William Collins (1721-1759). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

William Collins (25 December 1721 - 12 June 1759) was an English poet. Second in influence only to Thomas Gray, he was an important poet of the middle decades of the 18th century. His lyrical odes mark a turn away from the Augustan poetry of Alexander Pope's generation and towards the Romantic poetry which would soon follow.


Collins was born in Chichester, the son of a hatmaker and former mayor of the town. He was educated at Winchester College, 1733-1740, and then entered Magdalen College, Oxford, earning a B.A. in 1744. While still at the university he published the Persian Eclogues, 1742, which he had begun at school.[1]

After graduating in 1743 he was undecided about his future. Failing to obtain a university fellowship, being judged by a military uncle as "too indolent even for the army", and having rejected the idea of becoming a clergyman, he settled for a literary career and was supported in London by a small allowance from his cousin, George Payne. There he was befriended by James Thomson and Dr. Johnson as well as the actors David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

In 1747 he published his collection of Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects on which his subsequent reputation was to rest. The poems are characterized by strong emotional descriptions and the personal relationship to the subject allowed by the ode form. At the time little notice was taken of these poems, which were at odds with the Augustan spirit of the age.

After the Odes, although he had many projects in his head, none came to fruition. His only other poems were the ode written on Thomson's death (1749) and the posthumously discovered and unfinished "Ode on the popular superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland". An intriguing addition, now lost, is the "Ode on the Music of the Grecian Theatre" that he described and proposed sending to the musician William Hayes in 1750.[2] Hayes had just set "The Passions" to music as an oratorio that was received with some acclaim.[3] This, coupled with the popularity of the Persian Eclogues, a revised version of which was published the year he died, was the closest approach to success that Collins knew.

With the depression on his lack of success, aggravated by drunkenness, he sank into insanity and in 1754 was confined to McDonald's Madhouse in Chelsea. From there he moved to the care of a married elder sister in Chichester until his death in 1759, when he was buried in St Andrew's Church.

William Collins by Flaxman

Bas-relief of Collins in Chichester Cathedral, by John Flaxman (1755-1826), from The Poems of William Collins, 1898. Courtesy Internet Archive.


Critical introductionEdit

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

In the reaction against that sweeping violence of indiscriminative depreciation with which the school of poets and critics usually registered as Wordsworthian, but actually founded at midnight by William Blake and fortified at sunrise by William Wordsworth, was wont for some half a century to overwhelm the poetry and criticism of the century preceding, the name which of all properly belonging to that period has incomparably the most valid and solid claim to the especial and essential praise that denotes a poet from among other men of genius has hardly yet taken by general consent the place which is unquestionably its due. Even in his own age it was the fatally foolish and uncritical fashion to couple the name of Collins with that of Gray, as though they were poets of the same order or kind. As an elegiac poet, Gray holds for all ages to come his unassailable and sovereign station; as a lyric poet, he is simply unworthy to sit at the feet of Collins....

In the little book of odes which dropped, a still-born immortal, from the press, and was finally burnt up even to the last procurable copy by the hands of its author in a fever-fit of angry despair, there was hardly a single false note; and there were not many less than sweet or strong. There was, 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. Here, in the twilight which followed on the splendid sunset of Pope, was at last a poet who was content to sing out what he had in him — to sing and not to say, without a glimpse of wit or a flash of eloquence. These two valuable and admirable superfluities had for generations been regarded, not as fortuitous accessories, but as indispensable requisites, to poetic genius.

Nothing so clearly shows how much finer a sense of poetry than is usually attributed to him lay radically latent, when unobscured by theories or prepossessions, in the deliberate judgment of Dr. Johnson, as his recognition in Collins of the eminent and exquisite faculty which he rightly refused to recognise in Gray. The strong-lunged and heavy-handed preacher of The Vanity of Human Wishes had an ear fine enough at least to distinguish the born lyric poet from him who had been made one, though self-made. His recognition of Collins had been ready and generous in his youth; it was faithful and consistent in his old age. And in both seasons he stood then, almost as he stands now, alone in the insight of his perception and the courage of his loyalty. For it needed some courage as well as some openness of mind and sureness of instinct to acknowledge as well as to appreciate a quality of merit far more alien than was the quality of Gray’s best work from the merit of Pope and his scholars; among whose ranks the critic himself stood so honourably high as an ethic poet.

