Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Collier, John Payne
COLLIER, JOHN PAYNE (1789–1883), Shakespearean critic, was born in Broad Street, London, on 11 Jan. 1789. His father, John Dyer Collier (1762-1825), was son of a London physician, and, after being educated at the Charterhouse (1771-6), was for some time in the Spanish wool trade. Meeting with reverses in 1793-4, he turned for a livelihood to letters, and, besides editing the 'Monthly Register' and 'Critical Review,' published an 'Essay on the Patent Laws,' 1803, and a 'Life of Abraham Newland,' 1808. In 1804 he became connected with the 'Times,' at first as a law reporter and subsequently in higher capacities. After a few years he transferred his services to the 'Morning Chronicle,' and latterly he also established, with the aid of his son, a successful system of newsletters to provincial towns. He died on 26 Nov. 1825, his wife, Jane Collier (born Payne), surviving him till 20 Oct. 1833. Both are frequently mentioned in the warmest terms in the ' Diary ' of Crabb Robinson, who for some years resided with them. Mrs. Collier was a special favourite of Lamb and Hazlitt, and they lived in friendly intercourse with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and other writers of note.
Collier's infancy was passed at Leeds, and curious recollections of it were inserted by him, when in his eighty-fifth year, in a copy of Thoms's ' Human Longevity ' (Brit. Mus. C. 45. d. 26). In his Old Man's Diary ' he states that he was never at school or college, and that he ' began authorship ' before he was sixteen. The result, as he candidly admits, was 'unredeemable rubbish.' In or before 1809 he was appointed by John Walter, junior, to succeed the elder Collier as reporter on the 'Times.' This engagement lasted until about 1821, when it was terminated by a disagreement with T. Barnes, the editor [q. v.] Meanwhile Collier became a student of the Middle Temple, 31 July 1811. On 20 Aug. 1816 he married Mary Louisa, youngest daughter of William Pycroft, formerly of Edmonton. She brought him some accession of fortune and a family of six children. He was still attached to the ' Times ' when, in 1819, he got into trouble with the House of Commons for misreporting a speech of Joseph Hume to the prejudice of Canning. For this he was summoned before the house on 15 June, and, although he accounted for his error, was committed to the custody of the sergeant-at-arms. A submissive petition, however, procured his discharge on the following day, upon payment of fees and a reprimand from the speaker. When he finally left the ' Times ' he joined the ' Morning Chronicle.' He had already had a connection of some kind with the same paper while it was under the active management of Perry ; and he is said to have visited France and Holland in its interest during 1813-15. Henceforth, until 1847, he continued a member of its regular staff as law and parliamentary reporter, dramatic and literary critic, and writer of leading articles.
Collier's prospects as a lawyer were injuriously affected by the earliest of his separate publications, a small volume called ' Criticisms on the Bar,' 1819, by ' Amicus Curiae,' consisting of sketches of leading counsel, most of which were reprinted from the 'Examiner.' Their tone gave not unnatural offence, and the author was soon known. His own verdict, written on a fly-leaf, was ' Foolish, flippant, and fatal to my prospects, if ever had any,' and he elsewhere alludes to the hostile feeling thus excited as one of the causes which retarded his call to the bar until 6 Feb. 1829. He states himself (Spenser, i. p. vii) that he declined the post of a police magistrate in 1832, and that a proposal of Lord Campbell in 1848 or 1849 to procure him a county-court appointment was treated ay him in the same way. He soon gave up any professional ambition. The real bent of his mind had been revealed in his 'Poetical Decameron,' 1820, in which he displayed a remarkable familiarity with the less known Elizabethan poets. His study of early English literature dated from his boyhood. It was stimulated probably by Lamb, and aided by an acquaintance with Rodd, the antiquarian bookseller ; and he had already contributed numerous articles on the subject to the 'Critical Review' of 1816-17 and other magazines. In 1822 he printed, privately and anonymously, a long allegorical poem of bis own, 'The Poet's Pilgrimage,' written several years before, when he was fresh from the reading of the 'Faery Queen.' The flattering comments of Wordsworth and Lamb prompted him to submit it to the public in 1825 under his own name ; but, a ' literary bookseller ' advising him ' to put it into prose, and then he would consider of it again,' he recalled the impression in disgust. His faculty of verse was no doubt shown to more advantage in his lighter pieces. Some of these, including imitations of early ballads, are printed in his 'Old Man's Diary,' 1871-2, and ' Odds and Ends,' 1870 ; and two of his translations from Schiller appeared separately in 1824-5. In 1825-7 he published a new edition of Dodsley's 'Old Plays,' in 12 vols. but his share in it was chiefly confined to six early dramas not previously included. To these he ultimately added five more, under the title 'Five Old Plays,' 1833. In 'Punch and Judy,' 1828, he gave the text, with a highly interesting introduction, of a humbler form of popular entertainment. This was printed anonymously, to accompany a series of plates by George Cruikshank.
