1747
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Of the essential Excellencies in Poetry.

The Museum: or the Literary and Historical Register 3 (4 July 1747) 281-86.

William Collins


An essay possibly by William Collins. Edmund Spenser illustrates the divine power of poetry: "the best Part of his noble Work directly proves what I maintain, and demonstrates, that the poetic Genius has a Power of creating ... All the fairy World of Spenser may be stiled imaginary, but still there is a kind of Reality in it; because we conceive and apprehend what he celebrates and describes" p. 283. The argument about the "essential excellencies" runs parallel to that of the ode on the "poetical character," and the mention of Martin Martin's account of St. Kilda likewise seems internal evidence that the essay is by Collins.

P. L. Carver: "If internal evidence could decide the question, we should suppose that soon after [arriving in Chichester] he was writing for Dodsley, who must, in that case, have liked his prose better than his poetry. Mr. Frederick Page, in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, proposed to attribute to him a long essay in Dodsley's Museum for 4th July, 1747, entitled 'Of the Essential Excellencies in Poetry.' The sentiments are certainly those of Collins, though not peculiar to him. The passage about 'this great, this divine Power that distinguished true Poets from mere Versifiers' may well have sprung from the same Horatian source as certain lines of Collins's ode On the Poetical Character, and if their influence can be traced also in the essay in question that will strengthen Mr. Page's argument" The Life of a Poet (1967) 137.

The attribution of this essay to Collins is rejected by Richard Wendorf, his most recent editor, for lack of external confirmation. If not by Collins, then by whom? The essay is certainly not by Joseph Warton, who described the Mallet poem praised in the essay as "nauseous." This leaves Mark Akenside and John Gilbert Cooper as candidates. But while the sentiments expressed could be those of Akenside or Cooper, the essay does sound like Collins, who as a friend of Thomson would be cultivating Mallet (Collins later witnessed Mallet's will). Collins had contributed a poem to The Museum the previous year.




It has been the general Opinion of learned Men, as well those who have professed other Sciences, as Poets, that there is something in Poetry supernatural or divine. If a Man was disposed to shew his Learning upon this Occasion, there would be nothing easier than to multiply Quotations in support of this Opinion from the greatest Authors of Antiquity; but as this would only prove what we laid down at first, that sensible and rational Persons have been persuaded of the Truth of this, we will endeavour rather, to see whether it may not be possible to discover the Grounds of this Truth, by looking closely into the Thing itself. For this is an essential Quality of Truth, that the more nicely it is examined, the more curiously it is surveyed, the better it is understood, the plainer it appears, and the Conviction upon which it is built sinks into the Mind so much the deeper.

In all other Branches of Literature, Instruction does much, and Experience more; so that as the first Rudiments are weak and slight, Alterations and improvements are made by slow Degrees, but in Poetry it is quite otherwise; for tho' the latent Genius may be awaked, and called out to Action, by the hearing or reading the Works of other Men, yet it cannot be kindled, nor was it ever found practicable to make a Man a Poet that was not born so. The Perfection of this Art seems to be as much a Gift as the Art itself; for at a Time when other Learning made no Figure in Greece, Homer produced two Poems highly perfect in their Kind, that have been admir'd and applauded in all Ages, and are like to remain so, as long as Learning flourishes. We may say the same of our own Poets, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton; for there is a Perfection in their Writings much superior to the Times in which they lived; and this appears as plain from the Works of Chaucer, for which it is very hard to account, without our admitting, something supernatural in Poetry.

There are many other Arguments might be deduced from the Subject itself in Support of this Doctrine; but as I design not a long and regular Treatise upon this Subject, for which perhaps you would scarce find Room in the Museum, but an Essay only, that may engage Men of Sense and Learning to consider this Point with Attention, I shall at present insist on one Argument only, as that which has had most Weight with me, and has wrought in me a firm Belief that there is something peculiarly luminous in the poetic Genius, and it is this. There is nothing that gives us to clear a Notion of the Divinity, as his Power of Creating. The calling all Things out of nothing is in itself such a stupendous Proof of Omnipotence and Omniscience, that it is impossible to consider it with any Degree of Attention, without feeling a Reverence for the supreme Being, which is the noblest Act of Worship that the human Mind can form. Yet this very Power of Creating, tho' in a very weak and remote Degree, seems to be communicated to the Poet, and we cannot without Amazement behold the Effects of it in some of the best Performances both of the Antients and the Moderns.

