1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 188.



Four years younger than Gray, Collins (1721-1759) died insane at the year of thirty-nine. The son of a hatter, he was born at Chichester on Christmas-day, was educated at Winchester and Oxford, and gave early proofs of poetical ability. He went to London full of high hopes and magnificent schemes. Ambitious and well-educated, he wanted that steadiness of application by which a man of genius may hope to rise. In 1746 he published his Odes, which had been bought by Millar, the bookseller. They failed to attract attention. Collins sank under the disappointment. He is said to have purchased the unsold copies of the edition, and burnt them. He became still more indolent and dissipated. In 1750 his reason began to fail, and in 1754 he had become hopelessly insane.

Residing for at time at Richmond, Collins knew and loved Thomson, who is supposed to have sketched his friend in the following lines from The Castle of Indolence:

Of all the gentle tenants of the place,
There was a man of special grave remark;
A certain tender gloom o'erspread his face,
Pensive, not sad; in thought involved, not dark. . .

Ten thousand glorious systems would he build,
Ten thousand great ideas filled his mind;
But with the clouds they fled, and left no trace behind.

Johnson met Collins one day, carrying with him an English Testament. "I have but one book," said the unhappy poet," but it is the best." Though neglected on their first appearance, the Odes gradually won their way to the reputation of being the best things of the kind in the language. The Ode on the Passions, and that to Evening, are the finest of his lyrical works; but his Ode on the Death of Thomson, in its tenderness and pathos, is worthy of being associated with them. After his death there was found among his papers an ode on the Superstitions of the Highlands, dedicated to Home, the future author of Douglas. Either through fastidiousness or madness, Collins committed to the flames many unpublished pieces.