In 1831 appeared his 'History of English Dramatic Poetry and Annals of the Stage,' 3 vols. Although awkwardly arranged, this work was full of new and valuable matter. Unhappily it also contained the earliest of a long series of insidious literary frauds ; but at the time no suspicion of his good faith was entertained. The work helped to secure for him a friendly connection with the Duke of Devonshire, to whom, as lord chamberlain, it was fitly dedicated. The duke not only gave him in return 100l., but soon after entrusted to him the care of his own unrivalled dramatic library and made him his literary adviser, rewarding his services with a yearly pension, which at his own death the next duke generously continued. The unaffected kindness of his patron is the subject of continual entries in 'An Old Man's Diary,' which ostensibly covers the two years 1832-3. The duke stood sponsor for Collier at the Garrick Club and introduced him at Holland House ; he would have made him also licenser of plays, but George Colman, even though guaranteed the income for life, obstinately refused to resign the office to a whig nominee, and the project fell through. Lord Francis Gower, afterwards Egerton (1833) and Earl of Ellesmere (1846), liberally allowed Collier free access to the rich collection of books and papers at Bridgewater House. It was from this source that he professedly derived the most interesting of the materials for his 'New Facts,' 1835 ; 'New Particulars,' 1836 ; and 'Further Particulars,' 1839, relating to Shakespeare and his works. As the documents on which they were founded are mainly spurious, these pamphlets have long ceased to be of value. A less exceptionable result of his labours in the Bridgewater Library was a descriptive catalogue of some of the earliest and most curious books, which was privately printed for Lord F. Egerton in 1837. Many years after it was incorporated into the author's still more valuable 'Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books in the English Language,' 1865. It was followed in 1840 by a selection from the manuscripts, under the title of 'The Egerton Papers.' This was edited by Collier for the Camden Society, of which, since its foundation in 1838, he was a leading supporter. He had already edited for it Bale's play of 'Kynge Johan,' 1838, and his later contributions included two volumes of 'Trevelyan Papers,' 1857, 1863. He acted also as treasurer to the society from 1845 to 1861. His services to the Percy Society and to the Shakespeare Society (of which he was the director) were still more conspicuous. Both were formed in 1840, and he contributed ten publications to the former (1840-4) and twenty-one to the latter (1841-1851). He was a frequent contributor also to the ' Transactions ' of the Society of Antiquaries, of which he became a fellow in 1830, treasurer in 1847, and vice-president in 1849. The earliest of his Shakespeare Society volumes was the 'Memoirs of E. Alleyn,' 1841. To this he added the ' Alleyn Papers,' 1843, and the 'Diary of P. Henslowe,' 1845, the three volumes together giving the result of his researches among the manuscripts at Dulwich College [see Alleyst, Edward]. Valuable as they otherwise are, they were eventually found to have added largely to the evidence of imposture accumulating against him.
Meanwhile Collier completed an annotated edition of Shakespeare, 8 vols., published in 1842-4. It was preceded by a pamphlet dwelling upon ' the lately acquired means of illustrating the plays, poems, and biography of the poet.' Besides the materials already noticed, they included certain manuscript corrections, 'probably as old as the reign of Charles I,' in a copy of the first folio of 1623 at Bridgewater House. In the text of his edition Collier was essentially conservative. The introductory matter was full and valuable, and the edition was appropriately supplemented by 'Shakespeare's Library,' 2 vols. 1844, in which he reprinted the novels, histories, &c., upon which the plays were founded.
