1749
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands.

Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Vol. 1 (1788).

William Collins


The manuscript of the Superstitions Ode was recovered by Alexander Carlyle, who, after seeing a reference to the poem in Samuel Johnson's life of Collins, read it at the Literary Club of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1784. The complete title as assigned by the editor is "An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, considered as the Subject of Poetry." The poem was first printed by the Royal Society in 1788 with the gaps and missing stanza supplied by Henry Mackenzie. The Edinburgh text notes where the blanks had been filled in by, which amounted to an invitation for others to do the same, so that several versions were soon in circulation.

Roger Lonsdale's excellent headnote quotes a letter of Carlyle's in which he "added that he himself did not like the poem's 'Spencerian [sic] stanza' and regretted that 'the finest stanza in the Poem has too strong a resemblance to the description of the Man perishing in the Snow in Thomson's Winter'" Poems of Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith (1969) 494. In his letter recalling the 1754 visit to Collins, Thomas Warton, remembers the poem as written in the "octave" stanza, or ottava rima. Carlyle's remark is further evidence that eighteenth-century readers did not, like twentieth-century critics, regard only the nine-line form as "Spenserian." Warton's memory appears to have been misled by the poem's reference to Fairfax's Tasso, written in ottava rima.

In a happy conceit that underscores William Collins's theme of commerce across time and space, the visit of John Home to England mentioned at the beginning of the poem is paralleled by an allusion to the visit of Ben Jonson to Drummond at the close. Collins, who alludes to Spenser, Tasso, Fairfax, and Shakespeare in the poem, was a close student of renaissance poetry.

David Hume to Joseph Spence: "We may hope to see good Tragedies in the English Language. A young Man called Hume, a clergyman of this Country, discovers a very fine Genius for that Species of Composition. Some Years ago, he wrote a Tragedy called Agis which some of the best Judges, such as the Duke of Argyle, Sir George Lyttleton, Mr. Pitt, very much approv'd of. I own that I could perceive fine strokes in that Tragedy, I never cou'd in' general bring myself to like it: The Author, I thought, had corrupted his Taste by the Imitation of Shakspeare, whom he ought only to have admired. But the same Author has compos'd a new Tragedy on a Subject of Invention; and here he appears a true Disciple of Sophocles and Racine. I hope in time he will vindicate the English Stage from the reproach of Barbarism" 15 October 1754; in Spence, Anecdotes, ed. Singer (1820) 453.

Samuel Johnson: "He was visited at Chichester in his last illness by his learned friends Dr. Warton and his brother, to whom he spoke with disapprobation of his Oriental Eclogues, as not sufficiently expressive of Asiatick manners, and called them his 'Irish Eclogues.' He shewed them at the same time an ode inscribed to Mr. John Hume on the superstitions of the Highlands, which they thought superior to his other works, but which no search has yet found" Lives of the English Poets (1779-81) ed. Hill (1905) 3:340.

Thomas Warton: "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" December 1782; in The Gleaner (1811) 4:476.

Alexander Carlyle to Alexander Fraser Tytler: "Sir, I send you inclosed the original manuscript of Mr. Collins's poem, that, by comparing it with the copy which I read to the Society, you may be able to answer most of the queries put to me by the Committee of the Royal Society. The manuscript is in Mr. Collins's handwriting, and fell into my hands among the papers of a friend of mine and Mr. John Home's, who died as long ago as the year 1754. Soon after I found the poem, I shewed it to Mr. Home, who told me that it had been addressed to him by Mr. Collins, on his leaving London in the year 1749: That it was hastily composed and incorrect: but that he would one day find leisure to look it over with care. Mr. Collins and Mr. Home had been made acquainted by Mr. John Barrow, (the 'cordial youth' mentioned in the first stanza), who had been, for some time, at the university of Edinburgh; had been a volunteer, along with Mr. Home, in the year 1746; had been taken prisoner with him at the battle of Falkirk, and had escaped, together with him and five or six other gentlemen, from the castle of Down. Mr. Barrow resided in 1749 at Winchester, where Mr. Collins and Mr. Home were, for a week or two, together on a visit. Mr. Barrow was paymaster in America, in the war that commenced in 1756, and died in that country. I thought no more of the poem, till a few years ago, when, on reading Dr. Johnson's life of Collins, I conjectured that it might be the very copy of verses which he mentions, which he says was much prized by some of his friends, and for the loss of which he expresses regret. I sought for it among my papers; and perceiving that a stanza and a half were wanting, I made the most diligent search I could for them, but in vain. Whether or not this great chasm was in the poem when it first came into my hands, is more than I can remember, at this distance of time. As a curious and valuable fragment, I thought it could not appear with more advantage than in the Collection of the Royal Society" Transactions (1788) 65-66.

