1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Collins's Odes, Descriptive and Allegorical" Censura Literaria 1 (1805) 353-55.



Nothing seems more unaccountable than the caprice of public taste. The poems of Collins, of which such numerous impressions in every splendid, as well as every cheap form, have lately found a sale, were received with such coldness on their first publication, that the unhappy and disappointed author in a fit of disgust and indignation burned the greater part of the copies with his own hand. Yet this was the man, of the felicity of whose genius Langhorne speaks as approaching to inspiration, in a passage to which Mr. Roscoe has lately given a sanction, by citing it in his preface to the life of Leo X.

In what strange torpor were the fancy, the feelings, and the taste of the nation buried, when they could receive with indifference the Ode on the Passions, and the Odes to Fear, and to Evening! But these perhaps are too abstract for the multitude, who cannot admire them till long established authority supersedes their own judgments. So it was even with Milton, whose early compositions, the Lycidas, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso, the very essence of poetry, were little noticed by his cotemporaries, while the vile doggrel of such wretched rhymers as Cleveland and Brome, and others of the same stamp, was universally praised and admired.

Collins is proof, that he who gives up the reins to his fancy may act injuriously to his own happiness; but who can deny, that he stands the best chance of attaining the mantle of a poet? "To repose by Elysian waterfalls," and range beyond the dull scenes of reality, may render the sensations too acute for intercourse with the rude manners of the world, and too much enervate the heart, which is doomed to encounter difficulties, neglect, and calumny. But in what other temperament can the productions of genius be formed? Can the dull reasoner, the ready wit, the happy adept in familiar manners, the quick observer of what is ridiculous in daily life, be qualified to rise to those "strains of a higher tone" which only deserve the name of poetry?

I have heard that genuine poetry is calculated for universal taste; an opinion which Johnson seemed to have entertained. The idea appears to me strangely erroneous. The seeds of taste must be sown by Nature: but they will never arrive at maturity without high cultivation. Such is the case in all the arts: carry a person of uncultivated mind successively into rooms where are exhibited the worst daubs of modern painters, and the finest ancient specimens of the art; and he will uniformly prefer the unchaste glare of the former. So it is with the untutored taste in poetry. And as the Flemish school of pictures is always the favourite with the mob, so are Hudibras and Swift more congenial to them than Spenser, and Milton, and Collins.

But there are those, whose original lowness of spirit, no education, no birth, or acquirements, or rank can elevate. Lord Chesterfield said that when he read Milton he always took snuff; and while he recommended to his son the vulgar points of Martial, he condemned the touching simplicity of the Greek epigrams to his supreme contempt. On a mind so constituted it is unnecessary to remark. A better style of poetry has now received the countenance of the public; and as long as Cowper, and Burns, and Beattie receive the public applause, genius will not be without "the fostering dew of praise."