In June 1847 a royal commission was appointed on the British Museum. Its chairman was the Earl of Ellesmere, and by his influence Collier was made secretary. He thereupon gave up his employment on the 'Morning Chronicle.' Besides acting as secretary until the commission made its report in 1850, he was also examined as a witness (February 1849) ; and, both orally and in two privately printed letters to Lord Ellesmere, he strongly advocated a printed as against a manuscript catalogue of the library. On this and other vexed questions he joined issue with Panizzi, then keeper of printed books, in whom he found more than his match, although he lived long enough to see (1881) the beginning of the catalogue actually in type. In the spring of 1850 he removed from London to Maidenhead, where he resided for the rest of his life ; and on 30 Oct. he was granted, ' in consideration of his literary merits,' a civil list pension of 100l. During his official employment, besides smaller tracts, he found time to edit 'A Booke of Roxburghe Ballads,' 1847, and 'Extracts from the Registers of the Stationers' Company,' 2 vols., 1848-9; and these were succeeded by 'The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood,' 1850-1, and 'Five Old Plays' (Roxburghe Club), 1851.
A letter from Collier in the 'Athenæum,' 31 Jan. 1852, announced his possession of a copy of the second folio Shakespeare, 1632, annotated throughout in a hand of about the middle of the seventeenth century. This was the volume since known as the Perkins Folio, 'Tho. Perkins his Booke' being inscribed on the outer cover. Collier stated that he bought it for 30s. from Rodd, the bookseller, shortly before the latter's death in 1849, in order to supply from it some leaves missing in another copy. Finding it too imperfect, he laid it aside ; about a year later he 'first observed some marks in the margin,' and later still, and not till then, he found in manuscript on nearly every page changes in punctuation, cancellings, stage directions, and textual emendations in profusion. To the specimens which he gave in his first letter he added others in a second (7 Feb.), and one more, the famous 'bisson multitude,' in a third (27 March). The emendations, varying widely in merit and novelty, were now stamped with the authority of a corrector working soon after the book was printed, and possibly having access to better authorities than the early editors. The actual additions to the text included nine entire lines in as many places. Further details were at once called for. They were supplied at the end of 1852 in 'Notes and Emendations to the Plays of Shakespeare,' which claimed to include all the 'essential' manuscript readings. A second edition appeared in 1853, with a preface giving a circumstantial account of the identification of the annotated folio by a Mr. Parry, as having belonged to himself many years before. Collier also published in 1853 a single volume Shakespeare, without notes. In this edition he transferred the deference he showed in 1842-1844 to the first folio, 1623, to the anonymous corrections of the second, 1632, which were imported wholesale into the text without an attempt to distinguish them. The intrinsic merits of the manuscript readings had been questioned from the first. Real students of Shakespeare, such as Dyce, Knight, Staunton, and Halliwell, were not disposed to accept them blindly, and the proved futility of many of them negatived the idea of their specially authoritative character. Anything like criticism was, however, met by Collier with imputations of the meanest motives, and the result in Dyce's case in particular was the final breach of a long friendship. Doubts as to the authenticity of the corrections, grounded upon internal evidence alone, were first openly expressed by C. W. Singer, 'The Text of Shakespeare vindicated,' 1853 ; and more pointedly still by the anonymous author (E. A. Brae) of 'Literary Cookery,' 1855. The latter pamphlet, however, was particularly directed against the authenticity of the alleged discovery by Collier (Notes and Queries, 1 July 1854) of his own long-lost shorthand notes of Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare and Milton in 1811. In answer to this attack Collier moved the court of queen's bench, 17 Jan. 1856, for a criminal information against the publisher for libel, having on 8 Jan. sworn to the truth of all his statements concerning both the Coleridge lectures and the Perkins folio. The motion was heard by Lord Campbell, who refused the rule on the ground that the case was not one in which the court ought to interfere. He had, however, worked, like Collier, for the 'Morning Chronicle,' and knew him well. He now gave him from the bench a high character as 'a most honourable man,' declaring his own belief that he had vindicated himself completely in his affidavit. In 1858 Campbell further addressed to him, as 'an old and valued friend,' his pamphlet on the legal acquirements of Shakespeare. Although the remedy of an ordinary action for libel was still left to him, Collier remained content with the result of his ex-parte application, and later in 1856 he published the 'Seven Lectures,' with interesting particulars in the preface of his early intercourse with Coleridge and Wordsworth. Brae attacked the ' Lectures ' again in 1860 ('Collier, Coleridge, and Shakespeare') with considerable effect. The case against them was, in fact, one of grave suspicion ; but, as they were confessedly worked up merely from notes, it was hardly capable of proof. In the volume which contained them Collier also gave a 'List of every Manuscript Note and Emendation in the Perkins Folio.' The extent to which this list belied its reiterated claim to completeness was one of the most curious discoveries which were soon to be made. In spite of all criticism, Collier's own faith in his folio remained unshaken. In a new edition of his annotated Shakespeare, 6 vols. 1858, he adopted most of its manuscript readings, and avowed his conviction that the great majority ' were made not from better manuscripts, still less from unknown printed copies but from the recitations of actors.' While this work was in the press he lost his wife, who : died, aged 70, on 10 Dec. 1857. His patron, the Duke of Devonshire, died soon after, 17 Jan. 1858.