Alexander Fraser Tytler: "This ode is, beyond all doubt, the poem alluded to in the life of Collins by Johnson.... Struck by the singular beauty of this poem, of which, I believe, no man of taste will say that Dr. Warton and his brother have over-rated the merit, I could not help regretting the mutilated form in which it appeared; and, in talking on that subject to my friend Mr. Henry Mackenzie of the Exchequer, (a gentleman well known to the literary world by many ingenious productions) I proposed to him the task of supplying the fifth stanza, and the half of the sixth, which were entirely lost. How well he has executed that task, the public will judge; who, unless warned by the inverted commas that distinguish the supplemental verses, would probably never have discovered the chasm. Several hemistichs, and words left blank by Mr. Collins, had before been very happily supplied by Dr. Carlyle. These are likewise marked by inverted commas. They are a proof that this poem, as Dr. Carlyle has remarked, was hastily composed; but this circumstance evinces, at the same time, the vigour of the author's imagination, and the ready command he possessed of harmonious numbers" Transactions (1788) 64-65.

Anna Seward to Court Dewes: "Talking of odes, are you not charmed with the last Birth-day? It appears to me far the noblest and most interesting evr born to that hackneyed subject. The new one of Collins, so lately emerged from the oblivion into which it had fallen, also delights me. It is on the Highland superstitions, and is, I think, in his best manner" 17 June 1788; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:138.

Arthur Murphy: "The whole poem deserves an attentive perusal. A superficial reading will not discover its real beauties. It is the secret charm of simplicity that pervades the whole. We cannot refrain from once more regretting the mutilated and unfinished state in which we receive this last piece of Mr. Collins; and yet that so much has been saved, we think the public much obliged to Dr. Carlyle" Monthly Review 79 (December 1788) 536-37.

Thomas Dermody: "It is certain that our most inspired children of Fancy did not dwell, in patient apathy, on the niceties of composition. What can be more fervid and engaging than the irregular graces of Collins? who was a professed admirer of our old bards; who made them his chief study, and even forfeited the estimation of all but the congenial few through a desire of indulging in these rapturous excursions. There are some (and those by far the most delicious) of his odes, which to a common plodding reader would appear verging closely on the confines of absolute insanity; but I am much deceived if they appear so to the man whose 'eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, | Glances from heav'n to earth, from earth to heav'n'" in Raymond, Life of Dermody (1806) 2:305.

Henry Mackenzie: "A gentleman who proposed publishing a new edition of Collins's Works wrote to me (August 1826), asking if from my intimacy with John Home (who was at one time a good deal in the society of Collins) I could procure him any particulars of that poet's biography, but I could not, never having heard Mr. Home speak of Collins (probably from his thinking it an unpleasant subject), nor among Mr. Home's papers were any letters or notes from Collins concerning him. The beautiful Ode on the Superstitions in the Highlands lay long among Mr. Home's papers unknown to him till Dr. Carlyle found it and gave it to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I filled up at the desire of Mr. Tytler a chasm that had somehow been made in it, which obtained the Society's approbation; it was an almost extempore production, written the same evening in which Mr. Tytler asked me to write it" Anecdotes and Egotisms, ed. Harold W. Thompson (1927) 166.

Algernon Charles Swinburne: "His magnificent Highland ode, so villainously defaced after his death by the most impudent interpolations on record, has much in it of Millais, and something also of Courbet when the simple genius of that star-crossed idoloclast was content with such noble and faithful use of freedom as he displayed in a picture of upland fell and tarnside copse in the curving hollow of a moor, which was once exhibited in London. Here and here only, for vigour of virile grasp and reach of possessive eyesight, Burns himself was forestalled if not excelled. Here too is a visible power, duly and tenderly subdued into subordination, of command upon human emotion and homely sympathy, less intimate than in Burns and less profound than in Wordsworth, but none the less actual and vivid, which we hardly find elsewhere in this perfect painter of still life or starlit vision" The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:280.

