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

William Collins (25 December 1721 - 12 June 1759) was an English poet. 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 the son of a respectable hatter of Chichester, where he was born. He was educated at Chichester, Winchester, and Oxford. His is a melancholy career. Disappointed with the reception of his poems, especially his Odes, he sank into despondency, fell into habits of intemperance, and after fits of melancholy, deepening into insanity, died a physical and mental wreck. Posterity has signally reversed the judgment of his contemporaries, and has placed him at the head of the lyrists of his age. He did not write much, but all that he wrote is precious. His first publication was a small volume of poems, including the Persian (afterwards called Oriental) Eclogues (1742); but his principal work was his Odes (1747), including those to "Evening" and "The Passions," which will live as long as the language. When Thomson died in 1748 Collins, who had been his friend, commemorated him in a beautiful ode. Another – left unfinished – that on the Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands, was for many years lost sight of, but was discovered by Alex. Carlyle. Collins's poetry is distinguished by its high imaginative quality, and by exquisitely felicitous descriptive phrases.[1]

Youth, family, educationEdit

Collins was born Christmas Day 1721 at Chichester. His father, a respectable hatter, was twice mayor of Chichester: In 1703 he has married Elizabeth (Martin), and was by her father of Elizabeth (b. 1704), Anne (b. 1705), and William.[2]

The son was probably sent to the prebendal school, Chichester, and was admitted scholar of Winchester on 19 Jan. 1733. In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1734, p. 167, is mentioned a poem by "W. Collins" on the royal nuptials, but the poem is lost and the identification uncertain. It is said that he wrote poetry at 12, one line being remembered —

And every Gradus flapped his leathern wing
– (European Mag. xxviii. 377).[2]

At Winchester Collins was a schoolfellow of Joseph Warton, ever afterwards his friend. While at school he published a copy of verses to "Miss Aurelia C—r" in the Gentleman's Magazine for January 1739.[2] 3 poems, sent by him, Warton, and another school-fellow, appeared in the same magazine in October 1739, and a complimentary notice of them in the following number is attributed by Wooll to Samuel Johnson.[3]

Collins was 1st on the roll for New College; but no vacancy occurring he and Warton were both super-annuated. On 21 March 1740 he was entered as a commoner at Queen's College, Oxford, and on 29 July 1741 he was elected to a demyship at Magdalen, possibly through the influence of William Payne, a cousin, who was fellow of the college. Joseph Warton was at Oriel, where Gilbert White of Selborne, an old pupil of Warton's father, was also a student. White became intimate with Collins, and his recollections are given in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine for 1781 (p. 11). From this and the letter of another friend, John Ragsdale, it appears that Collins was at this time fond of dissipation and contemptuous of academical pedants and college discipline.[3]

In January 1742 Collins published his Persian Eclogues, republished as Oriental Eclogues in 1757. Woodfall printed 500 of these in December 1741, and a thousand of the odes in December 1746 (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xi. 408). His "verses humbly addressed to Sir Thomas Hanmer on his edition of Shakespeare by a gentleman of Oxford," were dated 3 Dec. 1743.[3]

He earned a B.A. on 18 November 1743, and soon afterwards left Oxford, having, according to some reports, got into debt. His father had died in 1734, and on his mother's death, on 6 July 1744, he inherited a small property, with which he soon parted.[3]

It was probably at this time that he visited his uncle, Lt.-col. Martin of the 8th regiment, then quartered in Flanders. His uncle, we are told, thought him "too indolent even for the army," and consequently recommended the church. He obtained a title to a curacy from a clergyman near Chichester, but was dissuaded from taking orders by a tobacconist named Hardman, and came to London to try literature.[3]


Collins now proposed to bring out a volume of odes in conjunction with his friend Joseph Warton. He was not to publish unless he could obtain 10 guineas for them. Collins's odes appeared in December 1746 (1747 is on the title-page). Warton's volume appeared separately at the same time, and reached a 2nd edition. Collins was less successful, and it is said by Langhorne that he afterwards burnt the unsold copies in disgust.[3]

The ode on the death of Colonel Ross had appeared in Dodsley's Museum in June 1746. This ode, the ode to "Evening," and "How sleep the brave," appeared again in Dodsley's Museum (vol. iv. 1749), with variations in the 1st 2, the authenticity of which has been disputed, but which are probably due to Collins himself (see Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. i. 237, 3rd ser. xi. 350, 371).[3]

Meanwhile he issued proposals for a history of the revival of learning. A reference in the 1st volume of Warton s Essay on Pope (note to Essay on Criticism, 1. 47) seems to show that some hopes were entertained by his friends so late as 1756 of the completion of this undertaking. He planned, but, according to Johnson, "only planned," tragedies, and indulged in schemes for many works. Johnson, who made his acquaintance about this time, found him in lodgings which were watched by a bailiff "prowling in the street."[3]

Collins obtained an advance from a bookseller on the strength of a projected translation of Aristotle's Poetics, and "escaped into the country." He became intimate in the literary circles of the day, knowing Armstrong, Quin, Garrick, and Foote, and forming a special friendship with Thomson. He was frequently at the house of a Mr. Ragsdale, Thomson's neighbour at Richmond. After Thomson's death he wrote the beautiful ode published by Manby in June 1749. The dirge to "Cymbeline" appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for October 1749.[3]

