heavy clouds of superstition have been dispersed, and have assumed a lighter and less formidable hue; for though the tales of Walpole, Reeve and Radcliffe, or the poetry of Wieland, Burger and Lewis, still powerfully arrest attention, and keep an ardent curiosity alive, yet is their machinery, by no means, an object of popular belief, nor can it, I should hope, now lead to dangerous credulity, as when in the times of Tasso, Shakspeare and even Milton, witches and wizards, spectres and fairies, were nearly as important subjects of faith as the most serious doctrines of religion.

Yet have we had one melancholy instance, and toward the middle of the eighteenth century, where disappointment, operating upon enthusiasm, has induced effects somewhat similar to those recorded of the celebrated Italian. in the year 1756 died our lamented COLLINS, one of our most exquisite poets, and of whom, perhaps, without exaggeration it may be asserted, that he partook of the credulity and enthusiasm of Tasso, the magic wildness of Shakspeare, the sublimity of Milton, and the pathos of Ossian. He had early formed sanguine expectations of fame and applause, but reaped nothing but penury and neglect, and stung with indignation at the unmerited treatment his productions had met with, he burnt the remaining copies with his own hands. His Odes to Fear, on the Poetical Character, to Evening, the Passions, and on the Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, strongly mark the bias of his mind to all that is awefully wild and terrible. His address to Fear,

Dark Power! with shudd'ring meek submitted thought
Be mine to read the visions old
Which thy awakening bards have told:
And, lest thou meet my blasted views
Hold each strange tale devoutly true.

was prompted by what he actually felt, for, like Tasso, he was, in some measure, a convert to the imagery he drew; and the beautiful lines in which he describes the Italian, might, with equal propriety, be applied to himself:

Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind
Believ'd the magic wonders which he sung.

His powers, however, in exciting the tender emotions were superior to Tasso's, and, in pathetic simplicity, nothing, perhaps, can exceed his Odes to Pity, on the Death of Colonel Ross, on the Death of Thomson, and his Dirge in Cymbeline, which abound with passages that irresistably make their way to the heart.

He who could feel, with so much sensibility, the sorrows and misfortunes of others, and could pour the plaint of woe with such harmonious skill, was soon himself to be an object of extreme compassion. His anxiety and distress, rendered doubly poignant by a very splendid imagination, in the event produced unconquerable melancholy, and occasional fits of frenzy, and, under the pressure of these afflictions, which gradually encreased, perished one of the sweetest of our poets, and who ever approached. the lyre with a mind glowing with inspiration.

On the monument lately erected to his memory at Chichester, and executed with admirable taste by the ingenious Flaxman, the poet is represented as just recovered from a fit of frenzy, and in a calm and reclining posture, seeking refuge from his misfortunes in the consolations of the gospel, while his lyre, and one of the first of his poems lie neglected on the ground. Above are two beautiful figures of Love and Pity intwined in each others arms, and beneath, the following elegant and impressive epitaph from the pen of Mr. Hayley:

Ye who the merits of the dead revere
Who bold misfortune sacred, genius dear,
Regard this tomb, where Collins' hapless name
Solicits kindness with a double claim;
Tho' nature gave him, and tho' Science taught
The Fire of Fancy, and the reach of Thought,
Severely doom'd so penury's extreme.
He pass'd, in madd'ning pain, life's feverish dream;
While rays of genius only serv'd to shew
The thick'ning horror and exalt his woe.
Ye wails that echo'd to his frantic moan,
Guard the due records of this grateful stone;
Strangers to him, enamour'd of his lays.
This fond memorial to his talents raise,
For this the ashes of a bard require,
Who touch'd the tenderest notes of Pity's lyre;
Who join'd pure Faith to strong poetic powers.
Who, 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.

The same warm and eager expectations of immortality and fame, associated with similar fervor, and creative energy of genius, and accompanied with still greater ignorance of mankind, led the unhappy Chatterton to suicide. The fairy visions he had drawn were blasted by the hand of poverty and neglect, and conscious of the powers which animated his bosom, and despising that world which had failed to cherish them, and of which he had formed so flattering but so delusive an idea, in a paroxysm of wounded pride, and indignant contempt, beheld in the grave alone a shelter from affliction.

Oh, ill-stared Youth, whom Nature form'd in vain,
With powers on Pindus' splendid height to reign!
Oh dread example of what pangs await
Young genius struggling with malignant fate!
What could the Muse, who fir'd thy infant frame
With the rich promise of poetic fame;
Who taught thy hand its magic art to hide,
And mock the insolence of Critic pride;
What could her unavailing cares oppose,
To save her darling from his desperate foes;
From pressing Want's calamitous controul,
And Pride, the fever of the ardent soul?
Ah, see, too conscious of her failing power,
She quits her Nursling in his deathful hour!
In a chill room, within whose wretched wall
No cheering voice replies to Misery's call;
Near a vile bed, too crazy to sustain
Misfortune's wasted limbs, convuls'd with pain,
On the bare floor, with heaven-directed eyes.
The hapless youth in speechless horror lies;
The poisonous vial, by distraction drain'd,
Rolls from his hand, in wild contortion strain'd
Pole with life-wasting pangs, its dire effect,
And stung to madness by the world's neglect,
He, in abhorrence of the dangerous art.
Once the dear idol of his glowing heart,
Tears from his Harp the vain detested wires,
And in the frenzy of despair expires!
HAYLEY.

He, therefore, who early possesses the characteristics of genius, and is desirous of placing before the public eye, its more happy effusions, should be assiduously taught the probability of ridicule, or neglect. Let not his with to claim admiration be repressed, but let him be trained to expect it from a chosen few, and to despise the malignancy, or the apathy of the many.

The most beautiful works of imagination are the least understood, nor can an author, until he become fashionable from the recommendation of a few leading critics, meet with general applause, nor, indeed, should he either hope for, or value it. Of the multitudes who pretend to admire a Shakspeare, or a Milton, not one in a thousand, has any relish or proper conception of the author, but merely echo the opinion that reaches them, though, by a common operation of vanity, they applaud their own discernment and taste. In general, the most estimable compositions are written for posterity, and are little valued at the moment of their production. The Gerusalemme Liberata of Tasso, the Paradise Lost of Milton, and the Poems of Collins, bear testimony to the truth of the assertion.

It is, also, highly necessary to guard against those delusions which an exclusive study of works of imagination is apt to generate in a mind predisposed to poetic combination. Let the young poet be properly initiated into life, and led to mingle the severer studies with the vivid colourings of the muse, and neither disappointment, nor melancholy will then, probably, intrude upon his useful and rational enjoyments.

To correct the sanguine expectations which young authors are too apt to form, or to divest of their too enchanting hues the dangerous and delusive pictures sketched in early life, may have its use, but it is little to be apprehended, in the present day, that the wild workings of poetic imagination should lead to that obliquity of idea which may terminate in derangement. Philosophy and science have now taken too deep root for such credulity to recur, nor is the general character of our poetry that of enthusiasm. What we have said may, however, account for the mental irregularities of a Tasso and a Collins, though, perhaps, little applicable or essential to any modem bard. The subject, nevertheless, is curious, and will, probably, be thought not altogether destitute of entertainment.