Edmund Gosse: "In 1749, after a brief acquaintanceship with the Rev. John Home (1724-1808), afterwards popular as the author of the tragedy of Douglas, Collins addressed this friend in an ode, the longest of his existing works, 'On the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands.' An uncle in this year left the poet a small fortune, and feeling his nervousness grow upon him, Collins retired to Chichester. He was at this time only twenty-eight years of age, but no further writings of his have been preserved. In 1750 he wrote an 'Ode on the Music of the Grecian Theatre,' which he invited the Oxford composer, William Hayes (1707-1777), to set to music. Unfortunately this and 'The Bell of Arragon,' the latest of the odes of Collins, have never been recovered. Their immediate predecessor, in a mutilated condition, was printed in 1788. Collins's debilitated state of health gradually settled into absolute melancholia; in 1753 he went to France and Flanders to avert the coming horror, if possible, but returned worse than he went; and in 1754, during a visit to Oxford, had to be removed to a lunatic asylum. He lived in his sister's house in Chichester, hopelessly insane, and was released at last by death on the 12th June 1759, neglected by the world and scarcely remembered by his friends" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 232-33.

Oliver Elton: "The uncompleted Highland Ode, which lay some forty years unpublished, was inspired not by travel but by conversation and books. Collins did not, like Keats, go to the Highlands. In 1749 that indifferent poet, the amiable John Home, was with him at Winchester; and afterwards received from him a draft of the ode, dedicated to Home himself, and described by him as 'hastily composed and incorrect.' This MS. was heard of by Johnson and others, and lost, and found again. In the end it reached Alexander Carlyle, who read it out in 1784 to the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and it was printed in their Transactions of 1788. Words and phrases by Alexander Carlyle, and twenty-five continuous lines by Henry Mackenzie, were here inserted to fill the gaps, but are typographically marked. The text of the poem was long in confusion; the MS. was again lost; and a nameless editor, later in the year 1788, published a version containing changes and additions of varying merit; they have no satisfactory authority, and are now banned. If this unfinished poem had not been found we should not know the full measure of our regret that Collins was so early silenced. The roomy stanza of seventeen or eighteen lines (the plan is not regularly kept) seems to be his own discovery. It has something of a sonnet-ring, and the closing alexandrine echoes Spenser or Dryden" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:52.

Bernard Groom: "Though not so carefully 'sifted' in style as The Castle of Indolence, the ode makes a similar attempt to launch a flight of imagination on the wings of rare words. Indeed, Spenser is himself mentioned as one who would have rejoiced to hear the 'strange lays' of the North" The Diction of English Poetry (1955) 152.

See the headnote in Roger Lonsdale's edition of Poems of Collins, Gray, and Goldsmith for a circumstantial account of the remarkable story surrounding the publication of this poem and its subsequent adventures.



I.
H—, thou return'st from Thames, whose Naiads long
Have seen thee ling'ring, with a fond delay,
Mid those soft friends, whose hearts, some future day,
Shall melt, perhaps, to hear thy tragic song.
Go, not unmindful of that cordial youth,
Whom, long endear'd, thou leav'st by Lavant's side;
Together let us wish him lasting truth,
And joy untainted with his destin'd bride.
Go! nor regardless, while these numbers boast
My short-liv'd bliss, forget my social name;
But think far off how, on the southern coast,
I met thy friendship with an equal flame!
Fresh to that soil thou turn'st, whose ev'ry vale
Shall prompt the poet, and his song demand:
To thee thy copious subjects ne'er shall fail;
Thou need'st but take the pencil to thy hand,
And paint what all believe who own thy genial land.

II.
There must thou wake perforce thy Doric quill,
'Tis Fancy's land to which thou sett'st thy feet;
Where still, 'tis said, the fairy people meet
Beneath each birken shade on mead or hill.
There each trim lass that skims the milky store,
To the swart tribes their creamy bowl allots;
By night they sip it round the cottage-door,
While airy minstrels warble jocund notes.
There every herd, by sad expedience, knows
How, wing'd with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly;
When the sick ewe her summer food foregoes,
Or, stretch'd on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.
Such airy beings awe th' untutor'd swain:
Nor thou, though learn'd, his homelier thoughts neglect;
Let thy sweet muse the rural faith sustain:
These are the themes of simple, sure effect,
That add new conquests to her boundless reign,
And fill, with double force, her heart-commanding strain.

