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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

§ 7. How Sleep the Brave and The Ode to Evening

When this is thoroughly understood, it not merely brings the usual reward—the fact of this understanding—but a distinct increase of enjoyment. On the full perception of the difference between the two Collinses, there follows, not merely pardon, as in the proverb, but a possibility of neglecting what would otherwise annoy. The “British shell” no longer suggests artillery or oysters; the “turtles” have no savour of the tureen; and nothing interferes with our appreciation of the dewy eyes of Pity and the golden hair of Peace, when the sense of incongruity is, as Coleridge says of the sense of disbelief, “suspended.”

In regard, indeed, to the Eclogues, the critical is almost the only satisfaction. They occupy but little room—less than a score of pages, containing scarcely more than three hundred lines, form not a very severe tax upon the reader. But, in them, we certainly find the Collins of the hour almost unrelieved by a single exhibition of individual poetic quality. Eastern apologues in prose or verse had been patented for the whole eighteenth century by the authority of Addison; and Collins was merely following one of the various fashions beyond which it was reckoned improper, if not positively unlawful, to stray. The consecrated couplet furnishes the metre; the gradus epithet—“radiant morn,” “wanton gales,” “tender passion” —lends its accustomed aid to swell and balance the line; and, though we sometimes come on a verse that shows forth the poet, such as

  • Cold is her breast like flowers that drink the dew,
  • unreasonable expectations of more instances of the same sort are promptly checked by such flatnesses as the statement that “the virtues came along,” or such otiosities as
  • In distant view along the level green.
  • Had these attempts to compose something that might repre sent the poetry of Saadi and Hafiz and Omar Khayyam stood alone, Collins might certainly have justified the strictures of The Gentleman’s Magazine on his fellow-contributors to Dodsley. Fortunately, they do not stand alone, but are accompanied and effaced by the Odes. Besides the two pieces to which reference has already been made—the Ode to Evening, with its almost, if not quite, successful extension of the “blank” principle to lyric, and the exquisite softness and restraint of “How sleep the brave”—at least three others, in different degrees, have secured general admiration. These are the slightly “time-marked,” but, surely, charming for all time, Dirge in Cymbeline, the splendid outburst of the Liberty ode and the posthumous Superstitions of the Highlands, of which the text may, perhaps, admit of dispute, but certainly not the spirit and the poetic quality. Hardly one of these, unless it be “How sleep the brave,” is, as a whole poem, faultless; but Longinus would have made no mistake about the “slips” and “faults” of Collins, as compared with his sublimity—and why should we?