Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Collins, John Churton
COLLINS, JOHN CHURTON (1848–1908), author and professor of English literature, born at Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, on 26 March 1848, was eldest of three children, all sons, of Henry Ramsay Collins, a medical practitioner, by his wife Maria Churton (d. 1898) of Chester. The father died of consumption on 6 June 1858 at Melbourne while on a voyage for his health. John was looked after by his mother's brother, John Churton (d. 1884) of Chester. After some preliminary schooling at King's School, Chester, he entered in 1863 King Edward's School, Birmingham, where at the first speechday (July 1866) he distinguished himself by his declamation of English poetry. On 20 April 1868 he matriculated as a commoner from Balliol College, Oxford. Although he was already well read in the classics and in English literature, he made no mark in pure scholarship. After obtaining a third class in classical moderations he graduated with a second class in the school of law and modern history. His undergraduate companions included Mr. H. H. Asquith, Dr. T. H. Warren, and Canon Rawnsley, and they delighted in his spirited talk and in his capacious memory, which enabled him to recite with a rare facility and enthusiasm long extracts from great prose as well as from great poetry in Latin, Greek, and English. This faculty he retained through life. From his undergraduate days he cherished an abiding affection for his university. Through life he spent most of his vacations in literary work at Oxford.
His comparative failure in the Oxford schools and an unwillingness to entertain the clerical profession disappointed his uncle, and Collins had thenceforth to depend solely on his own efforts for a livelihood. A period of struggle followed. For three years he divided his time between coaching in classics at Oxford and writing for the press in London. From 1872 he contributed miscellaneous articles, many on Old London, to the ‘Globe’ newspaper. In the autumn of 1873, when his resources were low, he accepted the offer of W. Baptiste Scoones, the proprietor of a London coaching establishment, to prepare candidates for the public service in classics and English literature, and this occupation was long the mainstay of his income. But he was always ambitious of literary fame, and in the same year (1873) he designed an edition of the plays of Cyril Tourneur, the Elizabethan dramatist.
Swinburne had recently published a high commendation of Tourneur's work, and Collins, an ardent admirer of Swinburne's genius, wrote to him of his scheme. The result was a close intimacy with the poet, which lasted thirteen years. Swinburne was fascinated by his new acquaintance's literary zeal, frequently entertained him, read to him unpublished poems, and showed confidence in his literary judgment. Subsequently Collins sought with a youthful naiveté introductions to other prominent men of letters. He met and corresponded with Mark Pattison. He had long interviews with Carlyle, Robert Browning (1886), and Froude, confiding to his full diaries records of these experiences.
Although Collins's edition of Tourneur's writings did not appear till 1878, he made in the interval progress as an author. His earliest volume, ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds as a Portrait Painter’ (1874), was mere letterpress for illustrations. An edition of the ‘Poems of Lord Herbert of Cherbury’ (1881) was eagerly welcomed by Swinburne. At the same time his literary connections extended. He edited Milton's ‘Samson Agonistes’ for the Clarendon Press (1883), the first volume in a long series of school editions of English classical poetry. (Sir) Leslie Stephen, then editor of the ‘Cornhill,’ accepted an article on Aulus Gellius (March 1878). In three subsequent articles in the ‘Cornhill’ called ‘A New Study of Tennyson’ (Jan., July 1880 and July 1881) Collins directed attention to parallels between Tennyson's poetry and that of earlier poets with an emphasis which, while displeasing the poet, provoked curiosity. In Oct. 1878, to Collins's intense satisfaction, an essay by him on Dryden appeared in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ Regular relations with the ‘Quarterly’ were thus established and increased his repute. Three articles there on Lord Bolingbroke (Jan. 1880 and Jan. and April 1881), together with another essay on ‘Voltaire in England’ (from the ‘Cornhill,’ Oct. and Dec. 1882), were collected into a volume in 1886; while in 1893 two articles on Swift were similarly reissued from the ‘Quarterly’ of April 1882 and July 1883. Collins's contributions to the ‘Quarterly’ reached a total of sixteen, and all showed a faculty for research and were marked by a trenchancy of style which recalled Macaulay.
