WILLIAM COLLINS, the son of a hatter, was born at Chichester, about the year 1721. He was educated at Winchester School, and, at the age of nineteen, stood first on the list of scholars upon the foundation, for New College, Oxford, but there being no vacancy, he was admitted a commoner of Queen's, and, in 1741, was elected a demy of Magdalen College. His literary exercises at the university are said to have exhibited much genius and great indolence, and a mind ill calculated to pore over the intricate and puzzling problems of Euclid. Whilst he was at Magdalen College, he wrote his poetical epistle to Sir Thomas Hanmer, and his Oriental Eclogues, which, in the year 1742, were published under the title of Persian Eclogues. The best of these is Hassan the Camel Driver; but the whole evince much poetical taste and feeling, though, it seems, they met with but moderate success. After having graduated B.A. he, in 1744, came to London, with no other prospects than those of a literary adventurer, with many projects in his head, and little money in his pocket.
This was soon dissipated, and although he had abilities that would have quickly supplied his pecuniary wants, his natural indolence would not suffer him to act beyond the sketch of a plan or a title-page. Among other schemes, he published proposals for the History of the Revival of Learning, but it does not appear that a page of it was ever written. At length, in 1746, after having endured the servility of dependence to a most degrading extent, he published his Odes, descriptive and allegorical, the sale of which, it is said, was not sufficient to pay for the printing. Such was the disgust of Collins, that he returned to the publisher, Millar, the trifling advance that was made to him, and burnt all the unsold copies. His indignation is not to be wondered at, when it is considered, that among these odes were some that are now the most popular in our language, and that one of them was his celebrated Ode to the Passions. His pecuniary distress now increased, and being arrested shortly afterwards, he procured his release by an advance from the booksellers, on his undertaking a translation of Aristotle's Poetics.
On his getting out of the hands of the bailiff, he paid a visit to his uncle, Colonel Martin, then with his regiment in Flanders, who treated him with great kindness, and at his death, bequeathed to him a legacy of £2,000. He was now raised to a state of comparative affluence, but no sooner were his physical comforts secured, than a depression of spirits succeeded, which ended in an almost absolute alienation of mind. To use the words of Dr. Johnson, "Collins, who, while he studied to live, felt no evil but poverty, no sooner lived to study, than his life was assailed by the more dreadful calamities of disease and insanity."
On his feeling the first approaches of this dreadful malady, he took to the bottle for relief, and, in the same hope, passed some time in France; but, on his return to England, he relapsed into a state that led to his confinement in a house of lunatics, whence he afterwards returned to the care of his sister in Chichester, where he died in 1756. In his last moments he had many lucid intervals, and Dr. Johnson, who visited him a short time before his death, found him with the New Testament: "I have but one book," said Collins, "but that is the best." He was also visited at Chichester, by Dr. Warton and his brother, to whom he spoke with disapprobation of his Oriental Eclogues, as not sufficiently expressive of Asiatic manners, and called them his Irish Eclogues. Collins's malady was a deficiency rather of his vital than intellectual powers, and much of that "abandonment of soul," which marked the close of his life, has been ascribed to his attachment to a young lady who did not return his passion. The object of his adoration was born the day before him; and to this circumstance he made, in one of his gay moments, the following happy allusion. "Yours is a hard case," said a friend; "It is so, indeed," said Collins; "for I came into the world a day after the fair."
At Chichester, says Mr. D'Israeli, tradition has preserved some striking and affecting occurrences of the last days of the unhappy Collins. He would, it is said, haunt the aisles and cloisters of the cathedral, roving nights and days together; and when the choristers chaunted their anthem, the listening and bewildered poet, carried out of himself by the solemn strains and his own too susceptible imagination, moaned and shrieked, and awoke a sadness and terror most affecting in so solemn a place.
The character of Collins appears to have been amiable, and though he was given to idleness and dissipation, his morals, says Johnson, were pure, and his opinions pious. "His appearance," adds the doctor, "was decent and manly; his knowledge considerable; his views extensive; his conversation elegant, and his disposition cheerful." He was so free from vanity with respect to his own compositions, that after showing them to a friend, he would often snatch them away and throw them into the fire; and it is probable that many of his finest pieces were thus destroyed. As a poet, he is incontestably one of the finest ode writers this country has produced; both his temperament and his genius were, in the strictest sense of the word, poetical; and, under happier circumstances, he would probably have left behind him memorials of excellence in more than one style of poetry. In splendour and sublimity of thought, originality of idea, and felicity of expression, he is surpassed by none of his contemporaries; but he sometimes loses himself in flights of wild grandeur, where the generality of readers will find it hard to follow him. Johnson says that his diction was often harsh, unskilfully laboured, and injudiciously selected; and that his poems upon the whole extort praise, without affording pleasure: but the reputation of Collins is too firmly established to be affected by the censures even of the great critic, who has considered his works in the double character of friend and biographer.