Of our own poets, Gray and Collins have, perhaps, left us the most finished specimens of what is, by way of eminence, styled "lyrical poetry." The grasp of Milton's powers was too wide for this minute species of composition; yet he, too, bequeathed some fine lyrical effusions. In times, however, distantly subsequent to our great epic era, the minutiae of our language were more diligently cultivated; and expletives, so frequently and continually used by the old writers, were gradually reprobated and disallowed. Pope, on this particular point, held up a mirror to his contemporaries and to posterity, in the well-known line — "While expletives their feeble aid do join."
But to say a word respecting the twin bards whom I named first in this paper. Gray's mind was copious and judicious — but not original. Collins is, I think, superior to Gray in moral power. Gray's Odes are the "productions" of a refined and well-cultivated intellect; those of Collins are, on the other hand, the "creations" of an independent, vigorous fancy. I would always observe this distinction: — Gray's poems are not "creations."
In regard to sweetness, perhaps Collins is in the main, (but I say it with some hesitation,) inferior to Gray, who was excellently and preeminently skilful in the various properties of rhythm. But it is rather singular that Gray, with all his polish, presents very numerous defective rhymes. It is quite fair to remark a failing point of this sort in reference to such writers as I am now speaking of. They are poets of little compass and great labour; every flaw in them is, therefore, glaring. Opening Gray's small volume at random, I find "adores" as a rhyme to "towers," — "below to "brow" — "youth to "soothe" — "ware" to "cleare" — "constraint" to "bent" — "joy" to "descry" — "men" to "train" — "pain" to "men" — and these all in one ode, that very beautiful one on the distant prospect of Eton College. This defect (for I must really presume to pronounce it a defect) is the only one that impairs or mars Gray's poetical polish.
To revert to Collins. He thinks morally, when Gray thinks romantically. They are both, indeed, highly romantic; and I am very much disposed to think that Collins had more native romance of feeling about him than Gray: but Gray clings almost exclusively to the romance of the middle ages; whereas Collins not unfrequently sends his soul back to classical times. But he never thinks pedantically; and his moral tone is always perfectly independent and unfettered. The minds of both these writers were happily tinctured with that spirit of poetical fancifulness, which finely and effectively converts popular superstition into nourishment for the imagination. But the Runic mythology scarcely did so much for Gray as the popular superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland did for Collins.
Gray is, always will, and indeed must be, more popular than Collins. The poetry of the latter is generally more abstracted and removed from common apprehension. His noble enthusiasm is high and peculiar; and he sometimes goes far in the choice of expressions calculated to embody and concentrate his meaning. Both these poets were curious economists in expression, and they were, in some points of view, equally felicitous; but the expressions of Collins are generally more pregnant with highly-wrought imaginative feeling.
I hope I shall not be thought to undervalue Gray. He has, however, less reason to complain (if parted spirits complain) of being undervalued, than any poet that every breathed; for certainly the world has made as much out of his few productions as could possibly be made of them by the most ingenious and partial investigation. Nothing of his is lost. But it is his Elegy which has made him universally popular. Yet the assertion, that the "Elegy," beautiful and perfect as it is, is "the corner-stone of his glory," is, after all, rather a satire on the poetical greatness of Thomas Gray.
On the whole, I would assert, that, if it be a question which of these justly-distinguished writers has left behind him the finest examples of poetical composition, it will be found, that the most competent and attentive readers of both esteem the spirit of Collins more natively poetical than that of his celebrated rival.