1781 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Gilbert White, "Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, the Poet" Gentleman's Magazine 51 (January 1781) 11-12.



Jan. 20, 1781.

Mr. Urban,

WILLIAM COLLINS, the poet, I was intimately acquainted with from the time that he came to reside at Oxford. He was the son of a tradesman in the city of Chichester; I think an hatter; and being sent very young to Westminster-school, was soon distinguished for his early proficiency, and his turn for elegant composition. About the year 1740, he came off from that seminary first upon roll, and was entered a commoner of Queen's-college. There, no vacancy offering for New-college, he remained a year or two, and then was chosen demy of Magdalen-college; where, I think, he took a degree. As he brought with him, for so the whole turn of conversation discovered, too high an opinion of his school acquisitions, and a sovereign contempt for all academic studies and discipline, he never looked with any complacency on his situation in the University, but was always complaining of the dulness of a college life. In short, he threw up his demyship, and, going to London, commenced a man of the town, spending his time in all the dissipation of Ranelagh, Vauxhall, and the playhouses; and was romantic enough to suppose that his superior abilities would draw the attention of the great world, by means of whom he was to make his fortune. In this pleasurable way of life he soon wasted his little property, and a considerable legacy left him by a maternal uncle, a colonel in the army, to whom the nephew made a visit in Flanders during the war. While on this tour he wrote several entertaining letters to his Oxford friends, some of which I saw. In London I met him often, and remember he lodged in a little house with a Miss Bundy, at the corner of King's-square-court, Soho, now a warehouse, for a long time together. When poverty overtook him, poor man, he had too much sensibility of temper to bear with his misfortunes, and so fell into a most deplorable state of mind. How he got down to Oxford I do not know, but I myself saw him under Merton wall, in a very affecting situation, struggling, and conveyed by force, in the arms of two or three men, towards the parish of St. Clement, in which was a house that took in such unhappy objects; and I always understood, that not long after he died in confinement; but when, or where he was buried, I never knew.

Thus was lost to the world this unfortunate person, in the prime of life, without availing himself of fine abilities, which, properly improved, must have raised him to the top of any profession, and have rendered him a blessing to his friends, and an ornament to his country!

Without books, or steadiness and resolution to consult them if he had been possessed of any, he was always planning schemes for elaborate publications, which were carried no further than the drawing up proposals for subscriptions, some of which were published; and in particular one for "A History of the darker Ages."

He was passionately fond of music; good-natured and affable; warm in his friendships, and visionary in his pursuits; and, as long as I knew him, very temperate in his eating and drinking. He was of moderate stature, of a light and clear complection, with grey eyes, so very weak at times as hardly to bear a candle in the room; and often raising within him apprehensions of blindness.

With an anecdote respecting him, while he was at Magdalen-college, I shall close my letter. It happened one afternoon, at a tea-visit, that several intelligent friends were assembled at his rooms to enjoy each other's conversation, when in comes a member of a certain college [Rev. James Hampton-Brydges, translator of Polybius], as remarkable at that time for his brutal disposition, as for his good scholarship; who, though he met with a circle of the most peaceable people in the world, was determined to quarrel; and, though no man said a word, lifted up his foot and kicked the tea-table, and all its contents, to the other side of the room. Our poet, tho' of a warm temper, was so confounded at the unexpected downfall, and so astonished at the unmerited insult, that he took no notice of the aggressor, but getting up from his chair calmly, he began picking up the slices of bread and butter, and the fragments of his china, repeating very mildly, "Invenias etiam disjecti membra poetae."

I am your very humble servant,

V.