William Collins

The English poet William Collins (1721-1759) excelled in the descriptive or allegorical ode. He also wrote classical odes and elegies and lyrics marked by delicate and pensive melody.

William Collins was born on Dec. 25, 1721, in Chichester. His father was a prosperous merchant who was twice elected mayor. In 1733 Collins entered Winchester, intending to study for the clergy. There he began his lifelong friendship with Joseph Warton and his own poetic career. In 1739 his short poem "To a Lady Weeping" was published in the Gentleman's Magazine. The following year he entered Queen's College, Oxford, but soon transferred to Magdalene. While at Oxford, he published his Persian Eclogues (1742), the only one of his works that was highly regarded during his lifetime.

Having abandoned his plan to enter the clergy, Collins left Oxford. With a small inheritance from his mother, in 1744 he settled in London to become a man of letters. Here he frequented the coffee houses and made friends with David Garrick and Samuel Johnson, who described him as a man "with many projects in his head and little money in his pocket." Among Collins's many projects which came to nothing were a commentary on Aristotle's Poetics and a history of the Renaissance.

In 1746 Collins and Warton planned the joint publication of their odes, but Robert Dodsley, to whom they submitted their manuscript, judged that Collins's work would have little public appeal and published only Warton's. Although Collins's Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects was soon undertaken by another publisher, Dodsley's rejection and the subsequent failure of the Odes mortified Collins deeply.

Collins continued to write and to practice the pictorial technique announced in the Odes. He made literary friendships with James Thomson and with lesser writers such as John Home and Christopher Smart. His most personal poem, the Ode Occasioned by the Death of Mr. Thomson (1749), was the last of his works published during his lifetime. Shortly after Thomson's death he sent John Home a manuscript of An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, a superb poem which anticipates many of the attitudes of the romantic revival.

About this time Collins received a legacy from his uncle and retired to Chichester to carry out some of his ambitious projects. But he became threatened with insanity and sought relief in a trip abroad. When this failed to restore his health, he was committed to an institution. He was later released to the care of his sister, but he never recovered. Collins died on June 12, 1759.


Further Reading on William Collins

There are two full-length biographies of Collins: H. W. Garrod, Collins (1928), and Edward Gay Ainsworth, Jr., Poor Collins: His Life, His Art, and His Influence (1937). Chester F. Chapin, Personification in Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1955), offers a fine analysis of Collins's poetic technique.