1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 9:514-15, 518.



Collins has written but little; and by those with whom the bulk of an author's performances is the criterion for estimating his merit, he will be deemed a minor poet. There are, however, volumes of verses of no mean character, which contain less genuine poetry than the few pages which he produced.

Of his Oriental Eclogues, according to Dr. Jonson, he spoke with disapprobation to Dr. Warton and his brother, in his last illness, as not sufficiently expressive of Asiatic manners, and called them his Irish Eclogues. It is very probable, when his judgment was improved by experience, he might discover, and be hurt by their faults, among which may possibly be found some few instances of inconsistence of absurdity. But the idea of manners seems mistakenly substituted for the idea of language. He has seldom violated the great outline of eastern customs; and his subjects did not often lead him to a description of minute particulars. His diction, as Langhorne has justly remarked, is not the diction of the east; it is mostly simple, and often elegant, but not flowery or metaphorical. But he seems rather mistaken, when he observes, that Collins was one of the few Poets who have sailed to Delphi without touching at Cythera. Collins possessed a mind that could not be insensible to the amorous impressions. Of this, the warmth of expression with which he treats the passion of love, in the Eclogues, may be thought a sufficient indication. His compositions discover much of the tender, though nothing of the licentious. The Eclogues, with some marks of puerility, have nothing to fear from a comparison with any of their predecessors. The have all the requisites of good poetry; description, incident, sentiment, and moral. They have sincerity of thought, and melody of language.

His Odes, descriptive and allegorical, rank among the first lyric performances in the English language. They display a luxuriance of imagination, a wild sublimity of fancy, and a felicity of expression so extraordinary, that it might be supposed to be suggested by some superior power, rather than to be the effect of human judgment or capacity. They entitle Collins to an indisputable pre-eminence above all his competitors in that province of poetry, except Dryden and Gray....

To the estimate of the genius and writings of Collins, given by Dr. Johnson in the Poetical Calendar, he made the following severe and injurious addition, in his Lives of the Poets.

"The diction of Collins was often harsh, unskilfully laboured, and injudiciously selected. He affected the obsolete, when it was not worth 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 give little pleasure."

A very different opinion of his poetical excellence is maintained by critics of undoubted reputation.

Mr. Warton, the learned historian of English poetry, speaking of Collins, calls him his lamented friend, "whose odes will be remembered while any taste for poetry true poetry remains."

"The Genius of Collins," says Dr. Knox in his elegant Essays, "seems, in some measure, to have resembled that of Tickell. Dignity, solemnity, and pathos, are the striking features of his compositions. None but a true poet could have written his song over Fidele in Shakspeare's Cymbeline."

Mr. Potter, the ingenious translator of Aeschylus and Euripides, treating of the ode, asserts, that Collins was the first of our poets who reached its excellence. "His mind was impressed with a tender melancholy, but without any mixture of that fallen Gloom which deadens its powers; it led him to the softest sympathy, that most refined feeling of the human heart. His faculties were vigorous, and his genius truly sublime; his style is close and strong, and his numbers in general harmonious. He was well acquainted with Aeschylus and Euripides, and drew deep from their fountains. His thoughts had a romantic cast, and his imagination a certain wild grandeur which sometimes perhaps approaches to the borders of extravagance; but this led him to descriptions and allegories wonderfully poetical. Such, for instance, is the antistrophe in his Ode to Liberty, and the first part of his Ode to Fear. Aeschylus himself has not a bolder conception, and the grandeur of thought is as greatly expressed. Dr. Johnson speaks of this great poet with a tenderness that reflects honour on himself: He allows him sometimes to have sublimity and splendour; but, in the coldness of criticism, expresses some disapprobation of his allegorical imagery, and is unjust to his harmony."

With these ingenious critics, the present writer is happy to agree, in giving Collins a much higher rank as a poet than Dr. Johnson has allowed him; but, while he condemns, with Mr. Potter, the excess to which Dr. Johnson's strictures are carried, he acknowledges that they are not, in every respect, destitute of foundation. Collins is occasionally, though not frequently, harsh in his numbers; his personifications appear, in a few instances, to be multiplied beyond just cause; and he is sometimes blamably obscure. But when every possible deduction is made from his merit, he will still stand entitled to a very large proportion of praise; and his Ode on the Passions must ever be joined with the St. Cecilia of Dryden, and The Bard of Gray, as among the boldest and brightest efforts of the lyric muse.