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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
William Collins (1721–1759)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THERE is much to inspire regretful sympathy in the short life of William Collins. He was born at Chichester, and received his education at Winchester College and at Magdalen College, Oxford. A delicate, bookish boy, he had every stimulus toward a literary career. With a fine appreciation of beauty in all forms of art, and a natural talent for versification, he wrote poems of much promise when very young. His ‘Persian Eclogues’ appeared when he was only seventeen. Then Collins showed his impatient spirit and fickleness of purpose by deserting his work at Oxford and going to London with the intention of authorship. His head was full of brilliant schemes,—too full; for with him as with most people, conception was always easier than execution. But finding it far more difficult to win fame than he anticipated, he had not courage to persevere, and fell into dissipated, extravagant ways which soon exhausted his small means.  1
  In 1746 he published the ‘Odes, Descriptive and Allegorical,’ his most characteristic work. They were never widely read, and it took the public some time to appreciate their lyric fervor, their exquisite imagery, and their musical verse. In spite of occasional obscurities induced by careless treatment, they are among the finest of English odes. His love for nature and sympathy with its calmer aspects is very marked. Speaking of the ‘Ode to Evening,’ Hazlitt says that “the sounds steal slowly over the ear like the gradual coming on of evening itself.” According to Swinburne, the ‘Odes’ do not contain “a single false note.” “Its grace and vigor, its vivid and pliant dexterity of touch,” he says of the ‘Ode to the Passions,’ “are worthy of their long inheritance of praise.”  2
  But the inheritance did not come at once, although Collins has always received generous praise from fellow poets. His mortified self-love resented lack of success. With a legacy bequeathed him by an uncle he bought his book back from the publisher Millar, and the unsold impressions he burned in “angry despair.”  3
  Meantime he went on planning works quite beyond his power of execution. He advertised ‘Proposals for a History of the Revival of Learning,’ which he never wrote. He began several tragedies, but his indolent genius would not advance beyond devising the plots. As he was always wasteful and dissipated, he was continually in debt. In spite of his unusual gifts, he had not the energy and self-control necessary for adequate literary expression. Dr. Johnson, who admired and tried to befriend him, found a bailiff prowling around the premises when he went to call. At his instigation a bookseller advanced money to get Collins out of London, for which in return he was to translate Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ and to write a commentary. Probably he never fulfilled the agreement. Indeed, he had some excuse. “A man doubtful of his dinners, or trembling at a creditor, is not disposed to abstract meditation or remote inquiries,” comments Dr. Johnson.  4
  Collins was always weak of body, and when still a young man was seized by mental disease. Weary months of despondency were succeeded by madness, until he was, as Dr. Wharton describes it, with “every spark of imagination extinguished, and with only the faint traces of memory and reason left.” Then the unhappy poet was taken to Chichester and cared for by a sister. There he who had loved music so passionately hated the cathedral organ in his madness, and when he heard it, howled in distress.  5
  Among the best examples of his verse, besides the poems already mentioned, are the ‘Dirge to Cymbeline,’ ‘Ode to Fear,’ and the ‘Ode on the Poetical Character,’ which Hazlitt calls “the best of all.”  6

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