William Collins was born in Chichester, Sussex, the son of a hatter who had twice been mayor of the town. He was educated at the Prebendal School in Chichester where he had some of his poetry published and made a lifelong friendship with the poet and critic Joseph Warton. He went on from there to Queens College, Oxford, later transferring to Magdalene where he gained his BA in 1743. Whilst at university he published his first major work, Persian Eclogues, which he had begun at school. This was followed by Verses Humbly Adress’d to Sir Thomas Hanmer, former speaker of the House of Commons.
His mother died in 1744 (he had lost his father while still at school) and shortly afterwards he moved to London, having been forced to leave university because of his debts occasioned by his extravagant lifestyle. Determined to develop a literary career, he was befriended by a number of prominent writers and theatrical personalities such as Samuel Johnson, James Thomson, Samuel Foote and David Garrick. In 1746 he published his principal work, Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects and in the years that followed wrote several more poems including Dirge in Cymbeline in 1749 in memory of his friend, the poet James Thomson, who had died the previous year. He was temporarily rescued from poverty by a legacy of £2,000 from an uncle who died in 1749. However, after this was exhausted a combination of depression and drunkenness led to a complete breakdown and in 1754 he was confined to McDonald’s Madhouse in Chelsea until he was removed into the care of his sister Anne for the last few pitiful years of his life. He died in 1759, aged 38.
William Collins was one of the most skilled lyric poets of the 18th Century and although his output was slender, his poetry is distinguished by its sweetness, clarity of style, high imaginative quality and by exquisitely descriptive phrases. Six years after his death his poems were issued in a collective edition by John Langhorne. There is a tablet to his memory in Chichester Cathedral.