Cecil Collins
The Poet 1941

Artwork details

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
The Poet
Date 1941
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 760 x 506 mm
frame: 915 x 660 x 63 mm
Acquisition Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the Art Fund 2001
Not on display


In 1940, shortly before he painted The Poet, Collins’s native city of Plymouth was bombed by the German air force. This assault on his home town recalled to Collins a dream that he had had as a child, sometime before the outbreak of World War I (1914-18). He had dreamed that Plymouth was on fire and the air was dense with falling ashes, which had led to the destruction of his mother’s house and many of his first paintings (Anderson, p.170). His recollection of this nightmare inspired the burning city in the background of this painting, the flames of which stretch out across the horizon. A network of straight red lines links the flames with the tree springing to life and the figure of the poet in the foreground. Despite his efforts to break free, the poet, dressed in a blue robe, is caught in the geometric construction which surrounds him. At the same time he is being blinded by the sun, a force from which he is unable to escape (Anderson, p.170).

William Anderson has suggested that ‘The effect of the sun on his face is like the hot fiery coal the seraph laid in Isaiah’s mouth to arouse the spirit of prophecy. The doomed city from which the evil influence of reductionist and cold analytical thought has stretched out to imprison him recalls the kings, the merchants and the shipmasters at the fall of the Babylon of Revelation’ (Anderson, p.170). Collins began writing his essay The Vision of the Fool in 1942. Published in 1947, this was a testament to the artist’s beliefs following the destruction and inhumanity caused by the war. He stated his concerns about the freedom of the arts from entrapment: ‘History shows that you cannot so easily exploit the artist and the poet. The artist and the poet should be an unexploitable element in society’ (quoted in Keeble, p.72).

Judith Collins has compared The Poet with two drawings of The Pilgrim from 1935 which depict muscular figures attempting to break free from the scaffolding which surrounds them (Collins, p.99). These images, terrifying in their intensity, prophesy an age described by the artist as ‘the mechanised society of modern life, with its vanity of knowledge, its cruel respectability, and its inhuman rejection of poetic consciousness’ (quoted in Keeble, p.80).

Further reading:
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.58, 149, 170-1, reproduced in colour pl.115
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, reproduced p.81
Brian Keeble (ed.), The Vision of the Fool and other writings, Ipswich 1994

Heather Birchall
September 2002