An allegorical ode in which the poet develops the georgic topic of time and change in an equisite blank verse lyric. Compare the Spenserian sunrise described by William Blake in To Spring, also unrhymed, which emulates Milton and Collins in lyric condensation and quasi-allegorical imagery. There are significant textual variants in what is today the best-known of Collins's poems. The Ode to Evening was a touchstone poem for early romantic poets and became one of the most frequently imitated odes written in the eighteenth century.
Edinburgh Magazine: "That succinct picture of the setting sun, in the 8th book of the Iliad, 'Now deep in ocean sunk the lamp of light, | Drawing behind the cloudy veil of night' has very strong outlines, and commends the warmest approbation of our judgment; but, being unadorned by other circumstances, and wanting objects to enliven the landscape, the applause ends with the judgment, and never sinks deep into the heart. Whereas the following scene, in Mr. Collins' Ode to the Evening, being animated by proper allegorical personages, and coloured highly with incidental expressions, warms the breast with a sympathetic glow of retired thoughtfulness: 'For, when thy folding star, arises, shews | His paly circlet...'" "Observations on Poetry and Painting" 2 (April 1758) 137.
Frank Sayers: "The measure used by Milton in his translation from Horace has been well received: it is adopted by Collins, in his Ode to Evening, and by other modern poets, with success" 1793 ca.; "On English Metres" in Poetical Works, ed. Taylor (1830) 17.
Anna Seward: "The lyric stanza without rhyme, was, I believe, first introduced by Milton, in his stiff, obscure translation of the 5th ode of the first book of Horace. This new order of verse was adopted, polished, and rendered exquisitely harmonious by Collins, in his ode to Evening; and it is the vehicle of those impressive, and beautiful thoughts, from the Author of Thalaba [Robert Southey] in his Ode to New Year's Day; than which no composition more interesting ever fell from his charming pen" Poetical Register for 1801 (1802; 1815) 411.
Samuel Egerton Brydges: "Dr. Warton, in a note to Milton's Translation of the 5th Ode, Lib. i, of Horace, in his brother's edition of that poet, says 'In this measure, my friend and schoolfellow, Mr. William Collins, wrote his admired Ode to Evening; and I know he had a design of writing many more Odes without rhyme.' T. Warton goes on to say, that 'Dr. J. Warton might have added, that his own Ode, to Evening was written before that of his friend Collins; as was a poem of his, entitled The Assembly of the Passions; before Collins's favourite Ode on that subject.' Mr. Wooll has inserted a prose sketch on this subject; but no poem" Censura Literaria 3 (1807) 198n.
Thomas Frognall Dibdin: "If Collins live by the reputation of one, more than of another, performance, it strikes me that his Ode to Evening will be THAT on which the voice of posterity will be more uniform in praise. It is a PEARL of the most perfect tint and shape" Library Companion (1824; 1825) 2:741n.
James Montgomery: "In smaller poems, blank verse has been rarely tried, except in numerous and nameless imitations of an indifferent prototype by Collins, — a poet who had, indeed, a curious ear, as well as an exquisite taste in versification; but both were of so peculiar a kind that neither the music of his numbers, nor the beauty of his imagery are always agreeable. The very structure of the stanza of his Ode to Evening, is so mechanical to the eye, — two long lines followed by two short ones, — that a presentiment (like an instinctive judgment in physiognomy) instantly occurs, that both thought and language must be fettered in a shape so mathematical, — wanting even the hieroglyphic recommendations of the metrical hatchets, wings, altars, and other exploded puerilities of the later Greek epigrammatists and the elder English rhymers. Collins's Ode itself is a precious specimen of mosaic work, in which the pictures are set with painful and consummate skill, but have a hard and cold effect, beyond the usual enamel of his style" Lectures (1833) 110.
Walter Savage Landor: "I have lately been reading an edition of Collins, with notes by Mrs. Barbauld. Some of them are just; others are unsatisfactory and even absurd. Of his best poem, his ode to Evening, she says it will 'probably be considered rather as a literary curiosity than as a successful pattern of a new mode of versification.' She had forgotten Milton's translation of Horace's ode to Pyrra. Her remarks on blank verse are equally feeble" 1851; in John Forster, Landor, a Biography (1869) 640.
