William Collins’s achievements in poetry do not embody the results of careful observation of life, his best poems being descriptive and allegorical. His feelings were intense when he contemplated abstractions such as simplicity, an aesthetic ideal to which his ode gives subtle definition by means of description. His ability to think about abstractions and intellectual concepts in pictorial terms was his most remarkable gift. A second gift was his ability to link every part of his poem to the next, so that the poem flows along in an unbroken stream.
His best work was done in the ode. Of the twelve such pieces published under the title Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects in 1746, three stand out for special effects. The “Ode on the Poetical Character” roughly approximates the true Pindaric ode and, unlike Augustan forms, shows the poet to be an inspired creator and projects imagination as the prime essential of a true poet. “The Passions, an Ode for Music” is a pseudo-Pindaric ode in the tradition of John Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast.” Its richness of image and appropriate variety of movement have made it the poet’s most popular piece. An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Considered as the Subject of Poetry is Collins’s longest poem, containing his invention of the seventeen-line stanza of iambic pentameter ending with an Alexandrine. It was also the first significant attempt in English literature to concentrate on the Romantic elements of Scottish legend and landscape.
Collins’s themes are significant because they anticipate the interests of the early nineteenth century Romantic poets and thus the broad concerns found in modern poetry. Five themes are noteworthy. First, Collins is concerned with the role of imagination in poetry. He believes that imagination rather than reason, an Augustan concern, is the essential trait of the poet. Second, he is a critic of literature, one whose commentary is conditioned by his concern for the imagination. Third, Collins shows a strong interest in folklore and its relation to literature, anticipating Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Fourth, he often emphasizes patriotic and political themes, themes that promote ideas of freedom, liberty, and justice, all special concerns of the early Romantic writers. Finally, Collins continually expresses concern for psychological issues in his poetry. All these themes are tied directly to the problem of imagination.
Doughty, Oswald. William Collins. London: Longmans, Green, 1964. A brief, handy book recommended for its accessibility. A view of Collins’s life is followed by succinct readings of his major poems. Includes a useful bibliography.
Jung, Sandro. “Collins’s ’Ode to Evening.’” Explicator 64, no. 1 (Fall, 2005): 19-25. Analyzes Collins’s use of “to rove” in his poem “Ode to Evening.” Notes the poet’s originality in his use of the verb.
Sherwin, Paul S. Precious Bane: Collins and the Miltonic Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977. Sherwin’s “anxiety of influence” approach, though perhaps inapplicable to all poets, is certainly applicable to Collins and the poets of the age of sensibility, who consciously looked back to the towering figures of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. The reading of Collins’s “Ode on the Poetical Character” is particularly recommended.
Sigworth, Oliver F. William Collins. New York: Twayne, 1965. This is a very good introduction to the life and work of Collins. Lodged between a biographical account of Collins and a long treatment of the poetry is a particularly useful consideration of “the poetry and the age.” Supplementing the text are a chronology, notes, and a bibliography.
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