William Collins (25 December 1721 – 12 June 1759) was an English poet of the middle decades of the 18th century. He was the son of a Chichester hatter, educated at Winchester College (where he met Joseph Warton) and Oxford University.
The total volume of Collins’s poetry is very small. There is also no authoritative collection of his poetry. Collins published his Persian Eclogues (1742) while an undergraduate but this is no successful venture. He moved to London in the 1740s, where he met James Thomson, John Armstrong, and Samuel Johnson, and embarked on many abortive literary enterprises.
His Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects published in 1746, contains different odes of no standard merit or quality. Yet, some of his odes, like Ode to Evening, Ode to Liberty, Ode to Peace, and Ode to Pity are of highly poetic merit and have won for him the reputation of a poet, and not of a minor one, too.
Collins is found to carry on the tradition, set by Thomson. His poetry bears out his intense love for nature and his passionate lyricism. His simple themes, attachment to nature, romantic sensibility and unadorned style constitute the genesis of his poetry in which the echo of romanticism is heard distinctly, though not consistently.
Collins’s masterpiece is his Ode to Evening. This is considered the most exquisite lyric of the century. The poem is dipped in the evening glow. The poet speaks of the time when the light is gradually giving way to darkness. There is the most intimate and sensitive suggestions of the twilight that seems to be the very core of his verse. The poem is unrhymed, yet Collins’s lines are not in ordinary blank verse. There is nothing of rhetorical vehemence. Short unrhymed stanzas run together, without a break, and that creates the very sensation of the atmosphere that the poet depicts.
“Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat,
With short shrill shriek, flits by on leathern wings,
Or where the beetle winds
His small but sullen horn……
His ode on the death of James Thomson appeared in 1749, and in 1750 he presented a draft of his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands (published 1788) to John Home. Thereafter he suffered increasingly from depression and wrote nothing.
His poems were collected by John Langhorne in 1765. Johnson commented on his harshness and obscurity as well as his ‘sublimity and splendour’ (Lives of the English Poets); later poets responded to his lyrical intensity and to his conception of poetry as visionary and sacred.
Collins’s prospective career, as noted already, was spoiled in the misfortune of his depression and insanity. Yet, his poetic genius, no doubt uncultivated and irregular, is well discernible in his lyrical gifts- in his imaginative power, impulsiveness, poetic enthusiasm, the spontaneity of expression and deep subjectivity.
Also read: Thomas Grey and His Important works