Portrait of William Collins
William Collins (1721-1759)
WILLIAM COLLINS, English poet, was born on the 25th of December 1721. He divides with Gray the glory of being the greatest English lyrist of the 18th century. After some childish studies in Chichester, of which his father, a rich hatter, was the mayor, he was sent, in January 1733, to Winchester College, where Whitehead and Joseph Warton were his schoolfellows. When he had been nine months at the school, Pope paid Winchester a visit and proposed a subject for a prize poem; it is legitimate to suppose that the lofty forehead, the brisk dark eyes and gracious oval of the childish face, as we know it in the only portrait existing of Collins, did not escape the great man's notice, then not a little occupied with the composition of the Essay on Man.

In 1734 the young poet published his first verses, in a sixpenny pamphlet on The Royal Nuptials, of which, however, no copy has come down to us; another poem, probably satiric, called The Battle of the Schoolbooks, was written about this time, and has also been lost. Fired by his poetic fellows to further feats in verse, Collins produced, in his seventeenth year, those Persian Eclogues which were the only writings of his that were valued by the world during his own lifetime. They were not printed for some years, and meanwhile Collins sent, in January and October 1739, some verses to the Gentleman's Magazine, which attracted the notice and admiration of Johnson, then still young and uninfluential.

In March 1740 he was admitted a commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, but did not go up to Oxford until July 1741, when he obtained a demyship at Magdalen College. At Oxford he continued his affectionate intimacy with the Wartons, and gained the friendship of Gilbert White. Early in 1742 the Persian Eclogues appeared in London. They were four in number, and formed a modest pamphlet of not more than 300 lines in all. In a later edition, of 1759, the title was changed to Oriental Eclogues. Those pieces may be compared with Victor Hugo's Les Orientales, to which, of course, they are greatly inferior. Considered with regard to the time at which they were produced, they are more than meritorious, even brilliant, and one at least - the second - can be read with enjoyment at the present day. The rest, perhaps, will be found somewhat artificial and effete.

In November 1743 Collins was made bachelor of arts, and a few days after taking his degree published his second work, Verses humbly addressed to Sir Thomas Hanmer. This poem, written in heroic couplets, shows a great advance in individuality, and resembles, in its habit of personifying qualities of the mind, the riper lyrics of its author. For the rest, it is an enthusiastic review of poetry, culminating in a laudation of Shakespeare.

It is supposed that he left Oxford abruptly in the summer of 1744 to attend his mother's death-bed, and did not return. He is said to have now visited an uncle in Flanders. His indolence, which had been no less marked at the university than his genius, combined with a fatal irresolution to make it extremely difficult to choose for him a path in life. The army and the church were successively suggested and rejected; and he finally arrived in London, bent on enjoying a small property as an independent man about town. He made the acquaintance of Johnson and others, and was urged by those friends to undertake various important writings - a History of the Revival of Learning, several tragedies, and a version of Aristotle's Poetics, among others - all of which he began but lacked force of will to continue. He soon squandered his means, plunged, with most disastrous effects, into profligate excesses, and sowed the seed of his untimely misfortune.

It was at this time, however, that he composed his matchless Odes - twelve in number - which appeared on the 12th of December 1746, dated 1747. The original project was to have combined them with the odes of Joseph Warton, but the latter proved at that time to be the more marketable article. Collins's little volume fell dead from the press, but it won him the admiration and friendship of the poet Thomson, with whom, until the death of the latter in 1748, he lived on terms of affectionate intimacy.

In 1749 Collins was raised beyond the fear of poverty by the death of his uncle, Colonel Martyn, who left him about £2,000, and he left London to settle in his native city. He had hardly begun to taste the sweets of a life devoted to literature and quiet, before the weakness of his will began to develop in the direction of insanity, and he hurried abroad to attempt to dispel the gathering gloom by travel. In the interval he had published two short pieces of consummate grace and beauty - the Elegy on Thomson, in 1749, and the Dirge in Cymbeline, later in the same year. In the beginning of 1750 he composed the Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands, which was dedicated to the author of Douglas, and not printed till long after the death of Collins, and an Ode on the Music of the Grecian Theatre, which no longer exists, and in which English literature probably has sustained a severe loss. With this poem his literary career closes, although he lingered in great misery for nearly nine years.

From Gilbert White, who jotted down some pages of invaluable recollections of Collins in 1781, and from other friends, we learn that his madness was occasionally violent, and that he was confined for a time in an asylum at Oxford. But for the most part he resided at Chichester, suffering from extreme debility of body when the mind was clear, and incapable of any regular occupation. Music affected him in a singular manner, and it is recorded that he was wont to slip out into the cathedral cloisters during the services, and moan and howl in horrible accordance with the choir. In this miserable condition he passed out of sight of all his friends, and in 1756 it was supposed, even by Johnson, that he was dead; in point of fact, however, his sufferings did not cease until the 12th of June 1759. No journal or magazine recorded the death of the forgotten poet, though Goldsmith, only two months before, had begun the laudation which was soon to become universal.

No English poet so great as Collins has left behind him so small a bulk of writings. Not more than 1500 lines of his have been handed down to us, but among these not one is slovenly, and few are poor. His odes are the most sculpturesque and faultless in the language. They lack fire, but in charm and precision of diction, exquisite propriety of form, and lofty poetic suggestion they stand unrivalled. The ode named The Passions is the most popular; that To Evening is the classical example of perfect unrhymed verse. In this, and the Ode to Simplicity, one seems to be handling an antique vase of matchless delicacy and elegance. In his descriptions of nature it is unquestionable that he owed something to the influence of Thomson.

Distinction may be said to be the crowning grace of the style of Collins; its leading peculiarity is the incessant personification of some quality of the character. In the Ode on Popular Superstitions he produced a still nobler work; this poem, the most considerable in size which has been preserved, contains passages which are beyond question unrivalled for rich melancholy fulness in the literature between Milton and Keats.

The life of Collins was written by Dr Johnson; he found an enthusiastic editor in Dr Langhorne in 1765, and in 1858 a kindly biographer in Mr Moy Thomas.

(Edmund Gosse)

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. VI.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 693.

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