William Collins begins his challenging Pindaric ode with an allusion to the story of Florimell's girdle at the tournament in Faerie Queene 4.5.1-18 and closes with a seeming reference to the Bower of Bliss ("now o'erturned th' inspiring Bow'rs, | Or curtain'd close such Scene from ev'ry future View").
Perhaps it is not surprising to discover that this famous romantic statement about literary creativity is filled with such echoes of earlier poetry. Collins's subject is really "emulation," a topic that demands comparisons. So, in addition to the obvious allusions to Spenser and Milton, Collins engages Mark Akenside's "On the Absence of the Poetic Inclination," published the previous year, which similarly, if less memorably, treats the subject of Milton and poetical impotence. Compare also, Sneyd Davies, "Rhapsody, to Milton" in Collection of Original Poems and Translations. By John Whaley: "On the Top Brow of Fame, in laurel'd Chair | Seated, and thence look down on Mortal Toil, | That climbing emulous would pace in vain | Thy Footsteps, trackless thro' Excess of Light." (1745) 186.
The neoplatonic theme had been sounded in John Jortin's Hymn to Harmony (1729), an imitation of Spenser's Fowre Hymnes, which Collins very possibly knew. It contains the lines: "Yet thence, though rarely, the celestial guest | Deigns to descend, unseen of mortal eyn, | And gently glides into the poet's breast: | She comes; and lo! he feels the pow'r divine; | New Images begin to rise and shine." Collins's famous concluding lines emulate a Spenser passage from an ode by William Congreve: "Nor are these Sounds to British Bards unknown, | Or sparingly reveal'd to one alone: | Witness sweet Spencer's Lays" A Pindarique Ode, humbly offer'd to the Queen (1706).
Critics have singled out this ode as a source for the romantic idea of poetic creativity; Collins however, was working within an established tradition, as noted in John Hughes's "Essay on Allegorical Poetry": "The Power of raising Images or Resemblances of things, giving them Life and Action, and presenting them as it were before the Eyes, was thought to have something in it like Creation: And it was probably for this fabling Part, that the first Authors of such Works were call'd Poets or Makers, as the Word signifies, and as it is literally translated and used by Spenser" Works of Spenser (1715) xxxi. Hughes compares Milton to Spenser, and quotes some lines from Milton that may be implicated in Collins's conceit: "And if ought else great Bards beside | In sage and solemn Tunes have sung | Of Turneys and of Trophies hung." If Collins's "School" of Spenser consists of Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, it would be a happy notion to think of them linked in emulation, via this passage in Il Penseroso, as Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond.
Monthly Review: "The Ode on the Poetical Character is so extremely wild and exorbitant, that it seems to have been written wholly during the tyranny of imagination. Some, however, there are whose congenial spirits may keep pace with the poet in his most eccentric flights, and from some of his casual strokes may catch those sublime ideas which, like him, they have experienced, but have never been able to express: — some, to whom Fancy 'The cest of amplest power has given; | To whom the godlike gift assigns, | To gaze her visions wild, and feel unmix'd her flame.' But poetry so entirely abstracted, can only be entertaining to the few" in Scots Magazine 26 (August 1764) 441.
Samuel Johnson: "To what I have formerly said of his writings may be added that his diction was often harsh, unskillfully laboured, and injudiciously selected. He affected the obsolete when it was not worthy of revival; and he puts his words out of the common order, seeming to think, with some late candidates for fame, that not to write prose is certainly to write poetry. His lines commonly are of slow motion, clogged and impeded with clusters of consonants. As men are often esteemed who cannot be loved, so the poetry of Collins may sometimes extort praise when it gives little pleasure" Lives of the English Poets (1779-81) ed. Hill (1905) 3:341.
William Hazlitt: "Collins, whose love for these fictions [of chivalry] was perhaps equal to Spenser's, could never find a diction suited to the expression of his sentiments, and was obliged to have recourse to the harshest inversions, and most awkward combinations, to give even an intelligible sketch of those ideas which must have been so familiar to his own mind. Spenser, therefore, if his love was not more sincere or ardent, must evidently have had a clearer appreciation of the beauties of the objects of his attachment" The Champion (1 January 1815) 423.
