1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Rev. Charles Burton, in The Bardiad; a Poem (1823) pp. 24, 154-57n.



And potent COLLINS, at his swift control,
Describes each passion as it warms the soul:
Ah! splendid Genius! hadst thou better fared,
Few are the Bards who had with thee compared!

The Genius of Collins is of the first class. Dr. Johnson remarks concerning him, "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." To this we may add the opinion of Dr. Langhorne: "The genius of Collins was capable of every degree of excellence in lyric poetry, and perfectly qualified for that high province of the Muse. Possessed of a native ear for all the varieties of harmony and modulation, susceptible of the finest feelings of tenderness and humanity; but, above all, carried away by that high enthusiasm which gives to imagination it's strongest colouring, he was at once capable of soothing the ear with the melody of his numbers, of influencing the passions by the force of his pathos, and of gratifying the fancy by the luxury of his description."

The "Ode on the Poetical Character" has been deemed his master-piece, but every reader will coincide with Dr. Langhorne in opinion that "it is so infinitely abstracted, and replete with high enthusiasm, that it will find few readers capable of entering into the spirit of it, or of relishing its beauties. There is a style of sentiment as utterly unintelligible to common capacities, as if the subject were treated in an unknown language; and it is on the same account that abstracted poetry will never have many admirers. The authors of such poems must be content with the approbation of those heaven-favoured geniuses, who by a similarity of taste and sentiment, are enabled to penetrate the high mysteries of inspired fancy, and to pursue the loftiest flights of enthusiastic imagination."

None denies to William Collins the possession of the greatest powers. Mr. Hazlitt observes, "In his best works there is an attic simplicity, a pathos, and fervour of imagination, which make us the more lament that the efforts of his mind were at first depressed by neglect and pecuniary embarrassments, and at length buried in the gloom of an unconquerable and fatal malady. How many poets have gone through all the horrors of poverty and contempt, and at last ended their days in moping melancholy or moody madness!

We poets in our youth begin in gladness,
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.

Is this the fault of themselves, of nature in tempering them of too fine a clay, or of the world, that spurner of living, and patron of dead merit? Read the account of Collins — with hopes frustrated, with faculties blighted, at last, when it was too late for himself or others, receiving the deceitful favours of relenting fortune, which served only to throw their sunshine on his decay, and to light him to an early grave. He was found sitting with every spark of imagination extinguished, and with only the faint traces of memory and reason left — with only one book in his room, the Bible; "but that," he said, "was the best." A melancholy damp hung like an unwholesome mildew upon his faculties — a canker had consumed the flower of his life. He produced works of genius, and the public regarded them with scorn: he aimed at excellence that should be his own, and his friends treated his efforts as the wanderings of fatuity. The proofs of this are, his Ode on Evening, his Ode on the Passions, (particularly the fine personification of Hope,) his Odes to Fear and to Pity, the Dirge in Cymbeline; the Lines on Thomson's Grave, and his Eclogues, parts of which are admirable. But perhaps his Ode on the Poetical Character is the best of all. A rich distilled perfume emanates from it, like the breath of genius; a golden cloud envelopes it; a honeyed paste of poetic diction encrusts it, like the candied coat of the auricula. His Ode to Evening shews equal genius in the images and versification. The sounds steal slowly over the ear, like the gradual coming on of evening itself.