1749
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Superstitions Ode: The London Text.

An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland; considered as the Subject of Poetry. Inscribed to Mr. Home, Author of Douglas. By Mr. William Collins, Author of the Ode on the Passions, etc. Dedicated to the Wartons.

William Collins


This version, first printed in 1788 following that in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, supplies the lacunae and missing stanza-and-a-half from (its editor claims) an original MS. The Superstitions Ode was printed in this version in standard editions of Collins throughout the nineteenth century, before being rejected by William Bronson in his edition of 1898. It was revived by Edmund Blunden in his 1929 Poems of William Collins, though Collins's recent editors, Lonsdale, Wendorf, and Ryskamp, are unanimous in rejecting this version as spurious on the basis of substantial internal and external evidence.

Since this evidence is persuasive, one is left with the tantalizing question of who the forger might have been. Lonsdale cogently connects this version with a letter signed "Verax" that appeared in the St. James's Chronicle for 12-15 April 1788, shortly before the appearance of the London text. This letter quotes from Thomas Warton's yet-unpublished letter to John Hymers describing the Warton's 1752 visit to Collins. But in this first version of the letter, Thomas Warton says, or is made to say, that the MS he then saw was complete and ready for the press. The manuscript of the Warton letter, later printed in The York Chronicle (16 February 1797), no longer survives. Since in 1788 Thomas Warton was very much alive and quite capable of repudiating this account, Verax would seem to have been bold indeed. And if he is the same person as the editor of this London text, which is very prominently dedicated "to the Wartons," one can only surmise that he was madder than Collins or else in the confidence of the Wartons (who were known to have enjoyed playing games of this kind). Neither Warton came forward to denounce the forgery. Lonsdale surmises that they simply deigned to get involved.

One notes that the forger recognized, as Henry Mackenzie and Alexander Carlyle in their earlier reconstruction did not, that the structure of Collins's ode was symmetrical, and that the missing portion (which happens to be the most politically sensitive in the poem) would therefore need to be concerned with politics to balance the assembly of Scottish kings in the second half. Whatever Collins originally wrote in stanza five would very likely have discussed Stuart kings, to balance the "mighty kings of three fair realms" in the stanza nine.

Letter to the St. James's Chronicle: "Sir, Mr. Collins's beautiful Ode on the Superstitions of the Highlands, lately published in the Literary Class of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, appears to have been taken from a mutilated and incorrect Copy. That a more complete and even a perfect Copy once existed, may be proved from the following Anecdotes: — About five Years ago, Mr. John Hymers, a Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, circulated Proposals for printing the Works of Mr. Collins, with a Life and Notes. Mr. Wharton gave Mr. Hymers some curious Particulars relating to the Life of Collins. I have seen Mr. Hymers's Papers, who is since dead, from which I send you this short Extract. 'In 1754, I and my Brother, Dr. Wharton, visited Collins at Chichester, where he lived in the Cathedral Cloysters with his Sister. Here he shewed us an Ode to Mr. Home, on his Return from England to Scotland in 1749, full of the most striking superstitious Imagery. It was in his own Hand-writing, without a single Interpolation or Hiatus; and had every Appearance of the Authour's last Revisal, and of a Copy carefully and completely finished for the Press. I offered to take it with me to Town, &c.' On the whole we may conclude, that the Edinburgh Copy is nothing more than a foul and early Draught of this Composition. I am, Sir, Your's, VERAX" 12-15 April 1788, unpaginated.

Dedication: "To the Wartons. Gentlemen, The following Poem, being the long-lost treasure of your favourite Collins, is apology sufficient for dedicating it to you. Your mentioning it to Dr. Johnson, as it was the means that led to the imperfect first draught, so it likewise was the happy means of bringing this PERFECT copy to light. If the smallest poetic gem be admired by you, how much more must you exult, on being put in possession of the brightest jewel, according to your own opinions, of your dear departed friend? The world will no doubt, in this, soon join issue with you both, whose talents do honour to your country. Gentlemen, I am, with great regard, Your Literary Admirer, THE EDITOR" Sig. A4.

