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William Collins and Eighteenth-Century English Poetry

William Collins and Eighteenth-Century English Poetry

Richard Wendorf
Copyright Date: 1981
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 244
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttt3w6
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  • Book Info
    William Collins and Eighteenth-Century English Poetry
    Book Description:

    William Collins (1721-1759) is one of several eighteenth-century poets who have received more attention for what they are said to have anticipated - the full-blooded Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge - than for what they have achieved. Collins’s career as a poet was brief, but the handful of major poems that he wrote in the mid-1740s has stirred interest among critics intrigued by the complexity and obscurity of his work and by the illness and possible madness that prematurely ended his life. Combining historical scholarship with close readings of all Collins’s poems, Richard Wendorf provides the most comprehensive and detailed study to be devoted to the work of this enigmatic figure and to the forces that shaped his literary career. In doing so, he places Collins within an eighteenth-century poetic context and shows that his gift for myth-making makes him a vital link between the mythic poetry of Shakespeare and Spenser and that of the Romantics. Wendorf’s opening and closing chapters examine the relationship between Collins’s life and his work, providing an authoritative discussion of his supposed madness and of the myths of insanity that clouded his reputation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wendorf argues that Collins’s madness is problematical at best, and that much recent criticism is a distortion of his major work, which explores the transcendent powers of the irrational forces within us but is not necessarily the product of madness itself. The book’s central chapters trace Collins’s development as a poet and offer fresh approaches to his major odes. In these mature poems he turned from his early interest in Augustan poetry to very different sources of inspiration and came to reject the ordered and unified natural world of Pope and Thompson._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3738-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. 1 “Poor Collins” Reconsidered
    (pp. 3-26)

    The question of Collins’s madness has long posed a dilemma for those who have endeavored to characterize either his life or his work. In its simplest form, this dilemma raises questions that are primarily biographical: when, and to what degree, did Collins suffer from symptoms usually associated with insanity? The biographical problem serves, at the same time, as a focal point for more complex issues concerning the nature of Collins’s poetry and his own conception of the poetical character.

    The difficulty inherent in a study of Collins’s illness lies in the scarcity of material available to us. It would probably...

  5. 2 The Poetical Character in the 1740s
    (pp. 27-55)

    Collins’s contemporary readers would have found striking indications of a new movement in poetry even as they scanned the title-page of his slim volume of poems. The most significant change was not that the poems were entitled “odes,” for the ode, in its varying forms, had retained much of its popularity in spite of the century’s early preference for epistles and the mock-heroic.¹ A more fundamental change was the author’s specification that his odes were written on “descriptive and allegoric subjects.” As Langhorne first demonstrated, these two terms were meant to stand in apposition to each other; both derive their...

  6. 3 Shaping a Career
    (pp. 56-86)

    At one point in the composition of theAeneid, Virgil intended to open his epic poem not with the familiar “Arma virumque cano” but with an acknowledgment of the poems–EcloguesandGeorgics–he had already sung: “I am he who once tuned my song on a slender reed, then, leaving the woodland, constrained the neighbouring fields to serve the husbandmen, however grasping–a work welcome to farmers: but now of Mars’ bristling arms and the man I sing.…” These experimental lines, which reflect Virgil’s consciousness of the shape of his own literary career, established an influential pattern for poets...

  7. 4 The Odes of l746
    (pp. 87-114)

    The publication of theOdes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjectsin December 1746 marks a crucial turning point in Collins’s poetic development. His early poetry reveals how carefully he patterned his own career on classical and neoclassical models, but the poems in this slim volume indicate how sharply his work finally diverges from conventional patterns and standard (epic, or at least mock-epic) forms.¹ Collins’s mature poetry clearly takes a different direction (a different “channel,” as Warton put it) from Pope’s, and yet, as we have already seen, the transition itself is difficult to pin down. What remains most clear...

  8. 5 Collins’s Elusive Nature
    (pp. 115-134)

    Looking back on his friend’s work in 1763, Johnson pointed out that Collins “employed his mind chiefly upon works of fiction, and subjects of fancy; and, by indulging some peculiar habits of thought, was eminently delighted with those flights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature, and to which the mind is reconciled only by a passive acquiescence in popular traditions.”¹ Our tendency today is to emphasize the unconscious rather than the supernatural in Collins’s work and, in so doing, to take the poet at his word when, in poems like the “Ode to Fear,” he summons forth the...

  9. 6 Words for Music
    (pp. 135-165)

    Collins’s readers have long acknowledged that the poet awarded “The Passions” pride of place in his collection of odes, but few have asked why this should be so. As we have seen, Collins appears to have placed this musical ode last because of the important ways in which it summarizes–and synthesizes–the modes and themes of the preceding poems. But a much simpler and equally compelling reason for the placement of the ode lies in Collins’s interest in music, of which Gilbert White reported the poet to be “passionately fond.”¹ Collins’s letter to John Gilbert Cooper concludes with an...

  10. 7 Last Poems
    (pp. 166-182)

    It is entirely possible that Collins wrote as many as ten of his twelveOdes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjectsduring the year in which they were published. It is likely, moreover, that he wrote most of these poems–including the “Ode on the Poetical Character,” the “Ode to Evening,” and “The Passions”–during the six-month period following his meeting in May with Joseph Warton. Judged by any standards, this is a period of intense activity and considerable accomplishment. As we have already seen, John Ragsdale remembered Collins as being frenetically–and rather playfully–at work in London during...

  11. 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 183-190)

    At the close of his analysis of the “Ode to a Friend,” Paul Sherwin offers a summary of Collins’s career that has been voiced in similar fashion by several of Collins’s readers: “Collins never comprehends, as do Milton and the Romantics, that his own personal history, in its totality, might serve as the starting point for a coherent body of poetry at once mythical and true.”¹ This kind of complaint, which raises fundamental questions about Collins’s achievement and about the relationship between his life and his work, certainly deserves a response from those who believe that Collins’s poetry possesses a...

  12. Appendix: A Note on Modern Criticism and Scholarship
    (pp. 191-194)
  13. Abbreviations
    (pp. 197-198)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 199-218)
  15. Index
    (pp. 221-228)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-229)