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THE LIFE OF WILLIAM COLLINS.
Genius is not only a mystery in itself, but equally mysterious in the manner in which it distributes its favours and scatters its fire. Truly may it be compared to that “wind which bloweth where it listeth." Now it rests on the coroneted brow of a peer; and now it finds its votary at the plough. Now its wisdom dwells with prudence in the countinghouse or the bank; and now it serves to gild, without glorifying, the excesses and the haunts of vulgar debauchery and riot. Now it stands with a holy Herbert in the pulpit; and now recoils from men, and mouths high heaven, with a Byron plunging into his “ Wilderness of Sin.” Now it sits serene in the blind eyes of a Milton, alone in his obscure chamber, and meditating times to come; and now it pines away in the dull madness of a Collins, or serves to exasperate his misery, as, in a wilder mood, he runs, howling like a dog, through the aisles of Chichester Cathedral. Verily it is a fearful gift; and if all men may say, “ We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” men of genius may say it with a far deeper emphasis, and often with a more melancholy meaning.
WILLIAM COLLINS was born in Chichester, the 25th of December 1720. His father was a vender of hats—a man of pompous manners, who more than once occupied the office of mayor, but who died in embarrassed circumstances. His father originally intended William for the Church, and in the year 1733 he was admitted a scholar in Winchester College, where he was educated by Dr Burton. Of his proficiency there, we are told that his English exercises were better than his Latin; and that (according to Dr Warton, when about the age of seventeen, after reading the part of Salmon's Modern History describing Persia), he wrote his “ Persian Eclogues," although he did not publish them till he was a student in Magdalen College. Collins' uncle, by the mother's side, was a Colonel Martyn, who had a great friendship for the family, and, after his father's death, did them, and particularly William, essential service. About the year 1740, he stood first on a list of scholars to be received in succession at New College, Oxford ; but, unfortunately, there was no vacancy. This Dr Johnson calls the first misfortune of his life. He became, however, a commoner of Queen's College, where he was distinguished both for his genius and his indolence. In July 1741, he was elected a demi of Magdalen. While there, he was noted for his neglect of the ordinary rules and regulations of the university, and made no secret of his contempt for the dulness of a college life. Perhaps, like Dr Johnson, he might not unfrequently have been seen surrounded by his junior students, entertaining them with wit, and stimulating them to rebellion against their teachers, when he was not, like poor Shelley afterwards, dreaming below the aisles, or wandering along the banks of the Isis.
“ The enthusiast Fancy was a truant ever.” While at Magdalen, in January 1742, he published his “ Oriental Eclogues.” Although he used afterwards to speak contemptuously of them, as destitute of true orientalism, and called them his Irish Eclogues, they seem to have been rather popular at the time. They were his first publication, with the exception of a short copy of verses which had appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, to a Miss Amelia C—r, weeping, and the subject of which seems now a sad augury of its author's fate. In December 1743 he published his lines to Sir Thomas Hanmer, on his edition of Shakspeare's Works.
He continued at the university long enough to obtain
his Bachelor's degree, but suddenly resigned his demiship, and in the year 1744 went to London, tired of the restraints of a college. He had acquired a taste for pleasure and dissipation. Perhaps, also, he wished to add to his means (which were chiefly furnished by Colonel Martyn, and were doled out with an economy he did not relish) the proceeds of literary labour. At all events, when about the age of twenty-four, he came to London, as Johnson has it,
a literary adventurer, with many projects in his head, and very little money in his pocket." Whatever little money he might have brought to town with him, was soon squandered; and his uncle's agent, Mr Payne, a cousin of his own, who had the charge from Colonel Martyn of supplying him with cash, soon began to tire of his demands, especially when the needy poet appeared on one occasion—although in the capacity of a beggar-gaily dressed, and "with a feather in his
He was forced, by the withdrawal of this resource, to betake himself to his wits. He issued proposals for a History of the Revival of Learning, and even got the first subscription-money from many of his particular friends. The work never appeared. Dr Johnson even doubts if a sentence of it was written ; but a better informed authority assures us that the work was begun, but soon stood still.” He planned several tragedies. To become a dramatic author, he was impelled, not merely by the pressure of poverty, nor so much by the bent of his genius, which was decidedly rather lyrical and imaginative than dramatic, as by the course of his studies, which had led him to a very extensive and minute knowledge of our old English plays—his favourites being Shakspeare and Ben Jonson. Many other projects crossed his mind; “but”—as Johnson well says“a man doubtful of his dinner, or trembling at a creditor, is not much disposed to abstracted meditation or remote inquiries.” To this rule, indeed, in the earlier part of his career, Johnson himself was, to some degree, an exception; but then he had a vast deal more resolution, and energy of mind and character, than poor Collins. He rather resembled Coleridge, who spent all his lifelong in elaborating gigantic prospectuses to works which were never written, and piling up portals to