William Collins 1721–1759
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Collins's relationship to Preromanticism. For further information on Collins, see LC, Vol. 4.
Collins is considered one of the most important transitional Preromantic figures in English poetry. While employing in his works elements of the neoclassical style used by his peers, he foreshadowed many of the themes and techniques characteristic of the Romantic period. Included among the best of the lyric poets of the eighteenth century, Collins is acclaimed for his experimentation with the ode, his descriptions of human emotions, and the vivid personifications found in his imagery.
Little is known about any phase of Collins's life. His father was a haberdasher and the mayor of Chichestor. When Collins was eleven years old he was admitted into Winchester College, where he published his first poems in periodicals. Studying under the aid of a demyship (scholarship), he spent two years at Magdalen College, Oxford, and earned a Bachelor's degree in art. In 1742 he published Persian Eclogues, which attracted much public attention; after anonymously publishing Verses Humbly Address'd to Sir Thomas Hanmer in the following year, he abandoned his demyship and devoted his full energy to writing. He moved to London, where he spent lavishly and ran up large debts. After moving to the Richmond area to escape his creditors he met and became a close friend of the poet James Thomson. Under Thomson's influence Collins began to rework his poems, concentrating on the ode form. In 1746 he published Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects, a collection which is now considered his finest work, although at the time it received almost no notice. In 1749 he began his last poem, "An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands," but in 1750 he suffered his first mental breakdown, the start of a ten-year decline during which he was not able to complete any work. In 1759 he died with "An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands" still unfinished.
Collins published a relatively small amount of work during his lifetime. A few newly discovered pieces which are credited as early work by Collins have been published in Drafts and Fragments. His first published volume, Persian Eclogues, owed its popularity at the time to its exotic setting and descriptions. Collins later revised these poems, republishing them under the title Oriental Eclogues in 1757. The work for which he is best known, Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects, contains two of his most famous poems, "Ode to Evening" and "Ode to Fear." These poems contain many of the elements which characterize his work: strong emotional descriptions, the newly worked ode form, and a personal relationship to the subject. Collins's last poem, "Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotlands," although unfinished, is considered one of his greatest works, hinting at his literary potential. His approach to the natural world, his treatment of the artistic self, and his inventive language foreshadow the nineteenth-century introspective poetry which would follow him.
The central issue of contention among critics of Collins's work is whether to classify him as an eighteenth-century neoclassical poet or as a prophet for the nineteenth-century Romantic movement. Some scholars believe that he is both, embodying enough of the rationality and restraint of the earlier age to be identified with his contemporaries, while foreshadowing the Romantic period with his experiments in the ode form and the new personal element in his descriptions. Critics do agree that Collins wrote most of his important poetry between 1744 and 1746 and that Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects marks a certain maturity in his writing style. Such odes as "Pity," "Fear," "Liberty," and "Evening" reveal his intense concern with personal experience. Critics perceive this quality as a foremost attribute of Collins's verse and one which influenced not only such contemporaries as Thomas Gray, but also such nineteenth-century writers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Blake. Much has also been written about Collins's mental illness, particularly in speculation about how this influenced his skill at describing emotions. Because of the small volume of his work which has survived, Collins is perceived by many scholars as an unfortunate genius whose vast potential can only be guessed. Algernon Charles Swinburne summarized the Odes as "above all things, a purity of music, a clarity of style, to which I know of no parallel in English verse from the death of Andrew Marvell to the birth of William Blake."
"Sonnet" [as Delicatulus] (poetry) 1739; published in journal Gentleman's Magazine
*Persian Eclogues (poetry) 1742; revised edition, 1757
**Verses Humbly Address'd to Sir Thomas Hanmer on His Edition of Shakespear's Works (poetry) 1743
Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects (poetry) 1746
An Ode Occasion'd by the Death of Mr. Thomson (poetry) 1749
The Passions, an Ode (poetry) 1750
The Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins: With Memoirs of the Author; and Observations on His Genius and Writings (poetry) 1765
***An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, etc. (poetry) 1898
The Works of William Collins (poetry and letters) 1979
*This work was also published as Oriental Eclogues.
**This work was also published as An Epistle: Addrest to Sir Thomas Hanmer, on His Edition of Shakespear's Works in 1744.
***This work was written in 1749. A posthumous edition of the poem appeared in 1788 with revisions now generally considered spurious.
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of William Collins, Ginn & Company, 1898, pp. xi-lxiv.
[In the following essay, Bronson argues that Collins foreshadowed the Romantic movement and shares more with such later poets as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley than with his contemporaries Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson.]
… Collins's fame was slow in coming, partly because he outran the literary taste of his age. He was a pioneer in Romanticism, and the public and the critics were not yet ready for Romanticism. Collins was a romanticist by nature, in temperament and type of mind ranging rather with Shelley and Keats than with Addison, Pope, or Johnson. But he was not wholly a romanticist; elements of a true Classicism were deep within him. And he fell upon times in which a pseudo-classical ideal predominated. The history of his poetic development is the resultant of the three forces indicated, of which the last rapidly declined, and the second remained about stationary, while the first steadily increased.