Algernon Charles Swinburne: "His range of flight was perhaps the narrowest but assuredly the highest of his generation. He could not be taught singing like a finch: but he struck straight upward for the sun like a lark. Again, he had an incomparable and infallible eye for landscape; a purity, fidelity, and simple-seeming subtlety of tone, unapproached until the more fiery but not more luminous advent of Burns. Among all English poets he has, it seems to me, the closest affinity to our great contemporary school of French landscape-painters. Corot on canvas might have signed his Ode to Evening; Millet might have given us some of his graver studies, and left them as he did no whit the less sweet for their softly austere and simply tender gravity" The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:280.
William Minto: "Collins is best known by his Ode on the The Passions, but incomparably his finest and most distinctive work is the Ode to Evening. The superior popularity of The Passions is easily explained. It might be recited at a penny reading, and every line of its strenuous rhetoric would tell; every touch would be at once appreciated. But the beauties of the Ode to Evening are of a much stronger kind, and the structure of it is infinitely more complicated.... Give a quiet evening to it; return to it again and again; master the meaning of it deliberately part by part, and let the whole sink into your mind softly and gradually, and you will not regret the labour" Literature of the Georgian Era (1894) 80-81.
George Saintsbury: "We shall meet with this uncovenanted rhymelessness not seldom; and it would be premature to discuss it in its first example, which, however, it may not be premature to say, remains by far the most successful ever written. In fact, we ought to be particularly grateful for it, because it shows, with as little adventitious aid as possible, how exquisite Collins's ear was. Yet is is impossible not to think how much more beautiful it would be with rhyme" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 2:514.
Myra Reynolds: "The poem was doubtless the result of personal experience, for it notes facts, such as the rising of the beetle in the path at twilight, that were not yet stock poetical property. The lines, 'Thy dewy fingers draw | The gradual dusky veil,' could hardly have been written by one unfamiliar with the slow disappearance of a landscape as night comes on. More remarkable are the simplicity and directness of touch by which the few details are made to stand for complete pictures. The cloudy sunset, the silence of evening, the calm lake amid the upland fallows, the fading view, the windy day in autumn, are all excellent examples of the stimulative as opposed to the delineative description" The Treatment of Nature in English Poetry (1909) 123.
Edmund Blunden: "Keats in the Ode to Autumn has followed Collins in the general setting, and some details, of his poem. 'Thou hast thy music too' is the first note in Collins, and instead of the bat and beetle Keats's Spirit is attended by the gnat and the swallow. The silvered fallows of Collins were never far from the 'stubble-plains' touched 'with rosy hue' of the later genius. Indeed, in Collins, Chatterton, and Keats we have almost a single poet" Poems of Collins (1929) 172.
The Ode to Evening was reprinted in Dodsley's collection and became popular enough to be frequently imitated. Among others, there is "An Ode to the Memory of Miss B— in the Manner of Collins's Ode to Evening appeared in Universal Magazine 28 (April 1761 208; Samuel Egerton Brydges reworks the poem as a sonnet in To Evening, in Sonnets and other Poems (1785) 9; a paraphrase by the sonneteer Thomas Enort Smith appeared in the European Magazine 34 (December 1798) 403-04.
John Langhorne's Observations:
"The blank ode has for some time solicited admission into the English poetry; but its efforts, hitherto, seem to have been vain, at least its reception has been no more than partial. It remains a question, then, whether there is not something in the nature of blank verse less adapted to the lyric than to the heroic measure, since, though it has been generally received in the latter, it is yet unadopted in the former. In order to discover this, we are to consider the different modes of these different species of poetry. That of the heroic is uniform; that of the lyric is various; and in these circumstances of uniformity and variety probably lies the cause why blank verse has been successful in the one, and unacceptable in the other. While it presented itself only in one form, it was familiarized to the ear by custom; but where it was obliged to assume the different shapes of the lyric muse, it seemed still a stranger of uncouth figure, was received rather with curiosity than pleasure, and entertained without that ease or satisfaction which acquaintance and familiarity produce — Moreover, the heroic blank verse obtained a sanction of infinite importance to its general reception, when it was adopted by one of the greatest poets the world ever produced, and was made the vehicle of the noblest poem that ever was written. When this poem at length extorted that applause which ignorance and prejudice had united to withhold, the versification soon found its imitators, and became more generally successful than even in those countries from whence it was imported. But lyric blank verse had met with no such advantages; for Mr. Collins, whose genius and judgment in harmony might have given it so powerful an effect, has left us but one specimen of it in the Ode to Evening.
