Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Algernon Charles Swinburne
William Collins (17211759)
[William Collins was born at Chichester on Christmas Day, 1721. It is believed that he went for a time to the Prebendal School of that city; and in 1733 he entered Winchester College, then under Dr. Burton. Before he left school he had written the Persian Eclogues (which in their later editions are called Oriental Eclogues); and he had printed a so-called sonnet in the Gentlemans Magazine. In 1740 he entered as commoner of Queens College, Oxford, there being no vacancy at New College; and next year he obtained a demyship at Magdalen. The Persian Eclogues were published in 1742; next year came the Epistle to Sir T. Hanmer; and in 1744 he seems to have left Oxford for London, where he found a true friend in Johnson. His Odes, which he once meant to have published jointly with those of his old schoolfellow Joseph Warton, appeared alone in 1747. After this he went to live at Richmond, where he saw much of Thomson, Armstrong, and others of that company. In 1749 he wrote the Ode on the death of Thomson, and the Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands. Soon afterwards he was attacked by the brain-disease from which, with certain intervals of partial recovery, he suffered for the rest of his life. His last years were spent at Chichester under the care of his sister Mrs. Sempill. He died in 1759. It should be mentioned that the textual variations in the different editions of Collins poems are very numerous.]
IN the reaction against that sweeping violence of indiscriminative depreciation with which the school of poets and critics usually registered as Wordsworthian, but actually founded at midnight by William Blake and fortified at sunrise by William Wordsworth, was wont for some half a century to overwhelm the poetry and criticism of the century preceding, the name which of all properly belonging to that period has incomparably the most valid and solid claim to the especial and essential praise that denotes a poet from among other men of genius has hardly yet taken by general consent the place which is unquestionably its due. Even in his own age it was the fatally foolish and uncritical fashion to couple the name of Collins with that of Gray, as though they were poets of the same order or kind. As an elegiac poet, Gray holds for all ages to come his unassailable and sovereign station; as a lyric poet, he is simply unworthy to sit at the feet of Collins. Whether it may not be a greater thing than ever was done by the greater lyrist, to have written a poem of such high perfection and such universal appeal to the tenderest and the noblest depths of human feeling as Grays Elegy, is of course another and a wholly irrelevant question. But it is not a question which admits of debate at all, among men qualified to speak on such matters, that as a lyric poet Gray was not worthy to unloose the latchets of his shoes. The fanfaronade and falsetto which impair the always rhetorically elaborate and sometimes genuinely sonorous notes of Gray were all but impossible to the finer touch of his precursor. In the little book of odes which dropped, a still-born immortal, from the press, and was finally burnt up even to the last procurable copy by the hands of its author in a fever-fit of angry despair, there was hardly a single false note; and there were not many less than sweet or strong. There was, above all things, a purity of music, a clarity of style, to which I know of no parallel in English verse from the death of Andrew Marvell to the birth of William Blake. Here, in the twilight which followed on the splendid sunset of Pope, was at last a poet who was content to sing out what he had in himto sing and not to say, without a glimpse of wit or a flash of eloquence. These two valuable and admirable superfluities had for generations been regarded, not as fortuitous accessories, but as indispensable requisites, to poetic genius. Nothing so clearly shows how much finer a sense of poetry than is usually attributed to him lay radically latent, when unobscured by theories or prepossessions, in the deliberate judgment of Dr. Johnson, as his recognition in Collins of the eminent and exquisite faculty which he rightly refused to recognise in Gray. The strong-lunged and heavy-handed preacher of The Vanity of Human Wishes had an ear fine enough at least to distinguish the born lyric poet from him who had been made one, though self-made. His recognition of Collins had been ready and generous in his youth; it was faithful and consistent in his old age. And in both seasons he stood then, almost as he stands now, alone in the insight of his perception and the courage of his loyalty. For it needed some courage as well as some openness of mind and sureness of instinct to acknowledge as well as to appreciate a quality of merit far more alien than was the quality of Grays best work from the merit of Pope and his scholars; among whose ranks the critic himself stood so honourably high as an ethic poet.
