1738
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On Hercules.

Gentleman's Magazine 8 (January 1738) 45.

William Collins


A mildly bawdy satire on the Walpole administration once attributed to William Collins (who would have been but sixteen years of age in 1738). Whoever wrote the poem, a manuscript of a poem dated "Collins, Jun. 1747" was reportedly in the possession of the Wartons. Prodicus's fable on the Choice of Hercules, would figure in the writings of two other Winchester students, Robert Lowth and Joseph Spence; William Shenstone would also publish a poem on the subject. Hercules was a popular figure among opposition writers attacking government corruption.

This poem was first claimed for Collins in The Crypt, or Receptacle for Things Past 2 (1828) 56-58, edited by Peter Hall of Winchester College: "The M.S. of the following Poem (on a subject of most interesting applicability to certain braggadocios) was formerly in the possession of the great Thomas Warton, to whom it probably passed from his brother, the school-fellow and friend of Collins. In that family, we understand, it has always passed as a youthful production of the 'Cicestrian Bard'; it bears the appearance of a school exercise, written out for the Master's inspection..." quoted in Wendorf and Ryskamp, Works of William Collins (1979) 222.

In 1939 Collins's biographer P. L. Carver discovered the printed version, and accepted the attribution. Collins's more recent editors, Lonsdale as well as Wendorf and Ryskamp reject it, though the latter concede that "the description in The Crypt of a signed manuscript in the possession of Thomas Warton makes it difficult to dismiss the possibility that 'On Hercules' is in fact the work of the 16-year-old Collins" (1979) 223.

P. L. Carver: "'Hercules,' we need not hesitate to say, is worthy of the place claimed for it in the Collins canon. It is a fanciful satire on Walpole, than at the height of his power, and the horde of lordly time-servers who supported his Administration in return for honours and sinecures. The argument is that, just as in the earliest ages the earth was infested by 'strange Hydras, and Dragons, and things without name,' until Hercules was raised up by Jupiter to destroy them, so now the political world is threatened by a new kind of monster.... Three years earlier than the first appearance of 'Hercules' Thomson had published the first book of his poem Liberty, with a fulsome preface to Frederick, Prince of Wales.... It is very likely that Collins read Thomson's poem at Winchester, and found in it the inspiration for his juvenile satire. Thus, when he met Thomson, at Richmond some years later, and became one of his circle of friends, the elder and the younger poet would find that they had more than one interest in common" (1967) 16-17.



In ages that time has long since stole away,
Ere virtue by science was taught to decay;
Young nature such lengths in her wantonness run,
That she now and then gave us a monster for fun:
Strange hydras, and dragons, and things without name,
Stole honest mens lives, and repaid 'em with fame.
But living so long, and encreasing so fast,
Great Jove thought it fit to destroy 'em at last:
Tho' deem'd it beneath him, as he was a god,
To come and demolish an evil so odd;
So pleasure, and profit, at once to unite,
Resolv'd to get one who shou'd set matters right:
And leaving his wife, and his thunder behind,
To sleep on his eagles, and scold to the wind,
At once to Alcmena and Earth he was civil,
And hence 'rose Alcides — a good out of evil!
Then monsters were slain, nor was one to be found,
To feed on mankind, or incumber the ground:
But Hercules dy'd — and alas! we behold,
New monsters are made, not by nature but gold;
And wear such disguise, I'm told without joke,
That some have a garter and star for a cloke;
And some yet more sly, are disfigur'd with lawn,
Some wound with a smile, with a song or a kiss;
And some can destroy with a no or a yes:
Here's sphynxes, hyenas, and hydras, such store,
They'd employ mighty Jove, with one Hercules more.
O then aid us this once! put an end to the strife,
Myself (and she's handsome) will lend you my wife.
But stay — let me see — when my horns are come out,
He'll take even me for a monster, no doubt;
Then lest I shou'd share in the general drub,
Transform me, Oh Jupiter, into his — club.

[p. 45]