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Chichester Poets

by Lorna Still

Street view of North Street 1900, showing the Smith Brothers House, second from left

We have heard of Keats being inspired to write 'The Eve of St Agnes' in Chichester, and also of the trial of William Blake in the Guildhall, but Chichester has some home-grown poets too.

George Smith (1713-1776) was one of the three brothers known as 'Smiths of Chichester'. He was a noted landscape painter, but also wrote pastoral poetry of some merit, claiming that though 'I never made the art of writing my particular profession as a landscape painter induced me to study Nature very attentively'. This inspired ideas for poetry 'many of which I flatter myself are new.' His patron, the Duke of Richmond, bought many of Smith's paintings for Goodwood House, but also purchased six copies of the pastorals when Smith's daughters published a second edition in 1811.

William Collins was born on Christmas Day in 1721, on the site of what is now the Halifax building, 21 East Street. He was the son of a prosperous hatter who had also been Mayor of Chichester. He was educated at the Prebendal School before going on to Winchester and then Magdalen College Oxford, graduating in 1743. At Winchester College he befriended the poet and critic Joseph Warton and Collins's first published poetical work, 'To a Lady Weeping', appeared in 'The Gentleman's Magazine' in 1739. This was followed by the 'Persian Eclogues' in 1742 which proved quite popular.

Collins decided not to become a priest, instead moving to London, where an inheritance and an allowance from his uncle failed to fund his extravagant lifestyle. He had to leave, but not before he had befriended writer and poet Dr Samuel Johnson and actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick.

In his 'Lives of the Poets', Johnson describes Collins at that time as cheerful, with 'many projects in his head'. Warton and Collins planned a joint publication of their Odes, but the publisher only accepted Warton's work. Collins' 'Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegorical Subjects' was published in 1745, but they were not popular. Collins became ill with depression and he went to France, hoping that travel would help. However, his condition worsened and he was committed to MacDonald's madhouse in Chelsea in 1754, until his elder sister in Chichester decided to take care of him in her house adjoining the Cathedral cloisters. Collins looked for solace in the Bible and died on June 12th 1759, aged only 37.His 'Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands', begun ten years earlier, remained unfinished. He was buried in St Andrew's Oxmarket.

Collins' work gradually achieved greater recognition and he is now considered one of the most talented eighteenth-century lyric poets and a precursor of Romanticism. William Hayes set 'The Passions' to music in 1750. A playbill for May 20th 1808 at the Theatre in South Street (now Zizzi's) proudly advertised, 'End of Play, Miss Smith will recite Collins's celebrated 'Ode to the Passions' with appropriate music'.

A memorial by John Flaxman was placed in the Cathedral in 1795.

Charles Crocker led a very different life. He was born in Chichester on June 22nd 1797, to poor parents, and was one of a large family. He obtained a place at the local Grey Coat charity school where he developed a love of books, especially 'Pilgrim's Progress'. At eleven, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker for seven years and then worked as a shoemaker in his own right. He used the circulating library and also purchased books of poetry, including the work of William Collins. He read these in the evenings, repeating the words to himself as he worked during the day.

He was later employed in Mr Mason's bookselling department, but in 1845 he became Sexton of the Cathedral and later Bishop's Verger. He loved the Cathedral and said these years were the happiest of his life.

Crocker wrote poetry of his own, much of which reflected his religious faith. When the gravestone of Cathedral organist Thomas Kelway was found and recut in 1846, he wrote a sonnet about it. The Bishop of Chichester and Crocker's friends helped him to publish his poems and they appeared in 1860.