Strange as the paradox may sound, it must yet once again be repeated, that the first indispensable faculty of a singer is ability to sing. There was but one man in the time of Collins who had in him a note of pure lyric song, a pulse of inborn music irresistible and indubitable; and that he was that man he could not open his lips without giving positive and instant proof. Poetry was his by birthright: to the very ablest of his compeers it was never more than a christening gift. The Muse gave birth to Collins; she did but give suck to Gray. In Goldsmiths verse, again, there is a priceless and adorable power of sweet human emotion which lay for the most part quite out of our poets way. His range of flight was perhaps the narrowest but assuredly the highest of his generation. He could not be taught singing like a finch: but he struck straight upward for the sun like a lark. Again, he had an incomparable and infallible eye for landscape; a purity, fidelity, and simple-seeming subtlety of tone, unapproached until the more fiery but not more luminous advent of Burns. Among all English poets he has, it seems to me, the closest affinity to our great contemporary school of French landscape-painters. Corot on canvas might have signed his Ode to Evening; Millet might have given us some of his graver studies, and left them as he did no whit the less sweet for their softly austere and simply tender gravity. His magnificent Highland ode, so villainously defaced after his death by the most impudent interpolations on record, has much in it of Millais, and something also of Courbet when the simple genius of that star-crossed idoloclast was content with such noble and faithful use of freedom as he displayed in a picture of upland fell and tarnside copse in the curving hollow of a moor, which was once exhibited in London. Here and here only, for vigour of virile grasp and reach of possessive eyesight, Burns himself was forestalled if not excelled. Here too is a visible power, duly and tenderly subdued into subordination, of command upon human emotion and homely sympathy, less intimate than in Burns and less profound than in Wordsworth, but none the less actual and vivid, which we hardly find elsewhere in this perfect painter of still life or starlit vision. In his artistic tenderness of conscience and scrupulous self-mastery of hand he so closely resembles Mr. Tennyson as once at least to provoke the same doubtful sense of jealous and admiring demur. A notable instance of this refined excess in conscience is the exquisite recast of the originally exquisite second line in the Ode to Evening. Such things will make us now and then misdoubt whether some subtle and noble scruple may not in this case also have robbed us of jewels only less costly than two stanzas excised from the text of The Millers Daughter, full of the colour and breath and odour of a moon-charmed April twilight; if not even of some rapture as rare and precious as we are now forbidden to renew by repossession of the far and fairy light, the clear aerial melody, of the once revealed and long recluse Hesperides. Yet I think and trust he would hardly have left so lovely and loveworthy a child of his early genius to fade perforce into compelled and unnatural forgetfulness, while the brother poem, beside which this had appeared as a twin-born sister, was so gloriously refreshed with new blood and transfigured into riper beauty of more wide and deep delight, as were the revived and reinvigorated Lotos-Eaters.
But Collins may claim of us a yet loftier note of praise than this: and it is one which could hardly have been sounded by the capacious mouth of his good and true friend Johnson. He was the first English poet, after Miltons voice for the dwellers upon earth fell silent, to blow again the clarion of republican faith and freedom: to reannounce with the passion of a lyric and heroic rapture the divine right and the godlike duty of tyrannicide. He too, in the high-toned phrase of Mr. Browning, like Milton, Burns, and Shelley, was with us; they watch from their graves. And on this side of the summit of fair fame he stands loftily alone between the sunset of Milton and the sunrise of Landor. I hardly think there are much nobler verses in all English than those in which the new Alcæus, fancy-blest indeed, has sung the myrtle-hidden sword that rid the sunlight of the first Pisistratid. For all her evil report among men on the score of passive obedience and regiculture, Oxford has now and then turned outin a double sense, we might say, with reference to Shelleysons who have loved the old cause as well as any reared by the nursing mother of Milton.
There is yet another memorable bond of communion which connects the fame of Collins with that of Milton in the past and with that of Shelley in the future. Between the elegy on Edward King and the elegy on John Keats came the far humbler and softer note, yet full of sweet native purity and sincerity, by which Collins set the seal of a gentle consecration on the grave of the Druid Thomson; a note to be as gently echoed by Wordsworth in commemoration of his own sweeter song and sadder end.
The mention of Wordsworths name reminds me of another but a casual coincidence between the fortunes of that great poets work and of this his lyric and elegiac predecessors. In both cases the generally accepted masterpiece of their lyric labour seems to me by no means the poem genuinely acceptable as such. Mr. Arnold, with the helpful loyalty and sound discretion of a wise disciple, has noted as much in the case of Wordsworth; it is no less demonstrable a truth in the case of Collins. As surely as, for instance, the Ode to Duty is a work of greater perfection and more perfect greatness than that On the Intimations of Immortality, the Ode on the Passions is a work of less equal sustentation and purity of excellence than, for example, is the Ode to Evening. Yet of course its grace and vigour, its vivid and pliant dexterity of touch, are worthy of all their long inheritance of praise; and altogether it holds out admirably well to the happy and harmonious end; whereas the very Ode to Liberty, after an overture worthy of Miltons or of Handels Agonistes, a prelude that peals as from beneath the triumphal hand of the thunder-bearer, steadily subsides through many noble but ever less and less noble verses, towards a final couplet showing not so much the flatness of failure as the prostration of collapse.
Living both in an age and after an age of critical poetry, Collins, always alien alike from the better and from the worse influences of his day, has shown at least as plentiful a lack of any slightest critical instinct or training as ever did any poet on record, in his epistle to Hanmer on that worthy knights inqualifiable edition of Shakespeare. But his couplets, though incomparably inferior to Grays, are generally spirited and competent as well as fluent and smooth.
The direct sincerity and purity of their positive and straightforward inspiration will always keep his poems fresh and sweet to the senses of all men. He was a solitary song-bird among many more or less excellent pipers and pianists. He could put more spirit of colour into a single stroke, more breath of music into a single note, than could all the rest of his generation into all the labours of their lives. And the sweet name and the lucid memory of his genius could only pass away with all relics and all records of lyric poetry in England.