If Collins had not written a line, we should still have known that he sympathized deeply with the new movement which was beginning to transform literature in England. One evidence of this is the attitude of his friend Joseph Warton, who in the preface to his own odes affirmed the conviction that "the fashion of moralizing in verse has been carried too far," and that "invention and...
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SOURCE: "The Romanticism of William Collins," in Studies in Philology, Vol. XX, No. 1, January, 1923, pp. 1-16.
[In the essay below, McKillop discusses the importance of Collins's work to the Romantic movement.]
By common consent William Collins is reckoned among those writers who prepared the way for the full romantic revival, and yet it requires some care to reach a precise estimate of his work and to calculate its trend. In the middle decades of the eighteenth century a thousand roads led men from the neo-classical temple of taste and wit, and we find Collins, like many others, making his way along these various paths. When he inscribes to John Home An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, we know where to have him; it is clear whence the poem derives and whither it tends. Professor Beers has pointed out in the work of Collins's friend James Thomson the very passages that gave the starting point for the ode,1 and, as an investigator of the origins of romanticism, finds it the most interesting of Collins's poems;2 James Russell Lowell long ago remarked that it contained the whole romantic school in the germ.3 And yet, splendid as this poem is, it lacks the prestige it would have won had it been published when it was written, more than ten years before James Macpherson came forth with Ossian. By 1789 Collins's Celtic notes could not get...
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SOURCE: "Collins's Influence at the Turn of the Century," in Poor Collins: His Life, His Art, and His Influence, Cornell, 1937, pp. 256-68.
[In the following essay, Ainsworth considers Collins's influence on William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.]
In the last years of the century … Collins made his first appeal to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, young and significant poets of the new romantic generation. In the works of all three poets there is definite evidence of his influence, a force which they were never to outgrow. At various times in his career Wordsworth spoke favorably of Collins. He showed considerable interest in Dyce's edition of the poet, and Dyce apparently consulted him on several points. He was particularly concerned with the Highland Ode and definitely repudiated the version in Bell's copy (the 1788 anonymous edition). He writes January 12, 1827:
You are at perfect liberty to declare that you have rejected Bell's copy in consequence of my opinion of it; and I feel much satisfaction in being the instrument of rescuing the memory of Collins from this disgrace.1
He speaks again of the ode in a letter to Dyce, October 29, 1828,2 remarking that "it was circulated through the English newspapers, in which I remember to have read it with great pleasure upon its first...
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SOURCE: "Collins's Ode to Evening—Background and Structure," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. V, 1960, pp. 73-84.
[In the following essay, McKillop discusses the significance of the works of earlier poets and of Collins's own earlier work to his "Ode to Evening."]
One of the earliest critical references to Collins's Ode to Evening is to be found in some "Observations on Poetry and Painting" in the Universal Magazine for January 1758:
Few studious minds are unaffected with reading the representations of nature in a rural evening scene; especially if the artist has blended with the truth of imitation that undefineable delicacy of taste, to which even truth herself is often indebted for a more agreeable admittance into the heart. That succinct picture of the setting sun, in the 8th book of the Iliad.
Now deep in ocean sunk the lamp of light,
Drawing behind the cloudy veil of night;
has very strong outlines, and commands the warmest approbation of our judgment; but, being unadorned by other circumstances, and wanting objects to enliven the landscape, the applause ends with the judgment, and never sinks deep into the heart. Whereas the following scene, in Mr. Collins's Ode to the Evening, being animated by proper allegorical...
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SOURCE: "Collins's Ode on the Poetical Character," in The Visonary Company: A Reading of English Poetry, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961, pp. 3-10.
[Below, Bloom analyzes Collins's "Ode on the Poetical Character" and places Collins's technique within the context of the works of Keats, William Blake, Wordsworth, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton.]
… if we say that the idea of God is merely a poetic idea, and that our notions of heaven and hell are merely poetry not so called, even if poetry that involves us vitally, the feeling of deliverance, of a release, of a perfection touched, of a vocation so that all men may know the truth and that the truth may set them free—if we say these things and if we are able to see the poet who achieved God and placed Him in His seat in heaven in all His glory, the poet himself, still in the ecstasy of the poem that completely accomplished his purpose, would have seemed, whether young or old, whether in rags or ceremonial robe, a man who needed what he had created, uttering the hymns of joy that followed his creation.
The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet3
To make a myth is to tell a story of your own invention, to speak a word that is your word alone, and yet the story is so told, the word so spoken, that they mean also the supernal things and...
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SOURCE: "The Eighteenth-Century Collins," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1, March, 1983, pp. 3-22.
[In the essay below, Spacks contends that critics are mistaken in classifying Collins as a Romantic poet; rather, she argues, he should be considered a secondrank eighteenth-century poet.]
