Although the heroic couplet had achieved its dominance by the time of William Collins, lyric poetry was still alive, albeit somewhat in reserve as a popular mode of expression. The lyric poet of the second quarter of the eighteenth century had available a number of traditional forms: the Pindaric ode for exalted subjects, the Horatian ode for a variety of urban and meditative themes, the elegy, and the song. A new type appeared, another type of “ode” that centered on a personified abstraction treated in a descriptive way. Borrowing from John Milton’s style in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” the Wartons and Collins played a major role in developing this form.
Collins did not achieve fame with his odes during his lifetime, and perhaps this lack of recognition contributed to his early mental instability and eventual death at thirty-seven. His odes never attain warmth and personal intimacy, but they do achieve particular effects that are unsurpassed in eighteenth century poetry: pensive melody, emotionally charged landscape, vigorous allegory, and rich romanticism.
Collins, like his friends the Wartons, advocated concepts of poetry that would eventually dominate poetic thought by the turn of the nineteenth century. His belief that poetry should be freely imagined and passionately felt, that it should be blessed with furor poesis, puts him basically into the Wordsworthian camp. His formalism and abstraction, ties to his Augustan background, obviously hamper his style. Collins is much like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy, born out of time. He has one poetic foot in the past, but the other, much larger one, extends far into the future, since it would be some forty years after his death before the publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), the recognized locus classicus of Romanticism. Collins has been compared with the early nineteenth century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his use of abstraction; in the work of both poets, personifications become real figures that help express a delicate mood without recourse to great detail: “Spring with dewey fingers cold” and “Freedom a weeping hermit” illustrate the method well. This personification of natural phenomena in eighteenth century verse for the most part symbolizes affective states, where the allegorical figure sums up the meaning that the phenomenon has for the poet.
Collins does seem at times to strive for scholarly classicism. His mixture of classical and medieval sources illustrates his “two voices” long before Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s metaphor and poems come into overt expression. He was the most free of all the early precursors of Romanticism, and his predominant concern was the spirit of beauty. Most critics compare Collins favorably with his contemporaries, especially with Thomas Gray, generally agreeing with William Hazlitt’s assessment. Hazlitt argued that Collins possessed genuine inspiration, and that even though his work is marred by affectation and certain obscurities, “he also catches rich glimpses of the bowers of paradise.”
“Ode on the Poetical Character”
Perhaps the best guide to Collins’s attitude toward inspiration and imagination is his “Ode on the Poetical Character.” Early in the ode, Collins asserts that the true poetical character is godlike, for the bard is one “prepared and bathed in heaven.” Following this apotheosis, Collins pursues the idea by describing God’s creation of the world as analogous to the poet’s act of creation. A bit of sixteenth century pagan/Christian syncretism is reflected in his analogy: God was the original type of all poets and the contemporary poet imitates his divine power. Collins, however, adds allegorical layers to this analogy. He suggests that Fancy is a separate female entity and not merely an attribute of God, and he adds the rather confusing metaphor of a girdle of poetic imagination.
Collins turns to the examples of John Milton and Edmund Spenser, suggesting that the true poet will find his voice in a kind of wedding of their diverse styles. One finds such a poet,...
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