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NORTH-WEST, by Robert Walton
to face p. vi.
*THE SOUTH-WEST View of CHICHESTER,
by J. Ryland.
to face p. xvii.
*Reproduced from the originals in the Hope Collection, Oxford.
The only known portrait of William Collins represents him at the age of fourteen when he was at Winchester ; and in the .keen expressive eyes ', high forehead, round cheeks, and Cupid mouth it is not hard to trace the power as well as the delicacy and fastidiousness which enabled him to write the Persian Eclogues three years later. If anecdotes subsequently recorded are worthy of belief, he was, even in his boyhood, conscious of the melancholy career in store for him ; for a fellow-townsman and fellow-Wykehamist, Mr. William Smith of Chichester, remembered how one morning at school he had observed Collins to be particularly depressed, and when urged to disclose the cause, the boy spoke of a dream in which he walked through fields and climbed a lofty tree; when he had nearly reached the top a great branch broke and let him fall to the ground. The account of this simple dream caused much ridicule, till Collins explained that the tree was the Tree of Poetry. The first time that Mr. Smith saw him after they had left the College was at an interval of twelve or fifteen years, and when, in a deplorable state of mind, he had been long under confinement; but no sooner
had his old schoolfellow on this occasion presented himself, than he exclaimed, “Smith, do you remember my dream ?”Thus it sometimes happens that a trifling apprehension may be terribly confirmed, and may exercise a lasting impression on the mind that framed it.
The materials for a memoir of Collins are very scanty: a few letters written by his friends after his death; Dr. Johnson’s ‘Life', first published in
1 Fawkes' and Woty's Poetical Calendar and rewritten for the Lives of the Poets ; one letter by Collins preserved in Seward's Literary Anecdotes ; and many stray references in contemporary publications. To these must be added the results of the extensive and scholarly researches of editors, notably Langhorne, Dyce, Nicolas and Moy Thomas. The dearth of material is no doubt partly due to Collins's sister, with whom he lived during the last years of his life: according to her stepson she loved money to excess, and evinced so outrageous an aversion to her brother because he squandered or gave away to the boys in the cloisters whatever money he had, that she destroyed, in a paroxysm of resentment, all his papers, , and whatever remained of his enthusiasm for poetry, as far as she could.'
William Collins was born on Christmas Day, 1721, in a house on the north side of East Street, Chichester (No. 21, ‘Knight's '), possibly in the pannelled room now belonging to the Chichester Library; and he was christened in St. Andrew's Church, close at hand.
His father was a hatter of some repute, an alderman, more than once Mayor of the town; his mother was sister of Edmund Martin, Lieutenant-Colonel of the 8th Regiment of Foot, sometimes called the King's Own, who seems to have contributed largely to the support of the Collins family. There were two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, the younger of whom was sixteen years older than William. He was probably sent to the Prebendal school at Chichester ; and on Jan. 19, 1733, he was admitted a scholar of Winchester College, under Dr. John Burton. Here he soon began to write poetry; indeed his first poem, “The Battle of the School-books,' was composed when he was only twelve; one line survives :
And every Gradus Aapp'd his leathern wing. There is some doubt whether he was the Mr. William Collins whose poem on the projected marriage of Frederick Prince of Wales to the Princess Royal of Prussia was announced in the Gentleman's Magazine for March, 1734; the only reasons for attributing it to him are the coincidence of the name, which is sufficiently common, and the fact that the publisher, J. Roberts, afterwards published the Persian Eclogues.
In the Gentleman's Magazine for October, 1739, a trio of poems by Winchester boys, Joseph Warton, Tomkyns, and Collins, were inserted ; and in an article of the following month, attributed to Dr. Johnson, they were much commended, especially
Collins's Sonnet, which was said to carry 'a Force mix'd with Tenderness, and an uncommon Elevation '.
This is remarkable criticism, when we consider the poem itself and the epithets which Johnson applied to the poet's subsequent performances. During these years at Winchester Collins is said to have also written the song, "Young Damon of the vale is dead'; and it is certain that he had begun the Persian Eclogues before he left school. The idea was suggested to him by reading Salmon's Modern History, which contained chapters on Persia.
In 1740 Collins stood first on the list of scholars to be received in succession at New College, Oxford; but, as no vacancy occurred, he went as a commoner to Queen's College, and thence, in July, 1741, to Magdalen College, where he was elected to a demyship, possibly through the influence of his cousin William Payne, a fellow of that college. In the following January his Persian Eclogues were published by Roberts, and in December, 1743, Cooper published Verses to Sir Thomas Hanmer on his Edition of Shakespeare, by a Gentleman of Oxford.
His career at the University was not an academic triumph. His was a temperament strongly averse to any kind of routine; and his tutors no doubt regretted that a man of such ability should employ his time in writing poetry instead of essays. Perhaps too he showed signs of conceit and superciliousness. Gilbert White of Selborne, who, like Joseph Warton, was at Oriel College, said that Collins 'never looked