The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Contrast between his individual inspiration and the influences of his age
For, here, the cross-valuation of man and time, easily abused down to mere glib futility, yet very significant when used rightly, becomes of the very first moment; in fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that there is hardly another case where it counts for so much, and where it explains so much. Almost everything that is good in Collins belongs to the man; almost everything that is not good belongs to the time. And, consequently, there is, again, hardly a poet of whom it may be said, with less of this futility, that even supposing his unhappy mental affliction to have remained the same (which, in the different circumstances, it very conceivably might not), his production, as a contemporary of Shakespeare or of Milton, of Coleridge or of Tennyson, would have been entirely different in all the features that are not its best. The Collins of the Odes, at his best, is the poet of all time in general and no time in particular; the Collins of the Eclogues is everywhere the poetaster of the eighteenth century. Nor is the distinction to be confined to this easy and sweeping separation; for, in the Odes themselves, it constantly, and, to the critical reader, not at all tiresomely, presents and represents itself. In two succeeding poems of the collection, in two stanzas of the same poem, in two successive lines, nay, in the very same line of the same stanza, two writers—the Collins of eternity and the Collins of his day—are continually manifesting themselves. The latter talks about a “British shell” when he means “English poetry”; intrudes the otiose and, in fact, ludicrous detail of “its southern site,” a sort of auctioneer’s item, in his description of the temple of Pity; indulges in constant abuse of such words as “scene.” And he sometimes intrudes upon, though he cannot quite spoil, the loftiest inspiration of the Collins who writes “How sleep the brave” and the Ode to Evening.