Down to 1859 the corrected folio had never been submitted to the judgment of experts. It had been exhibited on a few occasions, but Collier had apparently never let it go out of his own custody. In June 1853 he presented it to the Duke of Devonshire ; and on the duke's death it came to his successor, who in May 1859, at the request of Sir F. Madden, keeper of manuscripts, deposited it at the British Museum for examination. The result was published by Mr. N. E. Hamilton, of the manuscript department, in the ' Times ' of 2 and 16 July. Not only were the manuscript notes of themselves pronounced to be recent fabrications, merely simulating a seventeenth-century hand, but they were frequently found to correspond with other marginal notes in pencil undeniably modern. The latter had been rubbed out, but were (and are) still faintly legible, and the test of the microscope applied by Professor Maskelyne (Times, 16 July) proved that in some cases they underlie the ink-writing of the so-called 'Old Corrector.' Collier (7 July) denied that he had written either ink-notes or pencillings, and refused to discuss the matter further. He also repeated his former statement of the recognition of the folio, notes and all, by Mr. Parry in 1853. When, however, it was now shown to Mr. Parry, he repudiated it at once, as differing from his own lost volume in every respect ; he had hastily assumed the identity in 1853 without seeing the book, from a facsimile of part of a page. Upon this point Collier flatly contradicted him, and their statements (20 July, 1 Aug.) remained hopelessly at variance. Early in 1860 Hamilton's ' Inquiry,' &c., impeached the Perkins folio in more detail, and brought within the charge of spuriousness not only the manuscript notes in the Ellesmere folio, 1623, but a number of Shakespearean documents published by Collier at various times since 1831. As regards the Bridgewater House papers this was no more than a confirmation of the opinion of Mr. Halliwell, published as far back as 1853 ; but further forgeries were now brought to light at Dulwich College, and one even in the State Paper Office. A lengthy 'Reply' from Collier speedily followed. It was weak, disingenuous, and ineffective, and by its gross insinuations it further embittered an acrimonious contest. He produced, indeed, in a letter from Dr. H. Wellesley, evidence of some weight to confirm his account of the purchase of the folio. The terms of the letter, however, were ambiguous, and the writer's refusal to be more explicit left it still doubtful whether after all he referred to the same volume. Meanwhile Collier did not lack zealous support in the press. All that could be said for the ' Old Corrector ' was urged by H. Merivale in the ' Edinburgh Review ' (April 1860), but his remarks on Collier himself were by no means flattering. The adverse view was ably and temperately argued by T. J. Arnold in a series of articles in ' Fraser's Magazine ' (January, February, May, 1860). The verdict of all competent paleographers, with Sir F. Madden and T. D. Hardy at their head, went the same way, nor could any trained eye judge otherwise. Whether Collier had been himself the victim of fraud or its actual contriver was left undecided. Besides the corrections in the two folios, he had printed, so far as was known down to the end of 1860, a dozen separate documents adjudged to be spurious, all of which he distinctly claimed to have discovered himself at various times and in four different localities. It was shown beyond the possibility of doubt that in editing a genuine letter at Dulwich he had not scrupled to falsify it in order to introduce Shakespeare's name. But the full extent of the fabrications to which he gave currency has never been ascertained. At Dulwich alone sixteen more forgeries were detected in 1881. All of them had been printed by Collier, except the interlineations in Alleyn's 'Diary,' and convincing proof that he forged the latter was before long supplied. After his ' Reply ' he remained obstinately mute on the subject, even when, in 1861, directly challenged in a volume from Dr. C. M. Ingleby.