As to the former, I mean the Antients, I shall wave giving you any Examples; because they would not prove convincing to a Part of your Readers, and indeed that Part of them which in respect to an Argument of this kind, it is most difficult to convince. In respect to the Poets of our own Country, it must be allow'd that Spenser has given very strong Instances of this Prerogative in Poets; the best Part of his noble Work directly proves what I maintain, and demonstrates, that the poetic Genius has a Power of creating. It is indeed true, that this Power does not quite reach the common Idea of creating, because the Poet cannot call his Image into Being; but when the the Reader is pleased to distinguish between the two Acts of Creation, viz. that Emotion of the Mind by which the Thought or Character of what is to be created is excited, and that Motion of the Will by which it is called into Existence, he will observe that the former, which is indeed the superior Part of the creating Power, is what we discern in the Poet. All the fairy World of Spenser may be stiled imaginary, but still there is a kind of Reality in it; because we conceive and apprehend what he celebrates and describes, and from thence we feel a Pleasure from the Contemplation of his Ideas. We may say the same thing of the Magic of Shakespear, it is entirely his own, but it is nevertheless ours when we have seen, heard, or read his Performances; and the Impression is so much the stronger, because as he was a Dramatic Writer, the Stage in some Measure adds the latter and lower Part of the creating Power; so that we not only conceive in our Minds the ideas the Poet meant to raise there, but we likewise see them in the Scene, and from thence, as I said before, receive a stronger and clearer Impression. It is a very difficult Subject that I have undertaken to treat, and this may create some Obscurity in my Expressions but even that, I think, will be so far from hurting my Argument, that to candid and impartial Criticks it will appear a kind of new Proof; because the same Darkness and Difficulty will be found to attend all other Attempts to elucidate or explain this Power of Creation, from the Weakness of human Abilities in the Endeavour to set forth that supernatural Power which is confessedly so much out of their Reach, and for which they must be at a Loss for Words; because Words are human Inventions, drawn from the Performances of Men, and will always appear inadequate, when applied as in the present Case to Acts of the Divinity.

Let us now consider, that the Pleasure we feel in the Contemplation of this Power in Poets, does not always arise from beautiful or pleasing Ideas, but also from the most terrible and hideous. We are charmed with a View of the Elysian Fields; but we are as much struck, or perhaps more, with the Description of Tartarus; yet these Descriptions might perhaps be borrowed, or at least in a great Measure taken from religious and superstitious Fables; and therefore are not such direct Instances of the Power of Creation; but the Pandaemonium of Milton is entirely his own. He had something to copy in the View Paradise, but this rose from that Enthusiasm which the Ancients esteem'd, and I think Divine. He called it by the Power of his Genius, if not into Being, at least into Conception; and the Picture he has given of that Train of Ideas which his Genius furnish'd to the Contemplation of his own Mind, are so clearly, so admirably expressed, that even the dullest Reader cannot help discerning that Palace he describes, or avoid feeling that Impression which the Poet meant to raise. It is this great, this divine Power that distinguishes true Poets from mere Versifiers; the latter only copy Nature, and that but faintly; the former surpass Nature, and transcend her. Therefore it is no Compliment, but a bare Piece of Justice done to Milton when we not only compare him to Homer and Virgil, but even prefer him to both those great Poets; because his Genius evidently appears to have been superior to theirs, by the frequent Proofs he gives us of that Power which constitutes a sublime Genius, and which as it is more conspicuous in him than in any other Poet, obliges us to own him the greatest of Poets, for the same Reason that we own those to be Poets that he has excelled.