William Collins sounds different now from the Collins we used to know. For example, Paul S. Sherwin claims, "Collins feels, all right; but what he feels most urgently is his estrangement from the passionate integrity of unself-conscious or 'unmixed' feeling. Impatient and aching, he is a fever of himself, his intensity springing directly from baffled desire."1 This feverish figure, "one of the doomed poets of an Age of Sensibility," to use Harold Bloom's words,2 reveals, like Smart and "the great Romantics," a "struggle with his vocation," the fate of the post-Miltonic writer.3 He explores problems of sexuality as well as of literary creativity;4 he resembles Satan more than Milton (Sherwin, p. 32); his imagery partakes of the demonic.5 Tormented, colorful writer of tormented, colorful verse, he does not much resemble an "eighteenth-century" poet.
Critical allegations of this sort imply a version of literary history (often a Freudified and personalized version) which blurs the century between Milton and Pope, a period that has long caused...
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SOURCE: "Immediacy in the Odes of William Collins," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 275-95.
[In the essay below, Finch argues that the sense of emptiness in Collins's odes stems from the poet's concept of immediacy and the inadequacy of language.]
For poems that are often considered obscure, the 1746 Odes of William Collins have sparked surprisingly little debate in the criticism that has grown around them in the last two hundred years. Outside of a handful of minor controversies,1 the critical literature overall is sadly homogeneous. Again and again, antecedents and models for the Odes are located in Milton, in Spenser, in Aristotle;2 Collins is seen as a self-conscious "genius," a lonely singer of songs who, as such, prefigures the romantic poets;3 and poems themselves are described as visionary, pictorial, and sublime essays of the poetical imagination which combine within the odic form the tradition of the progress poem and the device of personification.4 In the midst of this fairly monotonous chorus of praise, a few critics have raised a single note of objection that should momentarily have caused a universal, reflective silence. Musgrove, for one, suggested that the very subjects of the Odes present a formidable and unsettling problem: "They do not seem to be about very much—or, at least, not...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Moralized Song: The Character of Augustan Lyricism, Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 1-51.
[In the following essay, Feingold examines some characteristics of Augustan poetry and compares the work of several poets, including Collins.]
My subject here is the representation of inwardness in certain writings, usually poems, which, though they differ considerably from one another, still stand forth as easily recognizable documents of Augustan literary culture. My interest is in the writer's double effort to represent the experience of inwardness and at the same time speak to an audience imagined as present to him. This dual project is characteristic of Augustan literature and particularly of Augustan poetry: what it marks is the writer's insistent interest in the intersection of social and inward experience, an interest he reveals in his articulated and enacted wish to be seen as speaking with public authority even at the represented moment of self-absorption. To the effects produced by the rhetoric sufficient to that task I give the name Augustan lyricism.
The inwardness that the writer reveals may be his own, it may be another's—and that other may be either concretely imagined or universalized. As for the audience, it may be imagined as immediately, or as more distantly, present; it may be a figure in the text itself, explicitly addressed, or it may be...
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SOURCE: "Collins's Evening Time," in Preromanticism, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 49-57.
[In the excerpt below, Brown compares Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" with Collins's "Ode to Evening."]
… As Gray's "Elegy" evokes the form of space, so Collins's "Ode to Evening" evokes that of time. And in the "Ode" as in the "Elegy" the evocation is not given from the start, but rather engendered through the poem's work. The "Elegy" begins with deficient modes of space—particular spaces, statuses, and stations—that that it succeeds in purging. Likewise, the "Ode" begins with deficient modes of time. Impure and unstable movement obscures the purified inner sense that the poem allows us finally to glimpse. No more than in the "Elegy" can the pure form of sensible intuition be attributed to an empirical consciousness, for it is precisely the discovery of what lies beyond empirical consciousness that is at issue. The "Elegy" progresses by means of a diffusion of consciousness, so that the concluding stanzas can speak for space in general in a voice that is beyond localization. That broadening may be inappropriate to the purification of the inner sense; in any case, it is not the method followed by the "Ode." Collins's speaker remains present, and baffled, throughout. The new sensibility emerges not at the end but, more mysteriously, from within the text of the poem. That makes the...
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Ainsworth, Edward Gay. Poor Collins: His Life, His Art, and His Influence. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1937, 340 p.
Comprehensive, general study of Collins's life, aesthetics, verse, influences, and literary reputation.
Carver, P. L. The Life of a Poet: A Biography of William Collins. New York: Horizon Press, 1967, 210 p.
Study of Collins's life which examines and draws extrapolations from the scarce primary material on the poet.
Barry, Kevin. "William Collins." In Language, Music and the Sign: A Study in Aesthetics, Poetics and Poetic Practice from Collins to Coleridge, pp. 27-55. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Examines the interaction between poetry and music in Collins's poetry, focusing on the "Ode to Evening" as "a decisive instance of the use of ideas of language, music and poetry in the mid-eighteenth century."
Bloom, Harold. "From Topos to Trope, from Sensibility to Romanticism: Collins's 'Ode to Fear'." In Studies in Eighteenth-Century British Art and Aesthetics, edited by Ralph Cohen, pp. 182-203. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
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