John Payne Collier's brief preface touches on allegory ("one of the noblest kinds of poetry") and imitation ("the author is an imitator; 'one who steers by others' maps, and can therefore make no new discoveries:' but in other respects he follows no precursor, and 'sails in untried seas'"), and explains that the four cantos completed were part of a larger, twelve-canto design. Over the period between the composition of the Poet's Pilgrimage in 1810 and its printing in 1822 allegory had fallen out of favor in the wake of Scott and Byron (those poets who "have grown rich"). The author of John Buncle is Thomas Amory (1691?-1788) much admired by Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. The fantastic landscapes in The Poet's Pilgrimage likely owe something to the depictions of the Lake District and Cumberland in Amory's novel, a bibliographical obscurity that Collier would have relished as much as Lamb.
Dewey Ganzel: "The £200 Collier received for the [Poetical] Decameron allowed him to indulge himself even further. In 1810, about the time he began his aborted diary with the admission of a 'large portion of vanity', he had composed an epic inspired by Spenser and infused with Wordsworthian romanticism. It was a bad poem, but Collier was proud of it, and now he had the money to have it printed. Its original plan was grandiose: three books, 'The Poet's Pilgrimage', 'The Poet's Purgatory', and 'The Poet's Paradise', to be divided into twelve cantos. Collier finished only the pilgrimage; purgatory and paradise were not apparently within the grasp of his imagination in 1810, and after toying with the poem for a year or two, he became vexed with it and destroyed all but the first four cantos. Now, twelve years later, mesmerized by the fustian of his youth, he prepared them for the press" Fortune and Men's Eyes (1982) 30.
The author cannot pretend to say with experienced Jonson, that "he knows the strength of his own Muse;" but if he were not, as Milton expresses it, "fed with cheerful and confident thoughts," that there is something in the ensuing pages that deserves to be known beyond the circulation of a manuscript, they would never have been published. "Things in print," says the author of John Buncle, "must stand by their own worth."
Whatever be his merits or defects, this praise at least the author may claim — that he has attempted one of the noblest kinds of poetry: his aim has been lofty; and if, according to the old figure, the arrow, instead of reaching the mark, fall and wound his own breast, he will have only to blame his own
Penna infelice e mal gradito ingegno.
He is aware that his matter and his style are not taking. He never endeavoured to make them so, for his object has never been in this to become a popular poet: had he tried, he might have failed, and have only the words of Owen Feltham to console him: "He is the best orator that pleaseth all; — but that poetry would be poor which all should approve."
His subject he acknowledges is old, as old as poetry itself; and though some modern instances may appear to contradict him, yet if those poets have grown rich, it is not their poetry, properly so called, that has made them so.
As far as regards the stanza and some few points of the general design, the author is an imitator; "one who steers by others' maps, and can therefore make no new discoveries:" but in other respects he follows no precursor, and "sails in untried seas." Davenant, whom he quotes, broke off his great poem in the middle of the third book, because "he was threatened with death, which, even in the innocent, might beget a gravity that diverts the music of verse." The author has stopped short in his voyage, merely because it was his pleasure, and because he thought it might be the pleasure of the reader. Though Purgatory and Paradise yet remain, the portion now printed is complete in itself, and people may be found to get through four cantos who would be lothe to undertake twelve.
Having said all he thinks necessary by way of preface, he concludes with one of old Chaucer's Envoys:
Go, little boke, God send thee good passage!
Chuse well thy way, be simple of manere;
Looke thy clothing be like thy pilgrimage;
And specially let this be thy prayere
Unto them all that will thee read or beare:—
Where thou art wrong, after their help to call
Thee to correct in any part or all.