1797 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Thomas Enort Smith, "Lines on Collins the Chichester Bard" European Magazine 32 (December 1797) 413-14 & n.



Unhappy Collins! on whose fated head
Let genius' smiles and fortune's keenest throes;
Who doom'd in life a stormy path to tread,
Sought in the muse a refuge from his woes,
And taught by resignation, meekly bore
Those ills which riv'd with cruel pangs his breast;
Which oft his suff'ring reason frantic tore,
And robb'd his gentle spirit of its rest.
Lamented bard! whose sweetly plaintive lyre
Too oft neglected on its myrtle hung,
Whom fancy gifted with a matchless fire,
While judgment guided all that fancy sung.
Borough, Nov. 16, 1797.

Although the productions of Collins are far from being numerous, yet are they sufficient to declare him a true son of the muse. In every line we meet with images fraught with all that fire and fancy which are the soul of poetry, and expressed in language at once sublime, nervous, and classical. His Persian Eclogues, which Doctor Warton informs us were written in his seventeenth year, while at Winchester College, would alone suffice to immortalize his name, since no poet of any nation (Virgil excepted) has attained an equal degree of popularity in the same species of composition. By asserting this, I do not seek to invalidate the reputation of other bards: the Progress of Love, in four parts, by Lord Lyttelton, is a pleasing specimen of the Pastoral Eclogue; and those of Walsh, particularly the admired one, lamenting the death of Mrs. Tempest, are entitled to high praise; yet, on a comparative view of either with those of Collins, impartiality must acknowledge they do not possess that originality of sentiment, that high wrought enthusiasm and beauty of language, which render those of Collins invaluable and unequalled. Charming as these Eclogues are, they were not held in esteem by their author, who, out of derision and mockery, bestowed on them the cant appellation of Irish Eclogues. Writers too often, like parents, are insensible to the merits of their most valuable offspring, and bestow their affections and applauses on the least deserving. Milton, for instance, preferred his Paradise Regained to his Paradise Lost: Ben Jonson doated on his Cataline; Rowe valued his wretched Comedy of the Biter above his best Tragedies: and the great Cervantes adjudged his Galatea to be superior to his incomparable Don Quixote: and in the like manner the Poet Collins esteemed his Odes more than his Eclogues; the public, however, have given the meed of superiority to the latter. Commenting on his Odes Allegorical and Descriptive, it is needless to enter into the minutiae of criticism, since they are without exception the noblest specimens of lyric composition which grace the bardic pages of Great Britain. That on the Passions has been accounted the highest and happiest effort of his genius, and many of the literati of the first eminence have adjudged it superior to those of either Dryden or Gray: it is however, to speak impartially, of unequal merit in its parts; for who can peruse his charming descriptions of Hope, Revenge, Melancholy, with those of Fear, Anger, Jealousy, and not witness a marvellous disparity in his pourtraitures of the latter passions. His beautiful dirge, sung of Fidele in Shakespear's Cymbeline, was written in the year 1748, about the time he lost his friend Mr. Thomson; and here it is our author, to transcribe the words of Mr. Hayley, has "touched the tenderest notes of Pity's lyre." Whoever peruses this charming piece of poetry, without paying that tribute of sympathy it merits, must be totally destitute both of the feelings of nature and poetical susceptibility. The original song, written by our immortal bard himself, has little merit in comparison with that of Collins, who however is mostly indebted for the sentiments to Shakspeare, in a speech which Arvigagus makes prior to the singing of the dirge. His Ode on the popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, mentioned by Dr. Johnson, in his life of Collins, was published for the first time in the year 1792 by Mr. Bell in the Strand, and met with deserved success by going through three editions; how this poem has been rescued from oblivion, we are not exactly informed; the Editor, who does not give his name, mentions his having found it among some old papers: it is inscribed to his friend Mr. John Home, Author of Douglas, and is much the longest production of Collins's pen, though in my opinion (which is a humble one) not the most valuable. To enter into a criticism of its merits and defects would in me be particularly presumptuous; but I surely may venture to say it does not contain those daring flights of fancy which burn in his Ode on the Passions. To draw a true estimate of the genius of Collins, requires the pen of a Barbauld, a lady who is a great admirer of Collins, and who has, in her late prefatory essay to a correct and elegant edition of his Works, exhibited his poetical character in a most liberal yet just light. I shall conclude these hasty remarks by transcribing the following beautiful lines on Collins from his friend Dr. Langhorne's Visions of Fancy:

Sweet Bard! belov'd by ev'ry muse in vain,
With powers whose fineness wrought their own decay;
Ah! wherefore thoughtless didst thou yield the reign
To Fancy's will, and chase her meteor ray;
Ah! why forgot thy own Hyblan strain,
Peace rules the breast where reason rules the day.