The standard anthology view of Collins, one of the most important eighteenth century precursors of English Romanticism, is misleading. The three poems by which he is generally known, “Ode to Evening,” “How Sleep the Brave,” and “The Passions,” more adequately reflect the general tradition of mid-eighteenth century poetry than they do Collins’ pre-Romanticism and his individuality and achievement as a poet. It is comparatively easy to acquire a fuller and more just knowledge of Collins’ work, however, for he left only two dozen poems before his last long illness and early death.
Among them are his juvenilia, the four PERSIAN ECLOGUES; several songs; a verse epistle; and about fifteen odes. The eclogues and the epistle are largely uninspired and show only occasionally the poetic power which impresses one so much in the odes. Though most of Collins’ odes were written in the English Pindaric tradition, two of his better known poems, “How Sleep the Brave” and the “Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson,” are Horatian in form. (Pindar was a sixth century B. C.
Greek poet famous for his odes celebrating victories in athletic contests; his style is soaring, allusive, and complex. Horace, the model “classical” poet, was a first century Roman lyric poet whose style was direct and concise. ) The English Pindaric ode, though it always developed a single, central theme, meanders unpredictably through a series of situations which expand and comment on the central theme. The diction and imagery are rich and evocative, and the metrical pattern changes continually, though in an ordered system of strophe, antistrophe, and epode.
The English Horatian ode, on the other hand, goes directly to the point, is based on concise statement and plain diction, and uses a single, regular metrical stanzaic pattern. Collins’ verse exhibits at least five recurring themes. First, Collins is concerned with the role of fancy or imagination in poetry. He feels that fancy rather than reason, in the eighteenth century sense, is the essential trait of the poet and of poetry. Second, Collins is a critic of literature, and his criticism is conditioned by his concern for the imagination. He is quite dissatisfied with the literature of his own and most other periods.
Third, Collins is interested in folklore and its use in literature, again mainly as a manifestation of imagination. Fourth, and at first glance rather out of character, he often emphasizes patriotic and political themes. Fifth, what almost amounts to a leitmotif rather than a conscious theme, Collins continually brings a psychological, almost clinical concern with emotion forward in his poems. This theme, of course, is also tied in with the problem of imagination, especially of Collins’ own imagination.
Each of these five themes dominates a focal poem or group of poems; however, since each theme is related organically to the others, all or most of them appear in every poem. For example, the poems which are central to Collins’ ideas about the role of imagination in literature are often the same poems in which he advances his critical judgments, since these two subjects are naturally two sides of the same problem. In the “Ode on the Poetical Character,” Collins develops the idea that imagination is the soul of poetry.
He likens the poet’s act of creation to God’s creation of the earth; God, like the poet, is shown creating not when he is moved by a rational plan, but by sudden inspiration and imagination. In the same poem Collins, speaking as a literary critic, names Milton as the poet who last showed true poetic imagination. Waller, Milton’s contemporary and the founder of the neo-classical tradition dominant in Collins’ own day—the Augustan tradition of Pope and Johnson—is presented as the unimaginative antithesis of Milton. Collins, significantly, closes the poem with the claim that imaginative greatness is denied to himself and his contemporaries.
Among other poems which stress Collins’ critical and esthetic theory are the verse epistle to Sir Thomas Hamner, the “Ode to Simplicity,” which stresses literary form, “The Manners,” the “Ode on the Popular Superstitions. ” The latter, which is written to a dramatist, advances the argument that folklore should again be used as the subject of English tragedy so that the genre might again reach the peaks it attained in Greece, in Shakespeare’s day, and in the French tragedies of Racine and Corneille. Collins points out that all great dramatists have used myth and folktale as a basis for their tragedies.