In 1862 he published 'The Works of Edmund Spenser,' 5 vols., an excellent edition, with the completest life of the poet that had as yet appeared. During the same year he projected a series of reprints in very limited impressions; and in this way, between 1863 and 1871, he issued a large number of rare pieces in prose and verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His 'Bibliographical and Critical Account,' &c., 2 vols. 1865, already mentioned, gave in a different form the fruit of his lifelong researches in the same field, and is in many respects the most practically useful of all his works. With the exception of a new edition of his 'History of English Dramatic Poetry,' &c., 1875, from which none of the spurious matter was withdrawn, his subsequent productions were all privately printed. Foremost in interest was the autobiographical fragment, 'An Old Man's Diary Forty Years ago' (1832-3), 4 parts, 1871-2, containing a mass of curious literary gossip extending back into the preceding century. In a 'Trilogy,' 1874, he returned once more to the Perkins folio, for the purpose of showing how many of its manuscript readings had been adopted by Dyce and other editors. After an attempt to prove (Athenæum, 28 March 1874) that Shakespeare was the author of ' Edward III,' he reprinted the play itself; and finally, 1875-8, he issued (fifty-eight copies only) yet another edition of Shakespeare, 8 vols., 'with the purest text and the briefest notes.' It included not only 'Edward III,' but 'The Two Noble Kinsmen,' ' A Yorkshire Tragedy,' and ' Mucedorus,' and the preface was dated on his eighty-ninth birthday. He died at Maidenhead on 17 Sept. 1883. His library was sold on 7-9 Aug. 1884 ; many of the lots were enriched with his own notes, and some fetched extraordinary prices. A transcript in his own hand from Alleyn's ' Diary ' (lot 200, now at Dulwich) yielded the proof hitherto lacking that he was personally guilty of actual forgery. Interlineations agreeing with the spurious entries in the original diary appear in the transcript, but they were evidently not written concurrently with the transcript itself. More remarkable still was a so-called seventeenth-century manuscript of ballads (lot 214, now Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 32380). Extracts from this volume, highly interesting in relation to Shakespeare and Marlowe, were published by Collier in 1836 and 1839, but he had never produced it. As had been suspected, it proved to be an artful fraud; real old ballads, already well known, are mixed up with three which have every appearance of being spurious, and the whole collection is written in a manifestly imitative hand (E. M. Thompson in Academy, xxvii. 170, 1885).
To one fatal propensity Collier sacrificed an honourable fame won by genuine services to English literature. Apart from his labours on Shakespeare and the history of the drama, few have done more to rescue the works of less famous writers from undeserved oblivion. His critical judgment, however, was not always equal to his industry, and he was never a particularly accurate editor. Worse than this, the taint of suspicion necessarily rests upon all his work. None of his statements or quotations can be trusted without verifying, and no volume or document that has passed through his hands (e.g. B. M. Egerton MS. 2623) can be too carefully scrutinised. His maltreatment of the collections to which he was given access was an abuse of confidence which nothing can palliate; but in literary matters he was apparently devoid of conscience, and probably he regarded as applicable to all his works the motto from Milton prefixed to the earliest of them, 'I have done in this nothing unworthy of an honest life and studies well employed.' In other respects his character was irreproachable, and he had the reputation of a genial, kind-hearted, and amiable man.
[Private information; Wheatley's Notes on the Life of John Payne Collier, with a complete list of his works, 1884; Henry Crabb Robinson's Diary, 1869; Ingleby's Complete View of the Shakspere Controversy (with a bibliography), 1861 (also see Academy, ix. 313, 1876); Warner's Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Muniments of Dulwich College, 1881.]