"In the choice of his measure he seems to have had in his eye Horace's ode to Pyrrha; for this ode bears the nearest resemblance to that mixed kind of the asclepiad and pherecratic verse; and that resemblance in some degree reconciles us to the want of rhyme, while it reminds us of those great masters of antiquity, whose works had no need of this whimsical jingle of sounds.
"From the following passage one might be induced to think that the poet had it in view to render his subject and his versification suitable to each other on this occasion, and that, when he addressed himself to the sober power of Evening, he had thought proper to lay aside the foppery of rhyme; 'Now teach me, maid composed | To breathe some soften'd strain, | Whose numbers, stealing through thy darkening vale, | May not unseemly with its stillness suit, | As, musing slow, I hail Thy genial loved return!' But whatever were the numbers, or the versification of this ode, the imagery and enthusiasm it contains could not fail of rendering it delightful. No other of Mr. Collins's odes is more generally characteristic of his genius. In one place we discover his passion for visionary beings: 'For when thy folding-star arising shows | His paly circlet, at his warning lamp | The fragrant Hours, and Elves | Who slept in buds the day, | And many a Nymph who wreathes her brows with sedge, | And sheds the freshening dew, and, lovelier still, | The pensive Pleasures sweet, | Prepare thy shadowy car.' In another we behold his strong bias to melancholy: 'Then let me rove some wild and heathy scene, | Or find some ruin 'midst its dreary dells, | Whose walls more awful nod | By thy religious gleams.' Then appears his taste for what is wildly grand and magnificent in nature; when, prevented by storms from enjoying his evening walk, he wishes for a situation, 'That from the mountain's side | Views wilds and swelling floods' and through the whole, his invariable attachment to the expression of painting: — 'and marks o'er all | Thy dewy fingers draw | The gradual dusky veil.' It might be a sufficient encomium on this beautiful ode to observe, that it has been particularly admired by a lady to whom nature has given the most perfect principles of taste. She has not even complained of the want of rhyme in it; a circumstance by no means unfavourable to the cause of lyric blank verse; for surely, if a fair reader can endure an ode without bells and chimes, the masculine genius may dispense with them" Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins (1765) 168-73.
If aught of Oaten Stop, or Pastoral Song,
May hope, O pensive Eve, to sooth thine Ear,
Like thy own brawling Springs,
Thy Springs, and dying Gales,
O Nymph reserv'd, while now the bright-hair'd Sun
Sits in yon western Tent, whose cloudy Skirts,
With Brede ethereal wove,
O'erhang his wavy Bed:
Now Air is hush'd, save where the weak-ey'd Bat,
With short shrill Shriek flits by on leathern Wing,
Or where the Beetle winds
His small but sullen Horn,
As oft he rises 'midst the twilight Path,
Against the Pilgrim born in heedless Hum:
Now teach me, Maid compos'd,
To breathe some soften'd Strain,
Whose Numbers stealing thro' thy darkning Vale,
May not unseemly with its Stillness suit;
As musing slow, I hail
Thy genial lov'd Return!
For when thy folding Star arising shews
His paly Circlet, at his warning Lamp
The fragrant Hours, and Elves
Who slept in Buds the Day,
And many a Nymph who wreathes her Brows with Sedge,
And sheds the fresh'ning Dew, and, lovelier still,
The Pensive Pleasures sweet,
Prepare thy shadowy Car.
Then let me rove some wild and heathy Scene,
Or find some Ruin 'midst its dreary Dells,
Whose Walls more awful nod
By thy religious Gleams.
Or if chill blustering Winds, or driving Rain,
Prevent my willing Feet, be mine the Hut,
That from the Mountain's Side
Views Wilds, and swelling Floods,
And Hamlets brown, and dim-discover'd Spires,
And hears their simple Bell, and marks o'er all
Thy Dewy Fingers draw
The gradual dusky Veil.
While Spring shall pour his Show'rs, as oft he wont,
And bathe thy breathing Tresses, meekest Eve!
While Summer loves to sport
Beneath thy ling'ring Light:
While sallow Autumn fills thy Lap with Leaves,
Or Winter yelling thro' the troublous Air,
Affrights thy shrinking Train,
And rudely rends thy Robes.
So long regardful of thy quiet Rule,
Shall Fancy, Friendship, Science, smiling Peace,
Thy gentlest Influence own,
And love thy fav'rite Name!