Collins's uncle, Col. Martin, had been severely wounded at the battle of Val in Flanders, and returned to England in 1747, where he died in 1749. His fortune of about £7,000 was divided between his nephew and nieces, Collins receiving about £2,000. He repaid the advance made for his proposed translation of Aristotle (Johnson), and also (unless there is some confusion) the sum paid by Millar for his odes.[3]

In the autumn of 1749 he met John Home, the author of Douglas, at Winchester, where they were visiting a common friend, an officer named Barrow, who died in America during the following war. To Home Collins gave an imperfect copy of the "Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands."[3] Home gave it to a friend, among whose papers it was found by Alexander Carlyle. A reference to it as undiscovered in Johnson's 'Life' induced Carlyle to look it up, and by him it was communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It is published in their Transactions (vol. i. pt. ii. p. 63, 1788) with some emendations by Carlyle and a passage supplied by Henry Mackenzie. A rival edition was immediately published by an anonymous editor in London with a dedication to the Wartons.[4]

Last yearsEdit

Collins was now failing. Johnson says that it was "a deficiency rather of his vital than his intellectual powers." He could talk well, but a few minutes exhausted him. He tried to disperse the "clouds gathering on his intellects" by a journey to France, and on his return saw Johnson at Islington. Johnson noticed that Collins's only literary possession was a testament. "I have but one book," he said, "but that is the best."[4]

He appears to have been for a time at a madhouse in Chelsea. Afterwards he lived with his sister Anne, who married a Captain Sempell (and after his death in 1764 a Dr. Durnford), and died in 1789. Elizabeth married Lieutenant Tanner in 1750, and died in 1754 (Gent. Mag. lix. 1056).[4]

A letter of November 1750 (Seward, Anecdotes, Suppl. 123) speaks of an ode upon the music of the Greek theatre which he was then writing, but which has disappeared. He collected a library at Chichester, containing some curious old books, to which there are references in Thomas Warton's 'History of Poetry' (ed. 1840, iii. 80, 244, 386).[4]

He stayed a month at Oxford in 1754, when he was too feeble for conversation, but often saw Warton. The Wartons visited him at Chichester the same year. He is mentioned (March 1759) by Goldsmith, in the Polite Literature of Europe (chap, x.), as "still alive — happy if insensible of our neglect, not raging at our ingratitude."[4]

Johnson, who inquired tenderly after him in letters to the Wartons in 1754 and 1756, gave the date of his death as 1756, a statement which has misled later writers. He died on 12 June 1759 (Hay, Chichester), and was buried at St. Andrew's Church, as appears from the register, on 15 June 1759 (Dyce, pp. 19, 20).[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]

Johnson's affection for Collins is shown in the Life. Collins's amiability, and the charm of a conversation enlivened by wide knowledge of French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as the learned languages, are gratefully commemorated by the biographer, whose prejudices prevented any cordial appreciation of the poetical merits of his friend. Collins belonged to the new school, represented in criticism and history by his friends the Wartons, who showed the love of the romantic element in literature which was afterwards to become fashionable. The Wartons could appreciate what they could not rival.[4]

Gray, Collins's only equal in contemporary poetry, says (letter to Warton, 27 Dec. 1746) of Collins's and Warton's odes just published: "Each is the half of a considerable man, and one the counterpart of the other. The first has but little invention, very poetical choice of expression, and a good ear. The second, a fine fancy modelled upon the antique, a bad ear, great variety of words and images, with no choice at all. They both deserve to last some years, but will not."[4]

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]

Chatterton's contemptuous references to Collins may perhaps refer to an Emmanuel Collins, who published some verses at Bristol in 1762 (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 430, 533).[4] Goldsmith's admiration of the Eclogues is shown in the passage already cited, where they are said to excel any in our language, and in the introduction to the Beauties of English Poetry he calls Collins's work "very pretty."[4]

The poems gradually became more popular in the course of the 18th century, as appears from the separate publications by Langhorne and Barbauld and their admission into the collections of British poets. Collins's works, edited by J. Langhorne, with a memoir, appeared in 1765, 1771, and 1781; Barbauld's edition in 1797; an edition with notes by Dyce in 1827; and the Aldine edition, with notes and a memoir by Moy Thomas, in 1858, require special notice.[4]

The singular sweetness and delicate sensibility of Collins have made him a favourite, and poetical writers in particular rather grudge the superior popularity of Gray. The fondness for allegorical personages which he shares with Gray is characteristic of the time, but his poetry was the 1st distinct utterance of the school which uttered in Warton's essay a public protest against the canons accepted by Pope and his followers.[4]

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.[7]

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.


A tablet by Flaxman to his memory was erected in Chichester cathedral in 1795, with a joint inscription by Hayley and John Sargent.[4]

An engraving from Collins's only known portrait, at the age of 14, is prefixed to Mr. Moy Thomas's edition of his works.[4]

4 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.[8]



Collected editionsEdit

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[9]

Ode to Evening, by William Collins

Ode to Evening, by William Collins

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Stephen, Leslie (1887) "Collins, William (1721-1759)" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 11 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 377-380  Wikisource, Web, Dec. 27, 2017.


  1. John William Cousin, "Collins, William," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 92-93. Web, Dec. 27, 2017.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Stephen, 377.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Stephen, 378.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 Stephen, 379.
  6. Chapter 7
  7. 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.
  8. Alphabetical list of authors: Brontë, Emily to Cutts, Lord, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 16, 2012.
  9. Search results = au:William Collins 1759, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 24, 2016.

External linksEdit