A friend sent me a link to George Green’s “Poor Collins,” about the mad eighteenth-century poet, and told me how it reminded him of his cousin stricken with “wild dementia” and “unsurpassed madness.” Like many of the seriously crazy, this poor fellow thought himself a spokesman for God and His long-deferred Apocalypse. Recalling a visit to his cousin in the asylum, my friend writes:
“What I remember most is that while he ranted and raged, rocking back and forth in his flimsy robe spotted with food stains, is my looking from the window into the lovely summer’s afternoon and seeing just on the other side of the parking lot the tassels waving atop the green corn stalks in the afternoon breeze, all the greener for the unimpeded sunlight splashing around them like the sea. How easily a sane man can live in a world of such contrasts. We do it every day.”
It’s healthy to remind ourselves that no one is immune, madness is never far away, waiting on the other side of a highly permeable membrane. The sanest of men – Dr. Johnson, Evelyn Waugh – have lived with an acute awareness of its proximity. Collins (1721-1759) seems to have been ambushed by madness around the age of thirty. In the epitaph he wrote for Collins, William Hayler cites the “thick’ning horror” of the poet’s life. The mad are Manicheans. Like Luzhin, the chess master in Nabokov’s novel The Defense, Collins came to see the world as a vast geometry of black and white, ubiquitous evil and scarce goodness, horror and brief respites from it. In The Life of a Poet: A Biography of William Collins (1967), P.L. Carver dates the onset of Collins’ illness to Easter 1751.
About Green’s poem: “poor Collins” has become a sort of Homeric epithet for the poet, like “rosy-fingered dawn.” In a 1754 letter, Johnson refers to “the condition of poor Collins,” and Edward Gay Ainsworth Jr. titled his 1937 biography Poor Collins. In his first chapter, after describing the poet’s youth and his poetry, Ainsworth writes a chilling sentence: “The rest of Collins’s brief history is concerned with his madness.” In his “Life of Collins,” Johnson recalls his final visit to the poet, “for some time confined in a house of lunaticks”:
“After his return from France the writer of this character paid him a visit at Islington, where he was waiting for his sister, whom he had directed to meet him: there was then nothing of disorder discernible in his mind by any but himself, but he had withdrawn from study, and travelled with no other book than an English Testament, such as children carry to the school; when his friend took it into his hand, out of curiosity to see what companion a Man of Letters had chosen, `I have but one book,’ said Collins, `but that is the best.’”