Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 5. Collins’s Odes and Eclogues

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson

§ 5. Collins’s Odes and Eclogues

As we turn to William Collins, we come, perhaps, to the only name the inclusion of which in this chapter may raise a cavil. “If Collins is to be classed with lesser poets,” it may be said, “then who, in Collins’s time, or in his century, is a greater?” There is no space here for detailed controversy on such points; yet, without some answer to the question, the literary history of the age would be obscured or left imperfect. In the opinion of the present writer, Collins, in part, and the chief part, of his work, was, undoubtedly, a “greater poet,” and that not merely of his own time. There is no time—Elizabethan, Georgian or Victorian—at which the best things in the Odes would not have entitled their author to the verdict “poetry sans phrase.” But there is another part of his work, small as it may be in bulk—the whole of it is but small, and, in the unhappy circumstances of his life, could hardly have been larger—which is not greater poetry, which, indeed, is very distinctly lesser; and this “minority” occurs also, we must almost say constantly, in the Odes themselves. Further, this minority or inferiority is of a peculiar kind, hardly exampled elsewhere. Many poets are unequal: it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that, in varying measure, every poet is unequal. The string, be it of bow or of lyre, cannot always be at full tension. Some—we have but just quoted an example in Young—are unequal with an inequality which cannot take any benefit from the old metaphor. But, at certain times, hardly any poet, and few poets at any time, exhibit the peculiar inequality which Collins displays; and, for historical and critical purposes, the analysis of the special character of this difference is, perhaps, of almost as much importance as that of the discovery and recognition of his poetic idiosyncrasy and merit when he is at his best; perhaps, it is of even greater importance than this.