Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Collins, William (1721-1759)
COLLINS, WILLIAM (1721–1759), poet, was born on 25 Dec. 1721 at Chichester. His father, a respectable hatter, was twice mayor of Chichester. In 1703 he married Elizabeth Martin, and was by her father of Elizabeth (b. 1704), Anne (b. 1705), and William. 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 twelve, one line being remembered—
And every Gradus flapped his leathern wing
(European Mag. xxviii. 377).
At Winchester he 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. Three poems, sent by him, W 7 arton, 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 Johnson. He was first 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 Magdalene, 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. In January 1742 he published his 'Persian Eclogues,' republished as ' Oriental Eclogues ' in 1757. Woodfall printed five hundred 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. He graduated as B.A. on 18 Nov. 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, 6 July 1744, he inherited a small property, with which he soon parted. It was probably at this time that he visited his uncle, Lieutenant-colonel 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. He 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 ten 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 second edition. Collins was less successful, and it is said by Langhorne that he afterwards burnt the unsold copies in disgust. 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 two first, 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). Meanwhile he issued proposals for a history of the revival of learning. A reference in the first 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.' He 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. Collins's uncle, Colonel 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 2,000l. 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. 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.' Home gave it to a friend, among whose papers it was found by Alexander Carlyle [q. v.] 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.
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.' 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).
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). 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) in Goldsmith, in the ' Polite Literature of Europe ' (chap, x.), as 'still alive—happy if insensible of our neglect, not raging at our ingratitude.' 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). A tablet by Flaxman to his memory was erected in the cathedral in 1795, with a joint inscription by Hayley and John Sargent. An engraving from the only known portrait, at the age of fourteen, is prefixed to Mr. Moy Thomas's edition of his works.
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. Gray, his 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.' 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 first distinct utterance of the school which uttered in Warton's essay a public protest against the canons accepted by Pope and his followers. 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 him 'very pretty.' The poems gradually became more popular in the course of the century, as appears from the separate publications by Langhorne and Mrs. Barbauld and their admission into the collections of British poets. 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). Collins's works, edited by J. Langhorne, with a memoir, appeared in 1765, 1771, and 1781; Mrs. Barbauld's edition in 1797; an edition with notes by Alex. Dyce in 1827; and the Aldine edition, with notes and a memoir by Moy Thomas, in 1858, require special notice.