Upon these Principles we may safely maintain, that how deficient soever Cowley might be in Diction and Numbers, yet he was truly a Poet; and how excellent soever some Moderns may be in the Art of cloathing their Thoughts in Verse, which is what modern Criticks call Correctness in Versification, yet this alone cannot entitle them, or at least not justly, to the Appellation of Poets. Accuracy and Correctness are without doubt Advantages which add to the Beauty of Performances in which they are found; and it must be allowed, that all Performances in which they are wanting, are from thence very deficient; but still they are not Essentials. A Palace may be nobly design'd, tho' indifferently executed, and the Out-lines of a Figure may be admirable where the Colouring is indifferent; but in both Cases, the Reputation of the Architect and the Painter depends on the Essentials of his Art, and not on the Elegancy and Ornaments. It is in this respect that, except a very few, the Moderns are held to fall short of the Ancients, even by those who are most willing to cry up the former at the Expence of the latter. Yet it must be allow'd, that in respect to the Advantages that Poetry may derive from Learning, the Moderns have, or at least might have, great Advantages over the Ancients; for it is a Point out of Dispute, that in most of the Sciences we excel them. And as, in my Conception, a great Poet ought to be well versed in all Sciences, the Proofs of which must appear in his Writings, though naturally, and without Pedantry; so it follows from thence, that a modern Poet thus accomplished must, in this respect, be superior to any Poet of Antiquity. But as to Genius, which is the Essence of Poetry, it must be born, and never can be taught; and as it is this that conducts all the rest, so it follows from thence, that without a Genius equal to that of an ancient Poet, it is impossible that Learning and Criticism should enable any Modern to rival them. There may indeed be more Exactness, Elegance, and Correctness in what is performed; but the Performance will not be so noble, so elevated, or so apparently superior to the ordinary Efforts of the human Understanding; of which it would not be difficult to give some Instances, if I was not desirous of keeping within Bounds, which, in Discourses of this Nature, is a very difficult Thing.

It is from these Considerations, that whenever I read new Poetry, I am infinitely delighted when I see Genius appear, and those noble Powers exerted which I have, or at least have laboured to describe: But I must confess it is not often that I receive this Satisfaction; and this very Circumstance serves very much to heighten and exalt the Pleasure, whenever I do receive it. The last new Poem that has made such an Impression on me, is the HERMIT, which, I have heard, is the Work of the ingenious Mr. Mallet. In this Poem, there is not only Elegance and Variety, fine Sentiments and lofty Expression, but the essential Qualities of a Poet indisputably appear. His Imagination is not only warm and sprightly, but pregnant and sublime; his Pictures are equally majestic and striking; they are, in themselves, great and noble, and they are executed with a Force equal to the Height and Dignity of the Design. Hence it is that we see, in his Performance, that great Poetic Perfection which is at once so excellent and so rare; I mean, the rendering satisfactory and pleasing those Images which, in their own Nature, are apt to affect the Mind in a very different manner. The little barren Island of St. KILDA, which, in the Prose Description of a very accurate and sensible Author, makes but a very indifferent, though at the same time a new and strange Figure, as it is described by him, appears not only surprizing, but that Surprize is also accompanied with Pleasure. It appears the natural Scene of that affecting Story, which is the Subject of his Poem, and is so united therewith, that we cannot help seeing the whole at one View, and retaining, after one has read the Piece, a clear and distinct Notion, and, which is more, a pleasant and satisfactory Remembrance of a Place that, otherwise, would be thought scarce worthy of finding Room in our Memory, or if retained there, must owe its Station to its Singularity. But such is the Force of Poesy, such the Power of a great Genius, that even Nature is changed and heightened in his Hands, and the smallest Things become considerable, if he thinks fit to celebrate or describe them; ITHACA, in that case, becomes as well known as the finest Island of Greece, and KILDA, the smallest of the British Isles, is consecrated, by a like Genius, to Immortality.


[pp. 281-86]