William Collins 1721-1759
William Collins was born on Christmas Day, 1721. His father, though of no great wealth, had certain connections that offered William a gentleman’s education that would lead to service in the Church. He attended Winchester College where dress and classic instruction were strictly followed and services were given in ancient Latin verse. At the age of twelve he wrote a parody on Swift’s Battle of the Books titled Battle of the Schoolbooks. Later in 1739 he wrote Sentiments Borrowed from Shakespeare:
While at Winchester Collins, then seventeen, he wrote this Sonnet:
Collins wrote To a Lady Weeping and Cymbeline using the pseudonym Delicatatus. Both of these early works were attempts to imitate rhyming couplets of Pope.
Joseph Warton (1722-1800 - classical scholar exponent of the role of imagination in verse) wrote: “At that time the finest students of Winchester were allowed entrance into New College, Oxford There were three conditions: first, taking an examination, second, must be eighteen years old and last, there had to be a vacancy. In 1740 he entered the competition and scored first in the group. Unfortunately there was no vacancy.” He went on as a commoner to Queen’s College, and in 1741 to Magdalen College where he entered as a Demy (a form of scholarship a demi-soci or half-fellow or half paid fellowship where for every forty wealthy highly capable fellows there should be thirty poor but highly capable ones i.e. Oscar Wilde, Lewis Gielgud, and T.E. Lawrence were demies). He received a BA from Oxford in 1743. A year later complaining of the dullness of college life and rejecting a life spent serving the Church he relinquished his demy and left abruptly. The Manners was written as a farewell and to announce his desire to live in the real world without the “haunts of learning”.
The “To rove the Scene-full World” then is Collins “desire to partake of the dissipation and gaiety of London”... “gaily dressed and with a feather in his hat.” From then on he is described as “that wandering Knight Collins.” His role in poetry would be to deliver the highly imaginative...to “deliver doctrines not display events.” He would do this with his descriptive and allegorical rhymed and unrhymed Odes published in 1746. Another work were the Oriental Eclogues “Mr Collins wrote his Eclogues when he was about seventeen years old, at Winchester school…he had just been reading Salmon’s Modern History which described Persia, which determined him to lay the scene of these pieces, as being productive of new images and sentiments.” Collins humorously referred to them as the Irish Eclogues meaning that the Eclogues were as appropriate to Ireland as to Persia.
The Eclogues completed in 1742 were an attempt to imitate Pope’s Pastorals. The similarities are one, both have four episodes and two, each episode is set during a different time of day although Pope’s are set to the four seasons or the year. The differences occur in the setting, Pope’s takes place in his own England, Collins’s in the exotic East. Then there is the theme. Since Pope’s time the pastoral is understood as the innocence of nature and heaven in a disturbed world of corruption and falseness. Collins’s are secular although the setting of the first eclogue is a characteristic shepherd’s bucolic vale. But the second throws the reader into a threatening, violent desert with these words
Goldsmith wrote several reviews on Collins’s poetry. On The Oriental (Persian) Eclogues in the State of Polite Learning in Europe, 1759 he wrote “We are much mistaken, if in this little performance, we do not discover the elegance and the picturesque genius of the too much neglected author of Odes on Several Subjects…and later “The neglected author of the Persian Eclogues, Which however, inaccurate, excel any in our language , is still alive: happy if insensible of our neglect, not raging at our ingratitude.” In a preface to The Beauties of English Poetry, Goldsmith wrote in the Preface:
“The following eclogues, written by Mr. Collins, are very pretty; the images, it must be owned, are not very local, for the pastoral subject could not well admit of it. The description of Asiatic Magnificence and Manners is a subject as yet unattempted amongst us, and I believe, capable of furnishing a great variety of poetical imagery” Collins was shocked that the Eclogues were so well received. Where his Odes published when he was not yet twenty “fell like lead upon a leaden world”. Praised by poets they remained rejected by the public.
“…his odes are all exquisitely beautiful – except his Ode to Freedom¸ it is sublime. Let us call it, then, the only truly great ode in the English Language.”
The dozen or so Odes were written in both Pindaric i.e. strophe, epode, antistrophe and Horatian or monostanzaic forms. Pity, Fear, Simplicity, and Poetical Character concern traditional English topics. Evening, the Manners, To a Lady and the Passions cover social customs. Another group, Fear, Mercy, Liberty, Peace, and 1846 are written as an observer of events not as participant.
Lyric poetry usually follows three classes: sacred, patriotic, and reflective. In the sacred group the poet may choose to engage a single topic as an emotional expression; a contemplative expression or a reflective expression where emotion and contemplation are joined together. The first class generally refers to matters of sacred, religious thought. Most of John Wesley’s hymns are examples. Collins wrote one exemplary patriotic ode, How Sleep the Brave. In English class today it is mentioned along with Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and Byron’s The Destruction of the Sennacherib. The remainder of his better work was of a reflective or elegiac character where a single theme or subject was pursued frequently in hexameter and pentameter. His Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects are of the reflective class, particularly Ode to Duty. The Oriental Eclogues are Collins’s efforts on the pastoral needless to say they break with tradition and are entirely secular.