III.
E'en yet preserv'd, how often may'st thou hear,
Where to the pole the Boreal mountains run,
Taught by the father to his list'ning son
Strange lays, whose power had charm'd a SPENCER'S ear.
At ev'ry pause, before thy mind possest,
Old RUNIC bards shall seem to rise around,
With uncouth lyres, in many-coloured vest,
Their matted hair with boughs fantastic crown'd:
Whether thou bid'st the well-taught hind repeat
The choral dirge that mourns some chieftain brave,
When ev'ry shrieking maid her bosom beat,
And strew'd with choicest herbs his scented grave;
Or whether, sitting in the shepherd's shiel,
Thou hear'st some sounding tale of war's alarms;
When, at the bugle's call, with fire and steel,
The sturdy clans pour'd forth their bony swarms,
And hostile brothers met to prove each other's arms.

IV.
'Tis thine to sing, how framing hideous spells
In SKY'S lone isle the gifted wizzard sits,
"Waiting in" wint'ry cave his wayward "fits;"
Or in the depth of UIST'S dark forest dwells:
How they, whose sight such dreary dreams engross,
With their own visions oft astonish'd droop,
When o'er the wat'ry strath or quaggy moss
They see the gliding ghosts unbodied troop.
Or if in sports, or on the festive green,
Their "piercing" glance some fated youth descry,
Who, now perhaps in lusty vigour seen
And rosy health, shall soon lamented die.
For them the viewless forms of air obey
Their bidding heed, and at their beck repair.
They know what spirit brews the stormful day,
And heartless, oft like moody madness stare
To see the phantom train their secret work prepare.

V.
"Or on some bellying rock that shades the deep,
They view the lurid signs that cross the sky,
Where, in the west, the brooding tempests lie,
And hear their first, faint, rustling pennons sweep.
Or in the arched cave, where deep and dark
The broad, unbroken billows heave and swell,
In horrid musings rapt, they sit to mark
The labouring moon; or list the nightly yell
Of that dread spirit, whose gigantic form
The seer's entranced eye can well survey,
Through the dim air who guides the driving storm,
And points the wretched bark its destin'd prey.
Or him who hovers, on his flagging wing,
O'er the dire whirlpool, that, in ocean's waste,
Draws instant down whate'er devoted thing
The failing breeze within its reach hath plac'd—
The distant seaman hears, and flies with trembling haste.

VI.
"Or, if on land the fiend exerts his sway,
Silent he broods o'er quicksand, bog, or fen,
Far from the shelt'ring roof and haunts of men,
When witched darkness shuts the eye of day,
And shrouds each star that wont to cheer the night;
Or, if the drifted snow perplex the way,
With treach'rous gleam he lures the fated wight,
And leads him flound'ring on, and quite astray."
What though far off, from some dark dell espied,
His glimm'ring mazes cheer th' excursive sight,
Yet turn, ye wand'rers, turn your steps aside,
Nor trust the guidance of that faithless light;
For watchful, lurking, 'mid th' unrustling reed,
At those mirk hours the wily monster lies,
And listens oft to hear the passing steed,
And frequent round him rolls his sullen eyes,
If chance his savage wrath may some weak wretch surprise.

VII.
Ah, luckless swain, o'er all unblest indeed!
Whom late bewilder'd in the dank, dark fen,
Far from his flocks and smoking hamlet then!
To that sad spot "his wayward fate shall lead:"
On him enrag'd, the fiend in angry mood,
Shall never look with pity's kind concern,
But instant, furious, raise the whelming flood
O'er its drown'd bank, forbidding all return.
Or, if he meditate his wish'd escape
To some dim hill that seems uprising near,
To his faint eye the grim and grisly shape,
In all its terrors clad, shall wild appear.
Meantime, the wat'ry surge shall round him rise,
Pour'd sudden forth from ev'ry swelling source.
What now remains but tears and hopeless sighs?
His fear-shook limbs have lost their youthly force,
And down the waves he floats, a pale and breathless corse.

