William Collins Collins, William - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Collins 1721–1759

English poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

"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.

Walter C. Bronson (essay date 1898)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 imagination" are "the chief faculties of a poet."2 When it is remembered how intimate the two men were, and that their first intention had been to publish their odes jointly, we may fairly assume that the preface expressed the views of Collins as well.

From Thomas Warton we learn that Collins was fond of black-letter reading and had collected many rare old books illustrating the earlier periods of English literature.3 His enthusiasm for the Renaissance, and his long-cherished plan of writing a history of the Revival of Learning, also indicate his sympathy with the earlier Romanticism. And, finally, Johnson's half-mournful description of his friend's romantic tendencies shows that this man, born when Pope was in the heyday of his power, and dying when Johnson ruled literary London with a bludgeon of common sense, was yet brother to Spenser, to the youthful Milton, to Chatterton and Blake, to the many ill-regulated enthusiasts and poetic dreamers of the early nineteenth century.4

When we turn to the poems themselves, we see in them an interesting struggle between Collins's natural romantic tendencies, his natural classic tendencies, and the literary conventions of the day.

The early minor poems all show, in varying degrees, the lyric instinct which had become so rare amid the prevailing didacticism in English verse. In the songs about Fidele and Damon the romantic elements of love, nature, and the supernatural are handled with simplicity and truth; while the introduction of folklore in the former is a prophecy of the Ode to Fear and the Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands. The obvious elements of conventionalism in these slight poems do not call for special remark.

In the Oriental Eclogues the struggle between conventional form and new subject-matter is patent. The artificial pastoral was not yet quite dead in England; it had been kept alive by the mighty names of Vergil, Spenser, and Milton, and recently by the example of Pope. It was, therefore, natural enough that the youthful Collins should write pastorals. What is noteworthy is that he sought for new metal to pour into the time-worn moulds, and anticipated Southey, Byron, and Moore in turning to the Orient for poetic material. The result, it must be admitted, is tame; but the mildness of the romantic flavor is easily explained. Salmon's History of Persia, from which Collins got his inspiration, although sensible and mildly interesting, is not imaginative or picturesque; and Collins showed that he was greatly athirst by sucking from it as much romance as he did. But even if the poet had had a richer treasury, he would not have dared to display its stores more freely. The apologetic tone of the preface is significant. Collins was evidently afraid that the "rich and figurative style" and the "elegancy and wildness of thought" might offend the taste of his readers. Romanticism was yet a timid thing in England.5 Modern readers find the Oriental Eclogues less wild than wooden; for there is much that is conventional, not only in the style and verse, but even in the subject-matter and spirit. A didactic motive is apparent throughout, as in the handling of similar material by Addison and Johnson. The truism that virtue is essential to lasting love and happiness, and the hackneyed themes of pastoral love and rural delights, constitute the warp and woof of the first and third eclogues, and enter largely into the texture of the other two. Oriental love, which was to receive such sensuous treatment later at the hands of Byron and Moore, is kept within the bounds of a decent tameness. Even the fact of polygamy is politely ignored. Only one Zara weeps for the distant Hassan; and Abbas, the Persian monarch, might have been an English gentleman except for a little initial despotism in his manner of appropriating the rustic Abra. The fine opportunities for pictorial effect in the second eclogue are imperfectly developed, although the local coloring here is the best in the series; the novel situation in the desert is made subordinate to shallow moralizing, current at the time, about the evils of "trade." Similarly, in the fourth eclogue, the scenic possibilities of midnight in devastated Circassia are largely sacrificed to commonplaces of pastoral description. In brief, the Oriental Eclogues are significant in the history of English Romanticism rather for their tendencies than for their achievement.

In the Epistle Addressed to Sir Thomas Hanmer the occasion overrode the poet. The result was the least individual of Collins's poems. The epistolary form, the conventional metre and style, the gross flattery, the half-blind estimate of Shakspere,—in all these Collins was hardly more than an amanuensis for the spirit of the age. Yet even in this poem may be detected some signs of the individuality of the man who was soon to write the Odes Descriptive and Allegorical. The references to Greek literature and the Renaissance are significant. The allusions to Shakspere's idyllic plays and to the fairyland of A Midsummer-Night's Dream and The Tempest remind one of the Song from Shakespear's Cymbeline and of the delicate Arcadian fancy in several of the odes. And the instinct for the sculpturesque and picturesque, soon to be revealed in the Odes, is suggested here also by the wish that painters would go to Shakspere for subjects and by the vivid sketches of two great scenes from the plays.

In the Odes of 1747 we pass into a new atmosphere. Here the influence of convention sinks to a subordinate place, and classic and romantic tendencies become dominant. The literary fashions of the day linger here and there in diction and phrasing, in an occasional frigid personification, and in the literary or political didacticism which underlies several of the odes; but over these matters we need not linger. The classic and the romantic elements require more detailed examination. We will begin with the latter.

In these odes Collins reveals his poetical creed by his literary allusions. Spenser and his school, Shakspere, Milton, Otway—that belated Elizabethan,—these are the gods of his idolatry among English poets; while he speaks slightingly of the then popular Waller, and implies that pathos is a lost note in the British lyre. His practice conforms to his theory. The Odes, in their main effect, are not intellectual and didactic, but imaginative, pictorial, and lyrical. They are not chiefly to be thought out, but to be looked at, felt, and sung. The versification is an index to the spirit of the whole. The end-stopped pentameter couplet of the Eclogues and the Epistle, a form so admirable for narration, exposition, or satire, so ill-adapted for lyric flow, has given place to a variety of measures that fitly embody the subject-matter.