Strange as the paradox may sound, it must yet once again be repeated, that the first indispensable faculty of a singer is ability to sing. There was but one man in the time of Collins who had in him a note of pure lyric song, a pulse of inborn music irresistible and indubitable; and that he was that man he could not open his lips without giving positive and instant proof. Poetry was his by birthright: to the very ablest of his compeers it was never more than a christening gift. The Muse gave birth to Collins; she did but give suck to Gray. In Goldsmith’s verse, again, there is a priceless and adorable power of sweet human emotion which lay for the most part quite out of our poet’s way. His range of flight was perhaps the narrowest but assuredly the highest of his generation. He could not be taught singing like a finch: but he struck straight upward for the sun like a lark. Again, he had an incomparable and infallible eye for landscape; a purity, fidelity, and simple-seeming subtlety of tone, unapproached until the more fiery but not more luminous advent of Burns.

Among all English poets he has, it seems to me, the closest affinity to our great contemporary school of French landscape-painters. Corot on canvas might have signed his Ode to Evening; Millet might have given us some of his graver studies, and left them as he did no whit the less sweet for their softly austere and simply tender gravity. His magnificent Highland ode, so villainously defaced after his death by the most impudent interpolations on record, has much in it of Millais, and something also of Courbet when the simple genius of that star-crossed idoloclast was content with such noble and faithful use of freedom as he displayed in a picture of upland fell and tarnside copse in the curving hollow of a moor, which was once exhibited in London. Here and here only, for vigour of virile grasp and reach of possessive eyesight, Burns himself was forestalled if not excelled. Here too is a visible power, duly and tenderly subdued into subordination, of command upon human emotion and homely sympathy, less intimate than in Burns and less profound than in Wordsworth, but none the less actual and vivid, which we hardly find elsewhere in this perfect painter of still life or starlit vision.

In his artistic tenderness of conscience and scrupulous self-mastery of hand he so closely resembles Mr. Tennyson as once at least to provoke the same doubtful sense of jealous and admiring demur. A notable instance of this refined excess in conscience is the exquisite recast of the originally exquisite second line in the "Ode to Evening". Such things will make us now and then misdoubt whether some subtle and noble scruple may not in this case also have robbed us of jewels only less costly than two stanzas excised from the text of "The Miller’s Daughter", full of the colour and breath and odour of a moon-charmed April twilight; if not even of some rapture as rare and precious as we are now forbidden to renew by repossession of the far and fairy light, the clear aerial melody, of the once revealed and long recluse Hesperides. Yet I think and trust he would hardly have left so lovely and loveworthy a child of his early genius to fade perforce into compelled and unnatural forgetfulness, while the brother poem, beside which this had appeared as a twin-born sister, was so gloriously refreshed with new blood and transfigured into riper beauty of more wide and deep delight, as were the revived and reinvigorated Lotos-Eaters.

But Collins may claim of us a yet loftier note of praise than this: and it is one which could hardly have been sounded by the ‘capacious mouth’ of his good and true friend Johnson. He was the first English poet, after Milton’s voice ‘for the dwellers upon earth’ fell silent, to blow again the clarion of republican faith and freedom: to reannounce with the passion of a lyric and heroic rapture the divine right and the godlike duty of tyrannicide. He too, in the high-toned phrase of Mr. Browning, like Milton, Burns, and Shelley, ‘was with us; they watch from their graves.’ And on this side of the summit of fair fame he stands loftily alone between the sunset of Milton and the sunrise of Landor. I hardly think there are much nobler verses in all English than those in which the new Alcæus, ‘fancy-blest’ indeed, has sung the myrtle-hidden sword that rid the sunlight of the first Pisistratid. For all her evil report among men on the score of passive obedience and regiculture, Oxford has now and then turned out — in a double sense, we might say, with reference to Shelley — sons who have loved the old cause as well as any reared by the nursing mother of Milton.

