Page images

tin would approve. He declined to honor the nephew's drafts, and no doubt Collins thought him duller than ever.

"This resource being stopped," says Mr. John Ragsdale, in a letter to Mr. Hymers, of Queen's College, Oxford, dated July, 1783, "forced him to set about some work, of which his 'History of the Revival of Learning' was the first, and for which he printed proposals (one of which I have), and took the first subscription money from many of his particular friends: the work was begun, but soon stood still. Both Dr. Johnson and Mr. Langhorne are mistaken when they say the ' Translation of Aristotle' was never begun. I know the contrary, for some progress was made in both, but most in the latter. From the freedom subsisting between us, we took the liberty of saying anything to each other. I one day reproached him with idleness; when, to convince me my censure was unjust, he showed me many sheets of his ' Translation of Aristotle,' which he said he had so fully employed himself about, as to prevent him calling on many of his friends so frequently as he used to do. Soon after this he engaged with Mr. Manby, a bookseller on Ludgate-hill, to furnish him with some Lives for the 'Biographia Britannica,' which Manby was then publishing. He showed me some of the lives in embryo, but I do not recollect that any of them came to perfection. To raise a present subsistence, he set about writing his odes; and, having a general invitation to my house, he frequently passed whole days there, which he employed in writing them, and as frequently burning what he had written, after reading them to me: many of them, which pleased me, I struggled to preserve, but without effect, for, pretending he would alter them, he got them from me and thrust them into the fire. He was an acceptable companion everywhere; and, among the gentlemen who loved him for a genius, I may reckon the Doctors Armstrong, Barrowby and Hill, Messrs. Quin, Garrick and Foote, who frequently took his opinion on then pieces before they were seen by the public. He was particularly noticed by the geniuses who frequented the Bedford and Slaughter's Coffee Houses. From his knowledge of Garrick, he had the liberty of the scenes and green-room, where he made diverting observations on the vanity and false consequence of that class of people; and his manner of relating them to his particular friends was extremely entertaining."

This account agrees with that of a correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine (January, 1781), who describes Collins as spending his time at "Ranelagh, Vauxhall, and the play-houses" — places which Gray loved to visit when in London. No very gross " dissipation " was this, as long as uncle Martin's money could be had to pay expenses, but rather a thriftless mode of squandering the hours which it now became necessary for him to coin into shillings and pounds, in whatever form of composition he could find his talents most available. He planned tragedies, but his situation was not favorable to a longsustained effort. Shorter pieces were more easily produced, and, perhaps, were thought more available for that present subsistence, the need of which is said to have inspired the production of the odes. If this were so, it must have been a need with no relief and but little hope at that period. It was about this time that Dr. Johnson fell into his company. "His appearance," says the Doctor, " was decent and manly; his knowledge considerable, his views extensive, his conversation elegant, and his disposition cheerful. By degrees I gained his confidence; and one day was admitted to him when he was immured by a bailiff, that was prowling in the street. On this occasion recourse was had to the booksellers, who, on the credit of a translation of Aristotle's Poetics, which he engaged to write with a large commentary, advanced as much money as enabled him to escape into the country. He showed me the guineas safe in his hand."

Collins's first plan for the publication of his Odes was to issue them in a volume, the joint production of himself and his friend Joseph Warton. This contemplated enterprise was probably of the year 1745, or early in 1746, and is thus described in a letter of Warton to his brother:

Dear Tom: You will wonder to see my name in an advertisement next week, so I thought I would apprize you of it. The case was this. Collins met me in Surrey, at Guildford races, when I wrote out for him my odes, and he likewise communicated some of his to me; and, being both in very high spirits, we took courage, resolved to join our forces, and to publish them immediately. I flatter myself that I shall lose no honor by this publication, because I believe these odes, as they now stand, are infinitely the best things I ever wrote. You will see a very pretty one of Collins's, on the Death of Colonel Ross before Tournay. It is addressed to a lady who was Ross's intimate acquaintance, and who, by the way, is Miss Bett Goddard. Collins is not to publish the odes unless he gets ten guineas for them. I returned from Milford last night, where I left Collins with my mother and sister, and he sets out to-day for London. I must now tell you that I have sent him your imitation of Horace's Blandusian Fountain, to be printed amongst ours, and which you shall own or not, as you think proper. I would not have done this without your consent, but because I think it very poetically and correctly done, and will get you honor. You will let me know what the Oxford critics say. Adieu, dear Tom,

"I am your most affectionate brother,

"J. Warton."