In 1880 Collins inaugurated an additional occupation in which he won great success. He then lectured for the first time for the London University Extension Society, delivering a course on English literature in the Lent term at Brixton. He pursued this work, with missionary fervour, for twenty-seven years, lecturing for the Oxford Extension Society as well as for the London society in all parts of England. His extension lectures owed much of their effect to his powers of memory, and they stirred in his hearers something of his own literary enthusiasm. He also lectured with like result at many ladies' schools in or near London; gave an extension course to the English community at Hamburg; early in 1894 lectured in Philadelphia for the American University Extension Society, also addressing audiences in New York and many towns in New England; and thrice—in 1897, 1901 and 1905—delivered short literary courses at the Royal Institution in London.
From an early stage of his career as a lecturer he sought to bring home to his university the need of repairing the neglect which English literature suffered in the academic curriculum. He argued that the conjoint study of classical and English literature was essential to an efficient education. Ambitious to give effect to his principles from a chair of English literature at Oxford, he was disappointed by the failure of his candidature for the newly established Merton professorship of English in 1885, when Professor A. S. Napier, an eminent philologist, was elected. Thereby literature in Collins's view was left unprovided for. In an article in the ‘Quarterly’ (October 1886) on ‘English Literature at the Universities’ Collins showed a certain sense of neglect while denouncing with pugnacity some English teaching lately given at Cambridge. The article roused a personal controversy which incidentally suspended his intimacy with Swinburne. He had already in an anonymous ‘Quarterly’ article on ‘The Predecessors of Shakespeare’ (Oct. 1885) attacked Swinburne's prose essays, and when defending himself from a charge of exceeding the limits of fair criticism in his new article he incautiously cited his friend Swinburne as tacitly approving his critical frankness. But Collins's censure had hitherto escaped Swinburne's notice, and the critic's confession drew on his head the poet's wrath (Athenæum, Oct.–Nov. 1886). The breach with Swinburne was partially healed later. Swinburne agreed to meet Collins on 18 Feb. 1900, and although the poet then greeted his critic ‘with a stiff courtesy,’ something of the old cordiality was subsequently renewed.
Collins pursued undaunted his crusade for the recognition of English literature at Oxford. He collected the views of leading public men, and published them in the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’ (Dec. 1886). He re-stated his case in a ‘Quarterly’ article, ‘A School of English Literature’ (January 1887), in an essay in the ‘Nineteenth Century’ (Nov. 1887) on ‘Can English Literature be taught?’ and in a volume ‘The Study of English Literature’ (1891). While his strenuous temper excited much hostility, Collins won his point. In 1893 a final honours school in English was established at Oxford largely owing to his agitation. In 1901 the philanthropist, John Passmore Edwards [q. v. Suppl. II], gave, at Collins's personal persuasion, the sum of 1675l. to found at Oxford a scholarship for the encouragement of the study of English literature in connection with the classical literatures of Greece and Rome. The scholarship was first awarded at Michaelmas 1902. A chair in English literature was established in 1903. Collins's victory brought him no personal reward. He applied for the new chair at Oxford without result.
Collins was always extending his journalistic and teaching work at the risk of his health. From 24 Nov. 1894 to 17 Feb. 1906 he was a constant writer in the ‘Saturday Review,’ and was allowed a free hand in censure of what he deemed incompetence. The titles of his first and last articles—‘A Specimen of Oxford Editing’ and ‘Twaddle from a Great Scholar’—suggest his attitude to established reputations. In the spring of 1898, when threatened with a nervous breakdown, he made his only foreign tour, visiting Rome by way of Paris. In 1901, during which year he suffered an exceptionally severe attack of melancholia, he illustrated his critical severity in ‘Ephemera Critica; or Plain Truths about Current Literature’ (1901), while in an edition of the early poems of Tennyson (1899, 1900 and 1901), he continued the minute examination of what he deemed to be the sources of Tennyson's inspiration which he had inaugurated in the ‘Cornhill’ in 1880.
At length in 1904 Collins received some practical recognition of his energies. He was then appointed to the chair of English literature at the new University of Birmingham. Though he did not abandon all his lecturing engagements in London, he devoted himself with customary ardour to the duties of his new post, which he retained till his death. In 1905 he received the hon. degree of Litt.D. at Durham. In June 1907 he planned a school of journalism at Birmingham University, drawing up a scheme which was approved by the governing body but was abandoned on his death.
