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."