Charles Burton: "He produced works of genius, and the public regarded them with scorn: he aimed at excellence that should be his own, and his friends treated his efforts as the wanderings of fatuity. The proofs of this are, his Ode on Evening, his Ode on the Passions, (particularly the fine personification of Hope,) his Odes to Fear and to Pity, the Dirge in Cymbeline; the Lines on Thomson's Grave, and his Eclogues, parts of which are admirable. But perhaps his Ode on the Poetical Character is the best of all. A rich distilled perfume emanates from it, like the breath of genius; a golden cloud envelopes it; a honeyed paste of poetic diction encrusts it, like the candied coat of the auricula" in The Bardiad; a Poem (1823) 156-57n.
Edinburgh Magazine: "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" NS 15 (September 1824) 346.
Edward Smedley to H. Hawkins: "Collins I have always loved. I was caught by the boldness of his imagery, before I could understand his other merits. He wants the power of unfolding his own conceptions to others, and I am by no means sure that I always attain them; but what I do apprehend is so magnificent, that I am inclined to call in the aid of implicit faith for that which is dark. He is a poet much above popularity" 29 March 1828; in Poems (1837) 306.
John Abraham Herauld: "Well might Collins, in his times, write of 'the inspiring bowers having been overturned,' and 'of the scene having been curtained close' — perhaps himself the only poet then, privileged to claim 'the Vision and the Faculty divine!' The French school of Poetry in this country repudiated the honours of inspiration. Pope and Gray, and their imitators, derived all from academies and books, not from themselves and heaven speaking in them. But since that epoch, some poets have dared to reassume the inspired character — Wordsworth and Coleridge, Goethe, and Schiller. The Holy Place of the Muses has again been exhibited — the veil has been rent in twain!" Substance of a Lecture on Poetical Genius (1837) 38.
Walter C. Bronson: "the Ode to Fear, the Ode to Liberty, and the Ode on the Poetical Character are richest in elements of the supernatural or semi-supernatural. In the beginning of the last-named, Collins's imagination manifestly revels in the marvellous legend of the magic girdle; he is wandering amid the mazes of The Faerie Queene. The description of creation, an echo from the idealism of Plato and Spenser, beats with an inward heat, an intense pleasure in the fantastic richness of the picture. And the ideal landscape with which the ode ends had for its inspiration in a reverence, amounting almost to worship, for Milton as the poet of the supernatural sublime" Poems of William Collins (1898) xlv.
Oliver Elton: "None of the shorter odes of Collins have a more sustained inspiration than that On the Poetical Character. It comes, in a sense, from L'Allegro, and is so far bookish; but so is L'Allegro itself bookish, and yet its magic is baffling and underived. In this sense Collins is a true disciple of Milton" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:48.
Compare the remarks of Joseph Warton (writing as Longinus) in his essay on personifications in Hebrew poetry: "Wisdom is introduced, saying of herself: 'When GOD prepared the heavens, I was there; when he set a circle upon the face of the deep, when he gave to the sea his decree that the waters should not pass his commandments, when he appointed the foundations of the earth, then was I by him, as one brought up with him; and I was daily his delight, playing always before him.' Where, TERENTIANUS, shall we find our MINERVA, speaking with such dignity and elevation? The goddess of the Hebrew bard, is not only the patroness and inventress of arts and learning, the parent of felicity and fame, the guardian and conductress of human life; but she is painted as immortal and eternal, the constant companion of the great CREATOR himself, and the partaker of his counsels and designs" Adventurer 57 (22 May 1753) 338-39. One might also compare the essay "Of the Essential Excellencies in Poetry," which, if not actually by Collins, supplies a valuable gloss on his doctrines. It was published in The Museum: or the Literary and Historical Register 3 (4 July 1747) 281-86.
John Langhorne's Observations:
"This ode is so infinitely abstracted and replete with high enthusiasm, that it will find few readers capable of entering into the spirit of it, or of relishing its beauties. There is a style of sentiment as utterly unintelligible to common capacities, as if the subject were treated in an unknown language; and it is on the same account that abstracted poetry will never have many admirers. The authors of such poems must be content with the approbation of those heaven-favoured geniuses, who, by a similarity of taste and sentiment, are enabled to penetrate the high mysteries of inspired fancy, and to pursue the loftiest flights of enthusiastic imagination. Nevertheless the praise of the distinguished few is certainly preferable to the applause of the undiscerning million; for all praise is valuable in proportion to the judgment of those who confer it.