Collins's interests were not wholly confined to literature. His intellectual curiosity was always active and versatile. Spiritualism long attracted him, and he was a close student of criminology. In later life he investigated for himself many crimes which were reported in the press, visiting the scenes, interviewing witnesses, and describing his views and experiences in magazines or newspapers (cf. National Review, Dec. 1905, Jan. 1906). In 1906 he joined Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in establishing the innocence of a young solicitor, Mr. George Edalji, who had been wrongfully convicted of cattle maiming outrages at Wyrley, in Staffordshire, and had suffered a long imprisonment.
Collins died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. He left Birmingham in July 1908, and subsequently made his habitual autumn sojourn in Oxford. Suffering from severe depression, he arrived on 21 August at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, on a visit to an intimate friend, Dr. Daniel, who was his medical adviser. On 12 September he met his death by drowning in a shallow dyke on a farm at Carlton Colville, in the neighbourhood. At the inquest the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. The evidence showed that Collins had been taking drugs to procure sleep, and while resting on a bank had fallen into the dyke in a somnolent condition. He was buried in Oulton churchyard. He married on 11 April 1878 Pauline Mary, daughter of Thomas Henry Strangways, by whom he had issue seven children, three sons and four daughters. A civil list pension of 100l. was awarded to Mrs. Churton Collins in 1909.
By way of a memorial, Collins's friends and pupils founded Churton Collins prizes for the encouragement of English and classical study among university extension students of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. A Churton Collins memorial prize for the same subjects was also founded in the University of Birmingham. A portrait in oils by Mr. Thomas W. Holgate was placed in the Bodleian Library, and a water-colour portrait head by Mr. George Phoenix in the upper library of Balliol College, Oxford, together with a brass memorial tablet with Latin inscription by Dr. T. H. Warren. A brass memorial tablet was set up in Oulton church.
Collins's genuine love and wide knowledge of literature showed to best advantage in his lectures and in private talk, where his vivacious powers of memory never flagged. His incisive style and wide reading gave real merit to some of his ‘Quarterly’ articles; but his learning was broad rather than deep, and he suffered his combative temper and personal resentments often to cloud his critical judgment. For most of his life he overworked in order to make an adequate income, and his long exclusion from professional posts at times embittered a kindly and generous nature. Yet his vehement denunciation by speech and pen of what he had convinced himself to be injustice or imposture was invariably sincere. Excessive toil strained his nerves and fostered some morbid mental traits.
An enthusiastic student of Shakespeare, he did service by fighting in lectures and essays some popular misconceptions, but he tended to exaggerate Shakespeare's debt to classical and more especially Greek writers. Although he dwelt with effect on the debt of English poetry to the classics, he was inclined to overstate his case.
He was not successful as a textual critic. An edition of the ‘Plays and Poems of Robert Greene’ (Clarendon Press, 1905), on which he was long engaged, brought together in the introduction and notes a mass of interesting information, but the text was severely censured for inaccuracy (cf. W. W. Greg in Modern Lang. Rev. 1906). Besides those cited, his works included: 1. ‘Studies in Shakespeare,’ 1904. 2. ‘Studies in Poetry and Criticism,’ 1905. 3. ‘Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau in England,’ 1905 (partly based on ‘Quarterly’ articles, Oct. 1898 and April 1903); translated into French by Pierre Deseille, 1911. 4. ‘Greek Influence on English Poetry,’ ed. by Prof. Macmillan, posthumous, 1910. 5. ‘Posthumous Essays,’ ed. by his son, L. Churton Collins, including essays on Shakespeare, Johnson, Burke, Matthew Arnold, and Browning, 1912. He also edited for educational purposes numerous English classics as well as a series of English translations of Greek drama (Clarendon Press, 1906–7).
[Life and Memoirs of John Churton Collins by his son, L. C. Collins, 1911; Letters from Algernon Charles Swinburne to John Churton Collins, 1873–1886, privately printed, 1910; The Times, 16–18 Sept. 1908; William Watson's Poems, 1906, ii., a sonnet commending Collins's stimulating conversational powers; personal knowledge.]