Non-Fictional Prose

by Joseph Edmund Collins




Joseph Edmund Collins (1855-92) belongs beside the six poets of the Confederation group because, as recent research has shown, he played a very significant role both in the formation of the group and in its disintegration.  Born in Placentia, Newfoundland, he migrated to New Brunswick in 1875 and began to exercise a strong influence on Charles G.D. Roberts in 1880, when the two men were working in Chatham, Collins as the editor of a local newspaper (The Star) and Roberts as a teacher at the local Grammar School.  After Collins moved to Toronto late in 1880 to take up an editorial position on The Globe, he became friends with Archibald Lampman, who was then a student at Trinity College.  In addition to providing nationalistic encouragement to both poets, Collins helped to imbue them with the conviction that, to be worthy of the new Dominion of Canada, their work should be equal in merit to the very best poetry that was being written in Britain and elsewhere.  As several of his reviews and essays of the early 'eighties testify, he also worked both openly and covertly to promote Lampman and, especially, Roberts as poets whose work transcended the provincialism that he deplored.  For their parts, Lampman and Roberts wrote laudatory reviews of Collins's Life and Times of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald (1883), the last chapter of which is his major contribution to Canadian criticism as well as to the enhancement of Roberts's poetic reputation.  

 When Collins moved to New York in 1886 to take up the editorship of a new periodical, The Epoch, he continued to promote Roberts's poetry, maintained an avuncular correspondence with Lampman, and became fast friends with Bliss Carman after he too moved to the city in 1890.  By that time, Collins's life had begun rapidly to disintegrate, however: he had left The Epoch and become a free-lance writer; his marriage had collapsed and he was living in rented rooms; and he was drinking heavily.  For a time in 1890-91, he lived with Carman and in the summer of 1890 he joined Roberts in Windsor, Nova Scotia, but he was accumulating debts all the while and his health was fast deteriorating.  On February 23, 1892, he died in a New York hospital, but not before writing a letter to the Saint John Progress in which he accused the poets whom he had nurtured of working covertly to enhance one another's reputations, a charge that he could level with some confidence. "There are only a few people who know what Joseph Edmund Collins has done for our literature. . ., and perhaps all that he has done will never be known," wrote Lampman in his "At the Mermaid Inn" column on March 19, 1892; "[he] was almost the literary father of some of the young men who are now winning fame among us."

The story of Collins's role in the formation and disintegration of the Confederation group is told more fully in the first and final chapters of The Confederation Group of Canadian Poets, 1880-1897.   John Coldwell Adams's "Roberts, Lampman, and Joseph Edmund Collins" in The Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium, edited by Glenn Clever (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1984), pp. 6-13 remains a valuable examination of the relationship between the three men, and M. Brook Taylor's biography of Collins in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography 12: 204-05 contains a useful bibliography of works by and about him.

- D.M.R.B.