Collins never understood the discipline of managing debt and disbursements. He could not resist the company of Bohemians and used every opportunity to escape from the task of writing. When in receipt of an advance for the translation of Aristotle’s Poetics Collins took the money and left for France but at that same time Sir Thomas Hanmer bequeathed him two thousand pounds. With that Collins cancelled the translation agreement and purchased the remaining unsold copies of his Odes which he promptly burned. In great euphoria he announced his intention to write the History of the Revival of Learning and set about this task, a task never completed. A sudden calamity worse than poverty came upon him, a kind of madness, life-threatening, the nature of which was never understood but was quietly creeping over him at this time. He did complete An Epistle to Hanmer. With what funds he had left Collins fled to France believing that he his illness would be left behind like an unwanted possession. He returned with no change but even worse. He withdrew from his life in London, abandoned his friends and took up residence in Chichester with his sister. Collins joins with Cowper and Blake and sinks into madness although many claim it was a severe case of depression. On his death at thirty-seven years his close friend Samuel Johnson wrote:
“It seems rational to hope that intellectual greatness should produce better effects; that minds qualified for great attainments should first endeavor their own benefit; and that they who are most able to teach others the way to happiness should with most certainty follow it themselves. But this expectation, however plausible, has been very frequently disappointed.”
Here is Wordsworth’s tribute to Collins from Remembrance:
There is a monument to Collins in the Church of Saint Andrew in Chichester that bears this inscription written by fellow friend and poet William Hayley:
Our first characteristic is: imagination.
“To Collins true poetry was a product of “Young Fancy” or the imagination. And the true function of the poetic imagination lay in its power of evoking ‘visions wild’.” Chapin
“The odes of Collins represent the most thoroughgoing attempt in eighteenth-century poetry at the evocation of images without any foundation in reality… ‘invention and imagination’ are the chief faculties of a poet.” Chester Chapin
“So perfect is its music that the ear never misses the rhyme – the soul forgets that there is such an artifice as thyme; and the imagination is so gradually filled to overflowing, that if feels but not thinks of the beauty of the medium through which its visions arise-the lucid and transparent veil of inspired words.”
Disraeli commented in Calamaties of Authors that Collins ”sacrificed his reason and his happiness to his imagination”
“Collins lived like Shakespeare, in the poet’s true province, the region of imagination; and how a mind lives, and moves, and rises, and expands in an element composed, as it were, of all the elements of the world” Leigh Hunt
Our second characteristic: verbal music.
“The concluding part of The Passions expresses that kinship which Collins felt perhaps was even stronger beteen music and poetry than between painting and poetry. Ainsworth
“Fear chooses to play upon Music‘s lyre, a traditional emblem of harmony and concord. But Fear can only lay a bewilder’d hand amid the strings…Fear’s hesitant musicianship a metaphorical depiction of an emotional state that lies ‘amid’ the melodious chords of the lyre.” On Ode to Fear
“Simple-seeming sublety of tone”… the purity of “verbal music.”
Our third characteristic: description through allegory and personification
In Ode to Fear – Danger and Vengeance are monsters from another world as well as personifications of affective states common to human beings.”
“In Collins, the allegorical is the descriptive” A.S.P. Wodehouse
In Ode to Evening Collins portrays “Eve” as “composed, calm, reserved’…with “modest ear.” He provides her with a “car” for her travels and gives her “dewy fingers” to “draw the gradual dusky veil.”
While “friendship and science” “represent knowledge and learning.” Soule
“Collins displays a happy talent for pictorial description which raises his figure above the commonplace level of achievement. Most of the allegorical portraits in mid- and late eighteenth-century verse fail to stimulate the relatively sluggish allegorical imaginations of modern readers, largely because the great majority of poets who favor this mode of personification do not possess the “fine and sure literary tact” which Collins exercises…” Leavis
“Peace rules the day, where reason rules the mind.” Eclogue II Hassan
“Under the influence of his association with Joseph Warton, Collins consciously limited himself to subjects descriptive and allegorical, albeit highly imaginative. Ainsworth
Our fourth characteristic: imitation as a classical antiquarian.
“Our Youths enamour’d of the fair, Play with the tangles of her hair.” Borrowed from Milton’s Lycidas “to sport with Amaryllis in the shade, Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair.”
“While stain’d with blood he strives to tear Unseemly from his Sea-green Hair of Ode on the Death of Colonel Ross compared to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity “The parting Genius is with sighing sent, with flowre-inwoven tresses torn.”
“To make choice of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him till he grow to be…not as a creature that swallows what it takes in, crude, raw, or undigested, but that feeds with an appetite, and hath a stomach to concoct, divide, and turn all into nourishment. Discoveries B. Jonson
Collins had great reverence for those who preceded him “O thou who first from so great darkness wert able to raise aloft a light so clear, illumining the blessings of life, thee I Follow” Wendorf
“The verse epistle to Sir Thomas Hammer written in heroic couplet with reminiscences of Pope’s Essay on Criticism as in:
“At first readiing we are struck by his outspoken admiration for the Greek lyric. The Augustans were Latin in their sympathies, their models were Juvenal and Martial, Virgil and Horace, poets from whom Collins turns to revive the just designs of Greece.”
We close with these words from The Manners: