The standard anthology view of Collins, one of the most important eighteenth century precursors of English Romanticism, is misleading. The three poems by which he is generally known, “Ode to Evening,” “How Sleep the Brave,” and “The Passions,” more adequately reflect the general tradition of mid-eighteenth century poetry than they do Collins’ pre-Romanticism and his individuality and achievement as a poet. It is comparatively easy to acquire a fuller and more just knowledge of Collins’ work, however, for he left only two dozen poems before his last long illness and early death. Among them are his juvenilia, the four PERSIAN ECLOGUES; several songs; a verse epistle; and about fifteen odes. The eclogues and the epistle are largely uninspired and show only occasionally the poetic power which impresses one so much in the odes.
Though most of Collins’ odes were written in the English Pindaric tradition, two of his better known poems, “How Sleep the Brave” and the “Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson,” are Horatian in form. (Pindar was a sixth century B.C. Greek poet famous for his odes celebrating victories in athletic contests; his style is soaring, allusive, and complex. Horace, the model “classical” poet, was a first century Roman lyric poet whose style was direct and concise.) The English Pindaric ode, though it always developed a single, central theme, meanders unpredictably through a series of situations which expand and comment on the central theme. The diction and imagery are rich and evocative, and the metrical pattern changes continually, though in an ordered system of strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The English Horatian ode, on the other hand, goes directly to the point, is based on concise statement and plain diction, and uses a single, regular metrical stanzaic pattern.
Collins’ verse exhibits at least five recurring themes. First, Collins is concerned with the role of fancy or imagination in poetry. He feels that fancy rather than reason, in the eighteenth century sense, is the essential trait of the poet and of poetry. Second, Collins is a critic of literature, and his criticism is conditioned by his concern for the imagination. He is quite dissatisfied with the literature of his own and most other periods. Third, Collins is interested in folklore and its use in literature, again mainly as a manifestation of imagination. Fourth, and at first glance rather out of character, he often emphasizes patriotic and political themes. Fifth, what almost amounts to a leitmotif rather than a conscious theme, Collins continually brings a psychological, almost clinical concern with emotion forward in his poems. This theme, of course, is also tied in with the problem of imagination, especially of Collins’ own imagination.
Each of these five themes dominates a focal poem or group of poems; however, since each theme is related organically to the others, all or most of them appear in every poem. For example, the poems which are central to Collins’ ideas about the role of imagination in literature are often the same poems in which he advances his critical judgments, since these two subjects are naturally two sides of the same problem. In the “Ode on the Poetical Character,” Collins develops the idea that imagination is the soul of poetry. He likens the poet’s act of creation to God’s creation of the earth; God, like the poet, is shown creating not when he is moved by a rational plan, but by sudden inspiration and imagination. In the same poem Collins, speaking as a literary critic, names Milton as the poet who last showed true poetic imagination. Waller, Milton’s contemporary and the founder of the neo-classical tradition dominant in Collins’ own day—the Augustan tradition of Pope and Johnson—is presented as the unimaginative antithesis of Milton. Collins, significantly, closes the poem with the claim that imaginative greatness is denied to himself and his contemporaries.
Among other poems which...