Collins was educated at Oxford University; and while a college he published a poetical epistle to Sir Thomas Hanmer, and his Oriental Eclogues — both of them far superior to any poetry, which had appeared for many years. In 1744, he went to London as a literary adventurer, and formed various literary projects, which irresolution or immediate want hindered him from accomplishing. In 1746, he published a volumes of odes, now esteemed the finest lyrical productions in the English language, but which, at that time, found so few admirers, that their sale was not sufficient to pay for the printing. Collins, in the indignation with which he viewed their cold reception, burned all the remaining copies, and restored to the publisher the money he had received for the manuscript. Not long afterwards a legacy of two thousand pounds was left him by an uncle, which kept him in opulence during the remainder of his life.
This period was not long, and was clouded by a fearful depression of spirits, which at times amounted to actual madness. "Collins," says Johnson, "who, while he studied to live, felt no evil but poverty, no sooner lived to study, than his life was assailed by more dreadful calamities, disease and insanity." Dr. Johnson visited him but a short time before his death, at an interval when the melancholy disorder of his mind was visible to no one but himself; found him "withdrawn from study, and with no other book than an English Testament, such as children carry to the school; when his friend took it into his hand, out of curiosity to see what companion a man of letters had chosen, 'I have but one book,' said Collins, 'but that is the best.'" He died at the age of thirty-five.
All that Collins ever wrote, exhibits a poetical genius of the highest and purest order. Campbell's remarks upon this exquisite poet, are written in a strain of refined and discriminating criticism, equally rare and delightful.
"Collins published his Oriental Eclogues while at college, and his lyrical poetry at the age of twenty-six. These works will abide comparison with whatever Milton wrote under the age of thirty. If they have rather less exuberant wealth of genius, they exhibit more exquisite touches of pathos. Like Milton, he leads us into the haunted ground of imagination; like him he has the rich economy of expression halved with thought, which, by single or few words, often hints entire pictures to the imagination. In what short and simple terms, for instance, does he open a wide and majestic landscape to the mind, such as we might view from Benlomond or Snowden, when he speaks of the hut,
That from some mountain's side
Views wilds and swelling floods.
And in the line, 'Where faint and sickly winds forever howl around,' he does not merely seem to describe the sultry desert, but brings it home to the senses.
"A cloud of obscurity sometimes rests on his highest conceptions, arising from the fineness of his associations, and the daring sweep of his allusions; but the shadow is transitory, and interferes very little with the light of his imagery, or the warmth of his feelings. The absence of even this speck of mysticism from his Ode on the Passions, is perhaps the happy circumstance that secured its unbounded popularity. Nothing is commonplace in Collins. The Pastoral Eclogue, which is insipid in all other English hands, assumes in his, a touching interest and a picturesque air of novelty.
"Had he lived to enjoy and adorn existence, it is not easy to conceive his sensitive spirit and harmonious ear descending. to mediocrity in any path of poetry; yet it may be doubted if his mind had not a passion for the visionary and remote forms of imagination, too strong and exclusive for the general purposes of the drama. His genius loved to breathe, rather in the preternatural and ideal element of poetry, than in the atmosphere of imitation, which lies closest to real life; and his notions of poetical excellence, whatever vows he might address to the manners, were still attending to the vast, the undefinable, and the abstract. Certainly, however, he carried sensibility and tenderness into the highest regions of abstracted thought: his enthusiasm spreads a glow even amongst 'the shadowy tribes of mind,' and his allegory is as sensible to the heart, as it is visible to the fancy."
The moral character of Collins's poetry is as pure as his fancy is elevated. It could hardly have been farther removed from every thing like earthliness or sensuality, if the subjects, which exercised his genius, had been even exclusively devotional.