Authors: William Collins

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Author Works


Persian Eclogues, 1742

An Epistle: Verses Humbly Address’d to Sir Thomas Hanmer on His Edition of Shakespeare’s Works, 1744

Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects, 1746 (dated 1747)

An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Considered as the Subject of Poetry, wr. 1749, pb. 1788


William Collins’s father was a well-to-do hatter and was twice mayor of Chichester, where William was born on Christmas Day, 1721. After attending primary school in Chichester, Collins was sent to Winchester Grammar School in 1733. Just a year later, when he was thirteen, he is thought to have published his first poem (now lost) in the Gentleman’s Magazine. His first surviving poem, to “Miss Aurelia C–r,” appeared in the same magazine in January, 1739. While at Winchester, Collins met and formed a lifelong friendship with his fellow student Joseph Warton, the future poet and the brother of Thomas, the historian of English poetry. In 1740 Collins entered Oxford University, where he became a friend of the famous Gilbert White of Selbroune, who many years later described him at the university as a young man fond of dissipation and contemptuous of pedantry and discipline. Before he graduated in 1744, Collins had published his Persian Eclogues and An Epistle: Verses Humbly Address’d to Sir Thomas Hanmer on His Edition of Shakespeare’s Works.{$I[AN]9810000635}{$I[A]Collins, William}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Collins, William}{$I[tim]1721;Collins, William}

Collins’s father died in 1734, and shortly after he left Oxford his mother also died, leaving Collins a small inheritance, which he soon spent. In this period he probably visited a relative, Lieutenant Colonel Martin, who was then stationed in France; he also considered, but soon gave up, going into the Church. Before 1746 he was in London determined to make his way in literature. In December, 1746, he published his most important work, Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects (the title page is incorrectly dated 1747). He published and republished a few other poems about this same time. He also planned to write several scholarly books and tragedies–his attraction to this genre is manifest in many of his poems–but these projects came to naught.

While planning much and writing a little, Collins, during his London years, became a figure about the literary world, well acquainted with such men as James Thomson (on whose death in 1749 he wrote an exquisite ode), John Armstrong, James Quin, David Garrick, and Samuel Johnson. Johnson wrote that he once found Collins in his rooms hiding out from prowling bill collectors–the poet, it seems, was chronically in debt. On this occasion, Collins managed to get an advance from a publisher for a projected translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. He used the money to leave London for the duller but safer countryside.

In 1749 Colonel Martin died and left Collins two thousand pounds. He paid his debts and later that year during a visit to his old school, Winchester, he met the Scottish playwright John Home, author of the then celebrated tragedy, Douglas. He gave Home an unfinished copy of his last important poem, An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Considered as the Subject of Poetry. Years later, when the poem was thought to have been lost, this manuscript was found in Scotland and published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Scotland (1788).

In the early 1750’s, Collins’s health, never stable, began to fail. His intellect remained clear, but he was apparently subject to acute depression and fear of madness. His physical energy declined sharply, and at times he was unable to sustain even the effort of conversation. He traveled to France in an attempt to regain his health. After his return, he was for a time (it is thought) in an insane asylum. Afterward, he lived with his sister, his mind progressively deteriorating. He died, forgotten by all but a few of his friends, on June 12, 1759, and was buried at Chichester Church.

BibliographyDoughty, Oswald. William Collins. London: Longmans, Green, 1964. A brief, handy book recommended for its accessibility. A brief view of Collins’s life is followed by succinct readings of his major poems. Includes useful bibliography.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.Sitter, John. Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. Sitter is a major authority on the so-called “Age of Sensibility” in England during the 1740’s and 1750’s–the period that Collins has come to exemplify. Contains excellent discussions of other writers important to the period, as well as an extended treatment of Collins and his poetry.Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. An impressive book, demanding and difficult but containing an important reading of Collins and his poetry, especially the crucial “Ode on the Poetical Character.”Wendorf, Richard. William Collins and Eighteenth-Century English Poetry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981. Also an editor of Collins, Wendorf begins with an informed, sensible treatment of Collins’s “madness”–for years a critical and biographical stumbling block–then moves on to consider Collins’s career and poetry. The treatment of Collins’s “musical odes” is highly interesting. A useful “note” on modern criticism of Collins is included.White, Deborah Elise. Romantic Returns: Superstition, Imagination, History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Intended for readers with a background in literary theory, the book covers the theorization and operation of “imagination” in pre-Romantic and Romantic writing. The ways in which the aesthetics of Romanticism inform its political and economic speculations are explored in an analysis of the poetry and prose of William Collins, William Hazlitt, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.Woodhouse, A. S. P. “Collins and the Creative Imagination: A Study in the Critical Background of His Odes (1746).” In Studies in English by Members of University College, Toronto, edited by M. W. Wallace. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1931. A classic early study of Collins, still vital for Woodhouse’s discussion of the ode in the mid-eighteenth century and his treatment of Collins’s most important poem, the “Ode on the Poetical Character.”
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