1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Collins

Thomas Warton, Memoir of Collins addressed to William Hymers, 1782-83; in The Gleaner (1811) 4:474-79.



I often saw Collins in London in 1750. This was before his illness. He then told me of his intended history of the Revival of Learning, and proposed a scheme of a review, to be called the Clarendon Review, and to be printed at the University press, under the conduct and authority of the University. About Easter, the next year, I was in London; when, being given over, and supposed to be dying, he desired to see me, that he might take his last leave of me: but he grew better, and in the summer he sent me a letter on some private business, which I have now by me, dated Chichester, June 9, 1751, written in a fine hand, and without the least symptom of a disordered or debilitated understanding. In 1754, he came to Oxford for change of air and amusement, where he stayed a month; I saw him frequently, but he was so weak and low, that he could not bear conversation. Once he walked from his lodgings opposite Christ-church, to Trinity-college, but supported by his servant. The same year, in September, I and my brother visited him at Chichester, where he lived in the cathedral cloisters, with his sister. The first day he was in high spirits at intervals, but exerted himself so much, that he could not see us the second. Here he shewed us an Ode to Mr. John Home, on his leaving England for Scotland, in the octave stanza, very long, and beginning, "Home, thou return'st from Thames!" I remember there was a beautiful description of the spectre of a man drowned in the night, or in the language of the old Scotch superstitions — seized by the angry spirit of the waters, appearing to his wife with pale blue cheek, &c. Mr. Home has no copy of it. He also shewed us another ode, of two or three four-lined stanzas, called the Bell of Arragon; on a tradition that, anciently, just before a king of Spain died, the great bell of the cathedral of Sarragossa, in Arragon, tolled spontaneously. It began thus:

The bell of Arragon, they say,
Spontaneous speaks the fatal day, &c.

Soon afterwards were these lines:—

Whatever dark aerial power,
Commission'd, haunts the gloomy tower.

The last stanza consisted of a moral transition to his own death and knell, which he called "some simpler bell." I have seen all his Odes already published in his own hand-writing; they had the marks of repeated correction; he was perpetually changing his epithets. I had lately his first manuscript of the Ode on the Death of Colonel Ross, with many interlineations and alterations. The lady to whom this Ode is addressed was Miss Elizabeth Goddard, who then lived at or near Harting, in Sussex. In the first stanza, my manuscript has "sunk in grief," for "stained with blood." The fourth stanza stood thus:

Ev'n now, regardless of his doom,
Applauding honour haunts his tomb,
With shadowy trophies crown'd:
While freedom's form beside her roves,
Majestic; through the twilight groves,
And calls her heroes round.

The sixth stanza had "untaught" in the first line, instead of "unknown." The present seventh and eighth stanzas were not in the manuscript. In the present ninth stanza, instead of, "If weak to soothe so soft a heart," the reading was, "If drawn by all a lover's art." Many variations I have forgotten. Dr. Warton, my brother, has a few fragments of some other odes, but too loose and imperfect for publication, yet containing traces of high imagery. In the Ode to Pity, the idea of a Temple of Pity, of its situation, construction, and groupes of painting with which its walls were decorated, was borrowed from a poem, now lost, entitled the Temple of Pity, written by my brother, while he and Collins were school-fellows at Winchester College. He died at Chichester, and was buried in St. Andrew's Church, in that city, by the Rev. Mr. Shenton, on the fifteenth of June, in 1759. A monument has been erected to his memory in that church by his sister, now living at Chichester.

T. W.

The monument above-mentioned, which is on the south wall, next to the chancel of Saint Andrew's church, at Chichester, denotes that William Collins died June 12, 1759, aged 39.

Our poet's baptism is thus entered in the parish register of St. Peter's the Great, at Chichester: "William, the son of William Collins, then mayor of the city of Chichester, and Elizabeth, his wife, was baptised the 1st of January, 1721-2, in the parish of St. Peter the Great, alias Subdeanery."

In illustration of what Dr. Johnson has related, that during his last malady he was a great reader of the Bible, I am favoured with the following anecdote from the Rev. Mr. Shenton, vicar of St. Andrews, at Chichester, by whom Collins was buried. "Walking in my vicarial garden one Sunday evening, during Collins' last illness, I heard a female (the servant I suppose) reading the Bible in his chamber. Mr. Collins had been accustomed to rave much, and make great moanings; but while she was reading, or rather attempting to read, he was not only silent but attentive likewise, correcting her mistakes, which indeed were very frequent, through the whole of the twenty-seventh chapter of Genesis." I have just been informed, from undoubted authority, that Collins had finished a Preliminary Dissertation to be prefixed to his history of the Restoration of Learning, and that it was written with great judgment, precision, and knowledge of the subject.

T. W.