Preface. By the Editor: "A Gentleman who, for the present, chooses not to publish his name, discovered last summer the following admirable Ode, among some old papers, in the concealed drawers of a bureau, left him, among other articles, by a relation. The title struck him. The perusal delighted him. He communicated his valuable discovery to some literary friends, who advised him to publish it the ensuing winter. Mr. Collins, it would appear, by his great intimacy with Mr. Home, and his well-known predilection for Spenser and Tasso, made himself a master in the marvellous that characterized the rude ages. No wonder, then, that he paints the superstitious notions of the North so picturesquely poetical! By the public prints we are informed, that a Scotch clergyman lately discovered Collin's rude draught of this poem. It is however said to be very imperfect. The Vth stanza, and the half of the VIth, say the prints, being deficient, has been supplied by Mr. Mackenzie. It has been published in some of these diurnal papers; and is here annexed, as a note, for the purpose of comparison, and to do justice to the elegant author of the Man of Feeling. It is undoubtedly pretty; but wants all the wild boldness of the original, which is certainly one of the most Beautiful poems in the English language" (1789) Sig. A3.

Arthur Murphy: "Surely this gentleman, who found it in 'the drawers of a bureau,' should allow his name to be published, and give us the satisfaction of knowing whether it was in the hand-writing of Mr. Collins; which is, certainly, a material question. The lines that supply the chasm in the whole of the 5th and half of the 6th stanza, introduce the execution of Charles the first, the rebellion in 1745, the battles of Preston-Pans, Falkirk, and Culloden; but the style does not seem, to us, to be in the manner of Collins" Monthly Review 79 (December 1788) 555.

English Review: "A person, 'who chooses not to publish his name,' has been lucky enough to find this ode — after it had already been discovered in Scotland, and published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh! The time of this anonymous gentleman's publication renders his story suspicious; and the internal proof drawn from his edition of the ode will condemn him before every literary tribunal. Wherever this 'perfect copy' departs from the Scotch prototype its inferiority is perfectly conspicuous. The 'faber imus' is unhappy in thus blending his own lead with more precious metal; but industry is a commendable quality, and the editor might have pressing occasions for the production of an eighteen-penny pamphlet.... More attention has been paid to this publication than it deserves; but it is to more than its literary demerits that it owes that attention. We consider literary imposition in a serious light; and a cheat is not less so because he is a bungler in his profession. Even should this editor allege, with the needy apothecary, 'My poverty, but not my will, consents,' we must still consider him as a criminal" 12 (1788) 347, 350.

Edmund Blunden [who reprints this version of the poem]: "The text of the far-reaching Ode on the Popular Superstitions has been fought over many times. The anonymous London editor was a foolish, but I believe an honest man. I do not think he could have invented the passage lacking in the Edinburgh manuscript between stanza IV and the second half of stanza VI. Its historical enthusiasms could only have been produced when the Forty-Five was still recent, and are exactly in Collins's character. The clumsy defects of phrase are also evidences of transcription and not concoction. However, the dubious passages are included above within square brackets" Poems of William Collins (1929) 175.

Roger Lonsdale: "Bell's text is virtually no more than that of the Edinburgh Transactions, with alternative readings for every gap supplied by Carlyle and Mackenzie.... Wherever Carlyle had suggested that a stanza seemed to lack a line according to the general rhyme-scheme, the London edn dutifully supplied it. The punctuation of the Edinburgh edn is virtually reproduced intact. The London edn does include a few readings differing from C. himself (as opposed to Carlyle and Mackenzie), but these seem to be only what Wordsworth called 'alterations ... for alteration's sake': e.g. 'where' for 'whose' (l. 13); 'brawny' for 'bony' (l. 51); 'skill' for 'style' (l. 202); and a few other variants which are probably no more than misprints. As for the quality of the inserted stanzas, their feebleness has often been pointed out" Poems of Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith (1969) 498.

On the long and torturous history of Collins's manuscript, see Roger Lonsdale's fine headnote in Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Oliver Goldsmith (1969) 492-501. Lonsdale supplies external evidence that the lines were indeed a forgery, evidence that is supplemented by Wendorf and Ryskamp in a closer examination of textual variations, Works of William Collins (1979) 165-66.