"As the subject of this ode is uncommon, so are the style and expression highly metaphorical and abstracted; thus the sun is called 'the rich-hair'd youth of morn,' the ideas are termed 'the shadowy tribes of mind,' &c. We are struck with the propriety of this mode of expression here, and it affords us new proofs of the analogy that subsists between language and sentiment.
"Nothing can be more loftily imagined than the creation of the Cestus of Fancy in this ode: the allegorical imagery is rich and sublime: and the observation, that the dangerous passions kept aloof during the operation, is founded on the strictest philosophical truth; for poetical fancy can exist only in minds that are perfectly serene, and in some measure abstracted from the influences of sense.
"The scene of Milton's 'inspiring hour' is perfectly in character, and described with all those wild-wood appearances of which the great poet was so enthusiastically fond: 'I view that oak, the fancied glades among, | By which as Milton lay, his evening ear, | Nigh sphered in heaven, its native strains could hear'"Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins (1765) 158-60.
As once, if not with light Regard
I read aright that gifted Bard,
(Him whose School above the rest
His Loveliest Elfin Queen has blessed.)
One, only One, unrival'd Fair
Might hope the magic Girdle wear,
At solemn Turney hung on high,
The Wish of each love-darting Eye;
Lo! to each other Nymph in turn applied,
As if, in Air unseen, some hov'ring Hand,
Some chaste and Angel-Friend to Virgin-Fame,
With whisper'd Spell had burst the starting Band,
It left unblest her loath'd, dishonour'd Side;
Happier hopeless Fair, if never
Her baffled Hand with vain Endeavour
Had touch'd that fatal Zone to her denied!
Young Fancy thus, to me Divinest Name,
To whom, prepared and bathed in Heav'n,
The Cest of amplest Pow'r is giv'n:
To few the God-like Gift assigns,
To gird their blest prophetic Loins,
And gaze her Visions wild, and feel unmix'd her Flame!
The Band, as Fairy Legends say,
Was wove on that creating Day,
When He, who call'd with Thought to Birth
Yon tented Sky, this laughing Earth,
And drest with Springs and Forests tall,
And pour'd the Main engirting all,
Long by the lov'd Enthusiast woo'd,
Himself in some Diviner Mood,
Retiring, sate with her alone,
And plac'd her on his Saphire Throne,
The whiles, the vaulted Shrine around,
Seraphic Wires were heard to sound,
Now sublimest Triumph swelling,
Now on Love and Mercy dwelling;
And she, from out the veiling Cloud,
Breath'd her magic Notes aloud:
And Thou, Thou rich-hair'd Youth of Morn,
And all thy subject Life was born!
The dang'rous Passions kept aloof,
Far from the sainted growing Woof:
But near it sat Ecstatic Wonder,
List'ning the deep applauding Thunder:
And Truth, in sunny Vest array'd,
By whose the Tarsel's Eyes were made;
All the shad'wy Tribes of Mind
In braided Dance their Murmurs join'd,
And all the bright uncounted Pow'rs,
Who feed on Heav'n's ambrosial Flow'rs.
Where is the Bard, whose Soul can now
Its high presuming Hopes avow?
Where He who thinks, with Rapture blind,
This hallow'd Work for Him design'd?
High on some Cliff, to Heaven up-pil'd,
Of rude Access, of Prospect wild,
Where, tangled round the jealous Steep,
Strange Shades o'erbrow the Valleys deep,
And holy Genii guard the Rock,
Its Gloomes embrown, its Springs unlock,
While on its rich ambitious Head,
An Eden, like his own, lies spread:
I view that Oak, the fancied Glades among,
By which as Milton lay, His Ev'ning Ear,
From many a Cloud that drop'd ethereal Dew,
Nigh spher'd in Heaven its native Strains could hear:
On which that ancient Trump he reach'd was hung;
Thither oft his Glory greeting,
From Waller's Myrtle Shades retreating,
With many a Vow from Hope's aspiring Tongue,
My trembling Feet his guiding Steps pursue;
In vain — Such Bliss to One alone,
Of all the Sons of Soul was known,
And Heav'n and Fancy, kindred Pow'rs,
Have now o'erturned th' inspiring Bow'rs,
Or curtain'd close such Scene from ev'ry future View.