VIII.
For him, in vain, his anxious wife shall wait,
Or wander forth to meet him on his way;
For him, in vain, at to-fall of the day,
His babes shall linger at th' unclosing gate.
Ah, ne'er shall he return! Alone, if night
Her travell'd limbs in broken slumbers sleep,
With dropping willows drest, his mournful sprite
Shall visit sad, perchance, her silent sleep:
Then he, perhaps, with moist and wat'ry hand,
Shall fondly seem to press her shudd'ring cheek,
And with his blue swoln face before her stand,
And, shiv'ring cold, these piteous actions speak:
Pursue, dear wife, thy daily toils pursue
At dawn or dusk, industrious as before;
Nor e'er of me one hapless thought renew.
While I lie welt'ring on the ozier'd shore,
Drown'd by the KAELPIE'S wrath, nor e'er shall aid thee more!

IX.
Unbounded is thy range; with varied stile
Thy muse may, like those feath'ry tribes which spring
From their rude rocks, extend her skirting wing
Round the moist marge of each cold Hebrid isle,
To that hoar pile which still its ruin shows:
In whose small vaults a pigmy-folk is found,
Whose bones the delver with his spade upthrows,
And culls them, wond'ring, from the hallow'd ground!
Or thither where beneath the show'ry west
The mighty kings of three fair realms are laid:
Once foes, perhaps, together now they rest.
No slaves revere them, and no wars invade:
Yet frequent now, at midnight's solemn hour,
The rifted mounds their yawning cells unfold,
And forth the monarch's stalk with sov'reign pow'r
In pageant robes, and wreath'd with sheeny gold,
And on their twilight tombs aerial council hold.

X.
But O! o'er all, forget not KILDA'S race,
On whose bleak rocks, which brave the wasting tides,
Fair Nature's daughter, Virtue, yet abides.
Go, just, as they, their blameless manners trace!
Then to my ear transmit some gentle song
Of those whose lives are yet sincere and plain,
Their bounded walks the rugged cliffs along,
And all their prospect but the wintry main.
With sparing temp'rance, at the needful time,
They drain the sainted spring, or, hunger-prest,
Along th' Atlantic rock undreading climb,
And of its eggs despoil the Solan's nest.
Thus blest in primal Innocence they live,
Suffic'd and happy with their frugal fare
Which tasteful toil and hourly danger give.
Hard is their shallow soil, and bleak and bare;
Nor ever vernal bee was heard to murmur there!

XI.
Nor need'st thou blush, that such false themes engage
Thy gentle mind, of fairer stores possest;
For not alone they touch the village breast,
But fill'd in elder time th' historic page.
There SHAKESPEARE'S self, with ev'ry garland crown'd,
In musing hour, his wayward sisters found,
And with their terrors drest the magic scene,
From them he sung, when mid his bold design,
Before the Scot afflicted and aghast,
The shadowy kings of BANQUO'S fated line,
Through the dark cave in gleamy pageant past.
Proceed, nor quit the tales which, simply told,
Could once so well my answ'ring bosom pierce;
Proceed, in forceful sounds and colours bold
The native legends of thy land rehearse;
To such adapt thy lyre and suit thy powerful verse.

XII.
In scenes like these, which, daring to depart
From sober truth, are still to nature true,
And call forth fresh delight to Fancy's view,
Th' heroic muse employ'd her TASSO'S art!
How have I trembled, when at TANCRED'S stroke,
In gushing blood the gaping cypress pour'd;
When each live plant with mortal accents spoke,
And the wild blast upheav'd the vanish'd sword!
How have I sat, when pip'd the pensive wind,
To hear his harp by British FAIRFAX strung.
Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind
Believ'd the magic wonders which he sung!
Hence at each sound imagination glows;
Hence his warm lay with softest sweetness flows;
Melting it flows, pure, numerous, strong and clear,
And fills th' impassion'd heart, and wins th' harmonious ear.

XIII.
All hail, ye scenes that o'er my soul prevail,
Ye "spacious" firths and lakes which, far away,
Are by smooth ANNAN fill'd, or past'ral TAY,
Or DON's romantic springs, at distance hail!
The time shall come when I, perhaps, may tread
Your lowly glens, o'erhung with spreading broom,
Or o'er your stretching heaths by fancy led:
Then will I dress once wore the faded bow'r,
Where JOHNSON sat in DRUMMOND'S "social" shade,
Or crop from Tiviot's dale each "classic flower,"
And mourn on Yarrow's banks "the widow'd maid."
Meantime, ye Pow'rs, that on the plains which bore
The cordial youth, on LOTHIAN'S plains attend,
Where'er he dwell, on hill, or lowly muir,
To him I lose, your kind protection lend,
And, touch'd with love like mine, preserve my absent friend.

[pp. 67-75]