William Collins (1721-1759) is one of the undeservedly lesser known poets of England. Certain works could be considered far better than some of Byron's efforts, for example.
Son of the Mayor of Chichester, who was also a hatter of repute, William was born and educated there at Prebendal school before continuing his studies at Winchester and Magdalen college, Oxford. During his studies (1742) he published his Persian Eclogues. After his graduation he tried to make his living as an author, but apparently spent more time thinking about books than actually writing them.
He was acquainted with Samuel Johnson who acknowledged his imaginative ideas and his erudition. 'He was a literary adventurer, with many projects in his head, and very little money in his pocket,' Johnson said of him.
William Collins published his collection of Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects in 1746. With his friend Joseph Warton, Collins was interested in creating a new form of poetry, more abstract, lyrical and imaginative. Passions were personified as overwhelming presences, and this intensity of vision determined its originality.
In the mid 18th century however, such fabulation, judged as too nebulous, wasn't appreciated. Consequently the publication failed.
Public opinion, or how one wishes the public to think, is a strange phenomenon. Perhaps Collins' Ode on the Death of Thomson (1749) was also dismissed.
As Collins chanced to inherit some money he decided to spend some time travelling in France before returning to London. His lack of success and consequent disillusionment (for he had imagined several other projects that he never developped) caused him to suffer from depression then alcoholism. This gradually worsened to become chronic dementia, which led to his being confined to 'McDonald's Madhouse' in Chelsea (1754). Eventually his married, elder sister came to his rescue, taking care of him in Chichester for the remaining few years of his life. During that period he still had the support of a few loyal friends, but otherwise he had become a bygone writer. He was buried where he was christened, at the Church of St. Andrew's, Chichester.
The few works William Collins produced including the ode written on the death of poet James Thomson, was the unfinished Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland. This was discovered after Collins's death. Another work since lost, was the Ode on the Music of the Grecian Theatre. He intended to send this to William Hayes in 1750. The musician Hayes had set Collins's work, The Passions to music as an oratorio.
Later in the 18th century his work began to gain the full appreciation of the Romantics along with the work of such poets as Robert Burns (born the same year Collins died) and Thomas Chatterton. Today he is justifiably recognised as one of England's fine poets.
Ode to Evening°
If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song,
May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,
Like thy own solemn springs,
Thy springs and dying gales,
O nymph reserved, while now the bright-haired sun
Sits in yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts,
With brede¹ ethereal wove,
O'erhang his wavy bed:
Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat,
With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing,
Or where the beetle winds
His small but sullen horn,
As oft he rises 'midst the twilight path,
Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum:
Now teach me, maid composed,
To breathe some softened strain,
Whose numbers, stealing through thy darkening vale,
May not unseemly with its stillness suit,
As, musing slow, I hail
Thy genial loved return!
For when thy folding-star² arising shows
His paly circlet, at his warning lamp
The fragrant Hours, and elves
Who slept in flowers the day,
And many a nymph who wreaths her brows with sedge,
And sheds the freshening dew, and, lovelier still,
The pensive Pleasures sweet,
Prepare thy shadowy car.
Then lead, calm vot'ress, where some sheety lake
Cheers the lone heath, or some time-hallowed pile
Or upland fallows gray
Reflect its last cool gleam.
But when chill blustering winds, or driving rain,
Forbid my willing feet, be mine the hut
That from the mountain's side
Views wilds, and swelling floods,
And hamlets brown, and dim-discovered spires,
And hears their simple bell, and marks o'er all
Thy dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky veil.
While Spring shall pour his showers, as oft he wont,
And bathe thy breathing tresses, meekest Eve;
While Summer loves to sport
Beneath thy lingering light;
While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves;
Or Winter, yelling through the troublous air,
Affrights thy shrinking train,
And rudely rends thy robes;
So long, sure-found beneath the sylvan shed,
Shall Fancy, Friendship, Science, rose-lipped Health,
Thy gentlest influence own,
And hymn thy favourite name! (1746, 1748)
° Final revised version. The rhyme-less lines and the metre were borrowed from Milton's
translation of Horace.
translation of Horace.
² The evening star signalling the shepherds' hour to herd the sheep to their fold.
Unlike Byron, for example, there is no portrait of any note of William Collins. The Church where Collins was christened and finally buried has not been used as a Church since the time it was damaged by an air-raid during World War II. The former Church of St Andrew-in-the Oxmarket however, commemorated William Collins with a stain-glass window depicting the poet. The Church has been restored and is now used as a local arts museum and centre.