But it is the subject-matter itself which most clearly shows the poet's trend toward Romanticism. Collins was, literally, a visionary. He saw visions. He lived in a world of imaginary beings, some beautiful, some terrible, some the creation of folklore and legend, and some the product of his own imagination. If the Odes be read rapidly, with this single point in view, it is surprising how constantly the poet's thought escapes from reality to an imaginary world. Even The Manners, in praise of the observation of the real world, is all compact of fancies about "wizard Passions," "giant Follies," and "magic shores." The Passions is didactic in intent, praising the simplicity of Greek music above the complex music of modern times. But the lesson is a picture. And in place of the historical Alexander in Dryden's similar ode, Collins painted a new Pandemonium and Elysium in one, where bedlam Passions mingle with the Loves and Graces. The political and military events of the day, passing through this poet's mind, are transformed into a dream-land peculiarly his own, where ideal figures stand out in colossal basrelief, as in the Ode to Mercy, or, as in the Ode to a Lady and How Sleep the Brave, shadowy forms at once delicate and majestic mourn over the graves of the heroic dead.

But the Ode to Fear, the Ode to Liberty, and the Ode on the Poetical Character are richest in elements of the supernatural or semi-supernatural. In the beginning of the last-named, Collins's imagination manifestly revels in the marvellous legend of the magic girdle; he is wandering amid the mazes of The Faerie Queene. The description of creation, an echo from the idealism of Plato and Spenser, beats with an inward heat, an intense pleasure in the fantastic richness of the picture. And the ideal landscape with which the ode ends had its inspiration in a reverence, amounting almost to worship, for Milton as the poet of the supernatural sublime. The antistrophe of the Ode to Liberty shows how well Collins knew the poetic value of old legends and traditions; the fabled disruption of Britain from the mainland is thoroughly romantic in its rugged wildness and a certain element of the monstrous; while the second epode is rich with imaginative beauty deriving from old Celtic sources. The Ode to Fear marks the climax of the supernatural element in these Odes of 1747. A true imaginative shudder runs through the whole. It is conceived and expressed throughout with a vigor which shows that the poet had himself lifted "the veil between" and was looking out with pleasurable awe into the dim, vast realm of imaginative Terror and the dark Sublime. From the classic drama he selects those aspects which are most closely allied to the murkiness of the "Gothic" mind; and the conception, in the strophe, of fiends who "over Nature's wrecks and wounds preside" is essentially Teutonic, the counterpart of the Greek belief in fair spirits, the guardian divinities of mountains, trees, and running brooks.

The treatment of nature in the Odes is not remarkable except in the Ode to Evening. A French critic has recently observed that in this poem Collins anticipated the work of the modern "impressionist" school; and he points out that "the phenomena of evening, which dissolve progressively all natural form and destroy the solidity of every object," are peculiarly adapted for treatment in accordance with the doctrine of the impressionists that "things are more poetic by their aspects than by their forms, and by their colors than by their substance."6

But curious as this anticipation is, it concerns us more just now to ask what relation the poem bore to Collins's own environment and to the rest of his work. It must have had a close relation, although it seems so unique. It cannot have been a literary freak, a poem-child of the nineteenth century born out of due time.

What view of the matter did Collins himself probably take? It is not likely that he supposed he was doing anything unusual. And in a way he was not. It is singular that this poem, in the last stanza, is marred by worse conventionalism than can be found elsewhere in the Odes. Furthermore, the mood of the poem is common enough. Eventide, when all things are idealized by dimness and calm, is Nature's popular poetry, felt by the most callous, and disposing every one to pensiveness and repose. Nor does the ode show minute or subtle observation, such as distinguishes much of the nature poetry of the present century. The objects and aspects described are obvious and common. The exquisite fineness in the poem is fineness of feeling and expression, not of perception. We should not expect Collins, the dreamer and visionary, to have a particularly keen eye for the facts of the external world. And in this poem, as elsewhere, he was more dreaming than seeing; or, more accurately, he was seeing, but only because in this case seeing and dreaming were nearly one, nature at twilight creating a fairy world much like his own land of dreams. In other words, Collins did know and greatly love the common phenomena of evening, for the reason that they were peculiarly congenial to his mood and closely akin to that imaginary world in which his fancy loved to dwell.

As confirming this view, note how Collins mingles in the poem the facts of nature with his own and others' fancies. The sun and the hours are persons, as in old mythology. Elves, and nymphs who shed the dew, and Pensive Pleasures sweet, prepare Evening's shadowy car. Even the conventional personifications with which the poem ends show only the same tendency carried farther; fancy banishes fact altogether, and nothing is left but the group of wooden abstractions, stiffly sitting in the "sylvan shed." This sorry ending is simply a striking proof of the fact that Collins, in this poem, had no thought of making an objective study of nature, still less of founding a new school of nature poetry. He was not trying, in Wordsworth's phrase, to keep his eye "steadily on the object." Rather he was attracted instinctively to the dreamy aspects of twilight, partly for their own sake, and partly because they...

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Alan D. McKillop (essay date 1923)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Edward Gay Ainsworth Jr. (essay date 1937)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Alan D. McKillop (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Casey Finch (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Richard Feingold (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Marshall Brown (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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,...

(The entire section is 723 words.)