Collins very likely could not get the ten guineas, without which there was to be no publication, for the joint enterprise seems to have been abandoned. In the beginning of December, 1746, however, a shilling pamphlet was published by Millar, containing the Odes of Collins. Never did a volume of poems excite less attention. It would have been some consolation to the author, no doubt, if they had been well abused; but nobody would take the trouble to criticize them. Joseph Warton published about the same time, and with more success. His lyrics went to a second edition in the course of a year. Both volumes fell under the eye of Gray, and their merits seem to have struck him forcibly. Before the end of December he had read them both, and called the attention of his friend, Dr. Wharton, to them. 1 'Have you seen," he wrote, "the work of two young authors, a Mr. Warton and Mr. Collins, both writers of Odes? It is odd enough, but each is the half of a considerable man, and one the counterpart of the other. The first has but little invention, very poetical choice of expression, and a good ear; the second, a fine fancy, modelled upon the antique, a bad ear, great variety of words and images, and no choice at all. They both deserve to last some years, but will not."

In 1748, he wrote the Ode on the Death of Thomson, and about the same time the Dirge in Cymbeline. The failure of his poems, however, wounded him deeply; and he was no doubt glad to escape from the "gayety of London" on a visit to his uncle Martin, who was stationed with the British army in Flanders. While on this tour he wrote several letters to his Oxford friends, but none of them have appeared in print, or are now known to exist. Soon after his arrival, his uncle died, and left his property to Collins and his sisters. The poet's legacy amounted to about two thousand pounds. And now he was able, at all events, to cancel his obligations with the booksellers. Forthwith he returned the money he had received for the copyright of the unwritten translation of Aristotle. Now, too, he was able to possess himself of the unsold copies of his Odes, and make a bonfire of them. This anecdote has been frequently alluded to, and sometimes as of doubtful authority; but we have good evidence of its truth, seemingly from the publisher himself.

When Mr. Langhorne, several years after the poet's death, edited a collection of his works, he had alluded in this connection to Collins's publisher, Mr. Millar, as having issued the Odes "on the author's account," a mode, well understood by the trade, of absorbing all the profits of a salable work, and throwing the expense of a losing one on the writer. This Mr. Millar thought a misstatement of sufficient consequence to be corrected; and the Monthly Review (Griffiths) for April, 1765, contains an explanatory paragraph that is well worth transcribing:

"It is certainly a reflection on the discernment and taste of the age in which Mr. Collins's Odes first made their appearance, that they met with no success—no, not so much as to answer the charge of printing the little volume in which they were comprised. This reflection, however, is by our present editor sarcastically extended to Mr. Millar, the bookseller who first printed these Odes, and who is here said to have warily published them on the author's account. This, we are assured, was by no means the case; for the bookseller actually purchased the copy, at a very handsome price (for those times), and, at his own expense and risk, did all in his power to introduce Mr. Collins to the notice of the public. In this instance, therefore, Mr. Millar ought, by no means, to be pointed out as ' a favorer of genius when once it has made its way to fame.' The sequel of this little anecdote is greatly to the honor of our poet's memory. At the time when he sold his Odes to Mr. Millar, his circumstances were too narrow to have allowed him to print at his own expense; and the copy-money was then, to him, a considerable object. Afterwards, when he came to the possession of an easy fortune, by the death of his uncle, Colonel Martin, he recollected that the publisher of his poems was a loser by them. His spirit was too great to submit to this circumstance, when he found himself enabled to do justice to his own delicacy; and therefore he desired his bookseller to balance the account of that unfortunate publication, declaring he himself would make good the deficiency; the bookseller readily acquiesced in the proposal, and gave up to Mr. Collins the remainder of the impression, which the generous, resentful bard immediately consigned to the flames."

Collins's better fortunes came too late to be of any essential service. From poverty and neglect he had sought relief in dissipation, and the result had been a nervous disorder, with an unconquerable depression of spirits. His vital powers became feeble and exhausted, and he at last fell into a state of intellectual torpor, now and then lit up with a gleam of vigor and intelligence, but verging continually to actual mental alienation. "The approaches of this dreadful malady," says Johnson, "he began to feel soon after his uncle's death; and with the usual weakness of men so diseased, eagerly snatched that temporary relief with which the table and the bottle flatter and seduce. But his health continually declined, and he grew more and more Durthensome to himself."

It was not till after the autumn of 1750 that he fell into this state; for the only letter of Collins's known to be extant shows that he had produced about that time an Ode on the Music of the Grecian Theatre, which is unfortunately lost. This circumstance renders the letter one of peculiar interest. The honor to which it alludes was the setting to music of his Ode on the Passions.


*' Sir: Mr. Blackstone, of Winchester, some time since informed me of the honor you had done me at Oxford last summer; for which I return you my sincere thanks. I have another more perfect copy of the ode; which, had I known your obliging design, I would have communicated to you. Inform me by a line, if you should think one of my better judgment acceptable. In such case I could send you one written on a nobler subject; and which, though I have been persuaded to bring it forth in London, I think more calculated for an audience in the university. The subject is the Music of the Grecian Theatre; in which I have, I hope naturally, introduced the various characters with which the chorus was concerned, as (Edipus, Medea, Electra, Orestes, etc. etc. The composition, too, is probably more correct, as I have chosen the ancient tragedies for my models, and only copied the most affecting passages in them.

« PreviousContinue »