But folklore and superstitition play a more organic part in some of Collins’ odes, notably the “Ode to Fear” (one of Collins most impressive and most neglected poems), and the “Ode to Liberty. ” In these poems folklore is not a subject but a part of the poetic fabric. That is, Pindar, who was both the basis of the English lyric tradition in which Collins most often wrote, and the personal model of Collins—the epigraph to his 1746 publication of the ODES is from Pindar’s eighth Olympian Ode—is admired for his use of myth as a means of allusion and poetic digression.
It was natural that Collins, who continually voices dissatisfaction with the artistic techniques of his contemporaries, and who, because of his rather different poetic concerns, was naturally led to adopt the un-Augustan, Pindaric form, should try to introduce British folklore into the ode as a substitute for obsolete classical mythology. On the other hand, and on a deeper level, Collins was interested in superstition and folklore as food for the imagination. For the poet, to immerse oneself in the dark world of superstition was to open the gates of imagination and to reveal powerful visions.
To the reader interested in Collins as a pre-Romantic, the patriotic and political odes are something to be ignored or rationalized away as minor regression to neo-classicism. But this neglect is a mistake. Collins’ interest in political and social ideals permeate his poetry precisely because he is interested in the poetic imagination and is, thus, strongly pre-Romantic. The political state, in Collins’ eyes, is the most important external influence on the poet; the poetic imagination, he proclaims cannot flourish where freedom, liberty, justice are not present.
The fifth element in Collins’ poetry, the psychological element, is pervasive enough to justify the statement that, all of his other concerns not withstanding, Collins is essentially a poet of the mind and the mind’s functioning. We see this quality even in the “Ode to Evening,” Collins’ most famous poem, which is, on the face of it, only a poem of pastoral, natural description in a typical eighteenth century mode. However, Collins is not interested in describing and evoking a natural scene for its own sake, as his friend James Thomson would have been in like circumstances.
He is interested in nature as a reflection or projection of a poetic state of mind. But the most impressive effects of Collins’ concern for the mind in its psychological aspect are seen in his treatment of the emotions and sensibility in such poems as the “Ode to Fear,” the “Passions,” and the “Ode on the Popular Superstitions. ” It is in these poems that we see Collins effectively using his most characteristic stylistic device, concrete personification of abstract ideas and emotional states.
The poet treats the emotions as personified, allegorical figures acting out their effects in an allegorized countryside of the mind. Certain parts of the “Ode to Fear,” for example, are actually allegories of the mind functioning under the influence of fear. Collins addresses Fear: Thou, to whom the World unknown With all its shadowy Shapes is shown; Who see’st appalled th’ unreal Scene, While Fancy lifts the Veil between: Ah Fear! Ah frantic Fear! I see, I see Thee near.
Collins in this poem and in its companion piece, “Ode to Pity,” is initially concerned with the Aristotelian pronouncement that the aesthetic effect of tragedy is to arouse pity and fear in the spectator. But Collins quickly moves from this critical idea into a world in which fear itself becomes the dominating reality, an emotion that Collins begs to dominate him so that he can learn to understand it and thus successfully create great drama. In return, Collins promises to live with fear forever after.
The other side of Collins’ psychological concern is seen in his frequently announced wish, not for passion, but for peace of mind, and in his constant wish to withdraw from the turbulence of the world. In the odes to Pity, Simplicity, Evening, and others, and in the “Third Eclogue,” Collins either expresses the desire to withdraw to a peaceful fantasy world, or portrays a scene of imaginary peace. The recurring symbol of the secluded “cell” or “shrine” is found in several poems. If the retreat is not into an imaginary world, it is into the past.
All art and great artists, for Collins, are in the past, and it is in the past that he would most like to live. In summary, Collins throughout his poetry insists that the passionate mind and the creative imagination are primary attributes of the poet. He is always conscious of imaginative deficiency in the art of his time, and, as he thinks, in himself. Paradoxically, this sense of lack that the poet felt in himself disturbed him and led him to create a body of verse that in fact embodies the standards he so fully valued. bibliography William Collins (Cyclopedia of World Authors) William Collins (Poetry).
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