I.
Home, 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 Levant'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 toil thou turn'st, where 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 thy 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, or mead or hill.
There, each trim lass, that skims the milky store
To the swart tribes, their creamy bowls allots;
By night they sip it round the cottage-door,
While airy minstrels warble jocund notes.
There, e'vry herd, by sad experience, 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, tho' 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.
Ev'n 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 pow'r had charm'd a Spenser's ear.
At ev'ry pause, before thy mind possest,
Old Runic bards shall seem to rise around,
With uncouth lyres, in many-colour'd 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 brawny swarms,
And hostile brothers met, to prove each others arms.

IV.
'Tis thine to sing, how, framing hideous spells,
In Sky's lone isle, the gifted wizard-seer,
Lodg'd in the wintry cave with Fate's fell spear;
Or in the depth of Uist's dark forest dwells:
How they, whose sight such dreary dreams engross,
With their own vision oft astonish'd droop,
When, o'er the watry strath, or quaggy moss,
They see the gliding ghosts unbodied troop.
Or, if in sports, or on the festive green,
Their destin'd 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.
To monarchs dear, some hundred miles astray,
Oft have they seen Fate give the fatal blow!
The Seer, in Sky, shriek'd as the blood did flow,
When headless Charles warm on the scaffold lay!
As Boreas threw his young Aurora forth,
In the first year of the first George's reign,
And battles rag'd in welkin of the North,
They mourn'd in air, fell Rebellion, slain!
And as, of late, they joy'd in Preston's fight,
Saw at sad Falkirk, all their hopes near crown'd!
They rav'd! divining, thro' their Second Sight,
Pale, red Culloden, where these hopes were drown'd!
Illustrious William! Britain's guardian name!
One William sav'd us from a tyrant's stroke;
He, for a sceptre, gain'd heroic fame,
But thou, more glorious, Slavery's chain hast broke,
To reign a private man, and bow to Freedom's yoke!

VI.
These, too, thou'lt sing! for well thy magic Muse
Can to the top-most heav'n of grandeur soar!
Or stoop to wail the swain that is no more!
Ah, homely swains! your homeward steps ne'er loose;
Let not dank Will mislead you to the heath:
Dancing in mirky night, o'er fen and lake,
He glows, to draw you downward to your death,
In his bewitch'd, low, marshy, willow brake!
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 my 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 smoaking hamlet, then!
To that sad spot where hums the sedgy weed:
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 banks, 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 watry 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 steep!
With drooping willows drest, his mournful sprite
Shall visit sad, perchance, her silent sleep:
Then he, perhaps, with moist and watry 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 accents speak:
"Pursue, dear wife, thy daily toils, pursue,
At dawn or dusk, industrious as before;
Nor e'er of me one helpless thought renew,
While I lie welt'ring on the ozier'd shore,
Drown'd by the Kelpie's wrath, nor e'er shall aid thee more!"

IX.
Unbounded is thy range; with varied skill
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 solemn hour,
The rifted mounds their yawning cells unfold,
And forth the Monarchs 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, oh, 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 scented 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 that 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, Shakspere's self, with ev'ry garland crown'd,
Flew to those fair climes his fancy sheen,
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,
Thro' 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 colour bold,
The native legends of thy land rehearse;
To such adapt thy lyre, and suit thy pow'rful 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 trembl'd, when, at Tancred's stroke,
Its 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, at each picture, vivid life starts here!
Hence its warm lay with softest sweetness flows!
Melting it flows, pure, murm'ring, 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 splendid friths 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;
Or o'er your mountains creep, in awful gloom!
Then will I dress once more the faded bow'r,
Where Jonson sat in Drummond's classic shade;
Or crop, from Tiviotdale, each lyric flow'r,
And mourn, on Yarrow's banks, where Willy's laid!
Meanwhile, ye pow'rs that on the plains which bore
The cordial youth, on Lothian's plains, attend!—
Where'er HOME dwells, on hill, or lowly moor,
To him I loose, your kind protection lend,
And, touch'd with love like mine, preserve my absent friend!

[(1789) 9-23]