Page images
[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]


William Collins was born at Chichester, in Sussex, on the 25tn of December, 1721. His father was a respectable tradesman, and at that time Mayor of his native city. The maiden name of his mother was Elizabeth Martin. His parents intended to educate him for the church, and, with this design, sent him, in 1733, to Winchester College, where he was placed under the care of Dr. Burton. Here he remained for seven years. Here, many years afterwards, Sir Egerton Brydges saw his name written on a window-pane in his own hand; and so few are the personal memorials left of the poet, that this fact was thought of sufficient interest to record. Among his school-fellows was Joseph Warton, with whom he formed an intimacy that continued through life. While school-boys, they wrote poems which were published in the columns of the Gentleman's Magazine, where Collins's first printed production appeared in January, 1739. Another trifle of his appeared in the same journal in the October following, which is now inserted among his poems. This was sent by Collins, under the signature of Delicatulus, to the publisher, Edward Cave, Jr., at St. John's Gate, in a letter, with two other pieces from Winchester, — Sappho's Advice, by Monitorius, his friend Warton; Beauty and Innocence, by Tomkyns, as Auramantulus. At that time Johnson was Mr. Cave's reliable man for editorial aid in the Magazine, and in the following month there is a notice of the contents of the October number, said to be from his pen. It is curious enough, as containing, probably, the first word of encouragement Collins received, and the kindest that was ever spoken of him while he was in a situation to be moved by praise or censure. "We past on," says Johnson, " to three more [poems] of the lyric kind, which might do honor to any collection. There belongs to them a happy facility of versification, and the way to the scope, or the striking part, is natural and well conducted. Whoever ventures to prefer one, must allow the other two worthy of the same hand. The least, [Collins's] which is a favorite of mine, carries a force mixed with tenderness, and an uncommon elevation."

Whilst at school Collins wrote the Oriental Eclogues (which were not published till after he went to Oxford), and distinguished himself by his proficiency in English composition. To the studies of the school he must have devoted himself with diligence, for, in consideration of his merit, he came off from Winchester first on the roll, where Joseph Warton, who afterwards acquired so much distinction as a scholar and man of letters, was second. In 1740 he was entitled to fill the first vacancy at New College, but, none occurring, he was entered a commoner of Queen's, where he remained till he was elected a demy, or scholar of Magdalen, in July, 1741.

During his residence at Magdalen, it happened, one afternoon, at a tea visit, that several of his college friends were assembled at his rooms to enjoy each other's conversation, when entered Hampton, afterwards the translator of Polybius, as remarkable at that time for his brutal disposition as for his good scholarship, and, being determined to quarrel, lifted up his foot, and kicked the tea-table, and all its contents, to the other side of the room. Collins, though of a warm temper, was so confounded at the unexpected downfall, and so astonished at the unmerited insult, that he took no notice of the aggressor; but, getting up from his chair calmly, he began picking up the slices of bread and butter, and the fragments of his china, repeating, very mildly,

"Invenias etiam disjecti membra poetae."

An academic career, however, had no attraction for Collins. Its discipline was irksome, and its studies failed to excite or interest him. But it was during his residence at Oxford that he published his Eclogues, under the title of Persian Eclogues, and his verses to Sir Thomas Hanmer on his edition of Shakspeare. To neither of these did he prefix his name. The latter appeared as the production of "a Gentleman of Oxford," in December, 1743.

He took his Bachelor's degree, and then suddenly left the university ; "for what reason," says Dr. Johnson, " I know not that he told." We learn from other sources that the cause he assigned was his mortification at the loss of a fellowship for which he was a candidate. But a person who had a " particular friendship" for him has supplied the information considerately withheld by his biogr pher. Mr. John Ragsdale tells us that he had other reasons for q «itting the place than he mentioned; that he was in arrears to his bookseller and tailor, but that his principal motive was a desire to partake of the dissipation and gayety of London. Some other motive than this may have mingled with the inducements that led him to the great metropolis, but none other presented itself to the charitable judgment of Mr. Ragsdale.

In London, then, we find him, in 1743 or 1744, as Johnson had gone before him, and as Goldsmith soon followed, a " literary adventurer, with many projects in his head, and very little money in his pocket." These words of Johnson apply equally well to any one of the illustrious trio, though it is probable that Collins was something better off than his biographer. Like Goldsmith, he, too, had a kind relative,—a sort of uncle Contarine, — but of the army, and not of the church. This uncle was on the mother's side, — Colonel Martin, who, when his sister's husband became embarrassed in his latter years, not only greatly aided the family, and supported young Collins at the university, but continued the supplies after his removal to London. When the poet left the university, he called on his uncle's agent, "cousin Payne," gayly dressed, and with a feather in his hat, the very ideal, probably, of a fine young fellow about town. Whereupon, cousin Payne was astonished; and not a little astonished Colonel Martin's nephew by telling him that his appearance was by no means that of a young man that had not a guinea he could call his own. Collins very naturally took offence at the liberty, but confined his resentment to the remark, in his private circles, that " he thought Payne a dull fellow." This was no great crime; but Payne held the purse-strings, and undertook to think that the young man called oftener for money than uncle Mar

« PreviousContinue »