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MEMOIR OF COLLINS.
“ A Bard,
No one can have reflected on the history of genius without being impressed with a melancholy feeling at the obscurity in which the lives of the poets of our country are, with few exceptions, involved. That they lived, and wrote, and died, comprises nearly all that is known of many, and, of others, the few facts which are preserved are often records of privations, or sufferings, or errors. The cause of the lamentable deficiency of materials for literary biography may, without difficulty, be explained. The lives of authors are seldom marked by events of an unusual character; and they rarely leave behind them the most interesting work a writer could compose, and which would embrace nearly all the important facts in his career, a “ History of his Books," containing the motives which produced them, the various incidents respecting their progress, and a faithful account of the bitter disappointment, whether the object was fame or profit, or both, which, in most instances, is the result of his labours. Various motives deter men from writing such a volume; for, though quacks and charlatans readily become auto-biographers, and fill their prefaces with their personal concerns, real merit shrinks from such disgusting egotism, and, flying to the opposite extreme, leaves no authentic notice of their struggles, its hopes, or its disappointments. Nor is the history of writers to be expected from their contemporaries ; because few will venture to anticipate the judgment of posterity, and mankind are usually so isolated in self, and so jealous of others, that neither time nor inclination admit of their becoming the Boswells of all those whose productions excite admiration.
If these remarks be true, surprise cannot be felt, though there is abundance of cause for regret, that little is known of a poet whose merits were not appreciated until after his decease; whose powers were destroyed by a distressing malady at a period of life when literary exertions begin to be rewarded and stimulated by popular applause.
For the facts contained in the following Memoir of Collins, the author is indebted to the researches of others, as his own, which
very extensive, were rewarded by trifling discoveries. Dr. Johnson's Life is well known; but the praise of collecting every particular which industry and zeal could glean belongs to the Rev. Alexander Dyce, the result of whose inquiries may be found in his notes to Johnson's Memoir, prefixed to an edition of Collins's works which he lately edited. Those notices are now, for the first time, wove into a Memoir of Collins; and in leaving it to another to erect a fabric out of the materials which he has collected, instead of being himself the architect, Mr. Dyce has evinced a degree of modesty which those who know him must greatly lament.
WILLIAM COLLINS was born at Chichester, on the 25th of December, 1721, and was baptized in the parish church of St. Peter the Great, alias Subdeanery in that city, on the first of the following January. He was the son of William Collins, who was then the Mayor of Chichester, where he exercised the trade of a hatter, and lived in a respectable manner.
His mother was Elizabeth, the sister of a Colonel Martin, to whose bounty the poet was deeply indebted.
Being destined for the church, young Collins was admitted a scholar of Winchester College on the 23rd of February, 1733, where he was educated by Dr. Burton; and in 1740 he stood first on the list of scholars who were to be received at
New College. No vacancy, however, occurred, and the circumstance is said by Johnson to have been the original misfortune of his life. He became a commoner of Queen's, whence, on the 29th of July, 1741, he was elected a demy of Magdalen College. During his stay at Queen's he was distinguished for genius and indolence, and the few exercises which he could be induced to write bear evident marks of both qualities. He continued at Oxford until he took his bachelor's degree, and then suddenly left the University, his motive, as he alleged, being that he missed a fellowship, for which he offered himself; but it has been assigned to his disgust at the dulness of a college life, and to his being involved in debts.
On arriving in London, which was either in 1743 or 1744, he became, says Johnson, " a literary adventurer, with many projects in his head and very little money in his pocket." Collins was not without some reputation as an author when he proposed to adopt the most uncertain and deplorable of all professions, that of literature, for a subsistence. Whilst at Winchester school he wrote his Eclogues, and had appeared before the public in some verses addressed to a lady weeping at her sister's marriage, which were printed in the Gentleman's Magazine, Oct. 1739, when Collins was in his eighteenth year. In January, 1742, he published his Eclogues, under the title of
“Persian Eclogues ;” and, in December, 1743, his “ Verses to Sir Thomas Hanmer on his Edition of Shakespeare," appeared. To neither did he affix his name, but the latter were said to be by“ a Gentleman of Oxford.”
From the time he settled in London, his mind was more occupied with literary projects than with steady application; nor had poesy, for which Nature peculiary designed him, sufficient attractions to chain his wavering disposition. It is not certain whether his irresolution arose from the annoyance of importunate debtors, or from an original infirmity of mind, or from these causes united. A popular writer* has defended Collins from the charge of irresolution, on the ground that it was but “ the vacillations of a mind broken and confounded ;” and he urges, that “ he had exercised too constantly the highest faculties of fiction, and precipitated himself into the dreariness of real life.” But this explanation does not account for the want of steadiness which prevented Collins from accomplishing the objects he meditated. His mind was neither “ broken nor confounded,” nor had he experienced the bitter pangs of neglect, when with the buoyancy of hope, and a full confidence in his extraordinary powers, he threw himself on the town, at the age of twenty
* D'Israeli, in his “ Calamities of Authors,” vol. ii.