An elegy in octosyllabic couplets; at the beginning of 1746 the Jacobite forces were marching southwards towards London and meeting with little resistance. William Collins's "hermit" and "pilgrim grey" were stock figures in Miltonic imagery, but never before employed with such fine lyric compression. Compare the lines Ambrose Philips addresses to the Duke of Gloucester ("Albino") in his third pastoral: "O peaceful may thy gentle Spirit rest! | The flow'ry Turf lye light upon thy Breast; | Nor shrieking Owl, nor Bat, fly round thy Tomb, | Nor Midnight Fairies there to revel come" Miscellany Poems (1709) 22.
"How sleep the Brave" became one of best-known lyrics of the eighteenth century. It was anonymously reprinted in the Annual Register for 1767 under the curious title, "A Reflection on the Death of the Marquis of Tavistock." On 25 May 1775 it was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette as "applicable to the memory of those American Heroes who fell in our late victory gained by the Massachusetts Bay militia over the British Army, commanded by earl Piercy."
James Montgomery: "The melody of the verse leaves nothing for the ear to desire, except a continuance of the strain, or, rather, the repetition of a strain which cannot tire by repetition. The imagery is of the most delicate and exquisite character, — Spring decking the turfy sod; Fancy's feet treading upon the flowers there; Fairy hands ringing the knell; unseen forms singing the dirge of the glorious dead; but, above all, and never to be surpassed in picturesque and imaginative beauty, Honour, as an old and broken soldier, coming on far pilgrimage to visit the shrine where his companions in arms are laid to rest; and Freedom, in whose cause they fought and fell, — leaving the mountains and fields, the hamlets and the unwalled cities of England delivered by their valour" Lectures (1833) 171-72.
W. J. Courthope: "Among the pioneers of the Romantic movement in English poetry Gray and Collins alone are entitled to be considered great constructive artists. Both of them were men of strong natural sense. Both recognised the impossibility of restoring a past which in sentiment they regretted. Both, on the other hand, were eager to extend the bounds of culture and imagination, as far as was possible, by scientific study. Hence they were able to use the forms of classic English diction which they had inherited from their predecessors to express the romantic love of the past which they breathed in the atmosphere of their own age. And accordingly, when the force of the French Revolution imparted a shock of genuine emotion to the whole system of English society, the classico-romantic lyrical forms employed by Gray and Collins afforded instruments of expression easily capable of enlargement by the two poets whose genius was most stimulated by the active energy of that Revolution, Byron and Shelley" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 5:419-20.
Eric Partridge: "The Ode Written in the beginning of the year 1746 has long been a favourite in anthologies — and deservedly so: an able French critic (Montegut) claimed that 'since Ariel's Full Fathom Five (1612) nothing had appeared comparable in its kind to the elfin music' of the second stanza" Eighteenth-Century English Romantic Poetry (1924) 85.
Byron aptly alludes to Collins's lines when describing the carnage of the Peninsular War in the first canto of Childe Harold: "There shall they rot — Ambition's honour'd fools! | Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay! | Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools, | The broken tools, that tyrants cast away" (1812) 29.
John Langhorne's Observations:
"The ode written in 1746, and the ode to Mercy, seem to have been written on the same occasion, viz. the late rebellion; the former in memory of those heroes who fell in defence of their country, the latter to excite sentiments of compassion in favour of those unhappy and deluded wretches who became a sacrifice to public justice.
"The language and imagery of both are very beautiful; but the scene and figures described, in the strophe of the ode to Mercy, are exquisitely striking, and would afford a painter one of the finest subjects in the world" Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins (1765) 161.
How sleep the Brave, who sink to Rest,
By all their Country's Wishes blest!
When Spring, with dewy Fingers cold,
Returns to deck their hallow'd Mould,
She there shall dress a sweeter Sod
Than Fancy's Feet have ever trod.
By Fairy Hands their knell is rung,
By Forms unseen their Dirge is sung;
There Honour comes, a Pilgrim grey,
To bless the Turf that wraps their Clay,
And Freedom shall a-while repair
To dwell a weeping Hermit there!