There is yet another memorable bond of communion which connects the fame of Collins with that of Milton in the past and with that of Shelley in the future. Between the elegy on Edward King and the elegy on John Keats came the far humbler and softer note, yet full of sweet native purity and sincerity, by which Collins set the seal of a gentle consecration on the grave of the ‘Druid’ Thomson; a note to be as gently echoed by Wordsworth in commemoration of his own sweeter song and sadder end.

The mention of Wordsworth’s name reminds me of another but a casual coincidence between the fortunes of that great poet’s work and of this his lyric and elegiac predecessor’s. In both cases the generally accepted masterpiece of their lyric labour seems to me by no means the poem genuinely acceptable as such. Mr. Arnold, with the helpful loyalty and sound discretion of a wise disciple, has noted as much in the case of Wordsworth; it is no less demonstrable a truth in the case of Collins. As surely as, for instance, the "Ode to Duty" is a work of greater perfection and more perfect greatness than that "On the Intimations of Immortality", the "Ode on the Passions" is a work of less equal sustentation and purity of excellence than, for example, is the Ode to Evening. Yet of course its grace and vigour, its vivid and pliant dexterity of touch, are worthy of all their long inheritance of praise; and altogether it holds out admirably well to the happy and harmonious end; whereas the very Ode to Liberty, after an overture worthy of Milton’s or of Handel’s Agonistes, a prelude that peals as from beneath the triumphal hand of the thunder-bearer, steadily subsides through many noble but ever less and less noble verses, towards a final couplet showing not so much the flatness of failure as the prostration of collapse.

Living both in an age and after an age of critical poetry, Collins, always alien alike from the better and from the worse influences of his day, has shown at least as plentiful a lack of any slightest critical instinct or training as ever did any poet on record, in his epistle to Hanmer on that worthy knight’s ‘inqualifiable’ edition of Shakespeare. But his couplets, though incomparably inferior to Gray’s, are generally spirited and competent as well as fluent and smooth.

The direct sincerity and purity of their positive and straightforward inspiration will always keep his poems fresh and sweet to the senses of all men. He was a solitary song-bird among many more or less excellent pipers and pianists. He could put more spirit of colour into a single stroke, more breath of music into a single note, than could all the rest of his generation into all the labours of their lives. And the sweet name and the lucid memory of his genius could only pass away with all relics and all records of lyric poetry in England.[4]


Following Collins's death, his poems were issued in a collected edition by John Langhorne (1765) and slowly gained more recognition, although never without criticism. While Dr Johnson wrote a sympathetic account of his former friend in Lives of the Poets (1781), he dismissed the poetry as contrived and poorly executed.[5]

Charles Dickens was dismissive for other reasons in his novel Great Expectations. There Pip describes his youthful admiration for a recitation of Collins's The Passions and comments ruefully: "I particularly venerated Mr. Wopsle as Revenge throwing his blood-stain'd Sword in Thunder down, and taking the War-denouncing Trumpet with a withering Look. It was not with me then, as it was in later life, when I fell into the society of the Passions and compared them with Collins and Wopsle, rather to the disadvantage of both gentlemen."[6]

Four of his poems ("Ode to Simplicity," "How sleep the Brave," "Ode to Evening," and "Fidele") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse. 1250-1900.[7]



Collected editionsEdit

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]

See alsoEdit


  1. William Collins (1721-1759), English Poetry, 1579-1830, Center for Applied Technologies in the Humanities, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. Web, May 13, 2016.
  2. See p.vii of the memoir in the Gutenberg transcription of the 1865 edition [1]
  3. The piece has recently been revived by the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Complete excerpts are available here [2] and short excerpts from the whole work here [3]
  4. from Algernon Charles Swinburne, "Critical Introduction: William Collins (1721–1759)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, May 13, 2016.
  6. Chapter 7,
  7. Alphabetical list of authors: Brontë, Emily to Cutts, Lord. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 16, 2012.
  8. Search results = au:William Collins 1759, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 24, 2016.

External linksEdit

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