Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
James Gates Percival (17951856)
DR PERCIVAL was born on the 15th of September, 1795, in Kensington, a parish of Berlin, Connecticut. That parish had long been the residence of his paternal ancestorsthe family of the Percivals having removed to that place from East Haddam in the same state, two generations before. His maternal ancestors had lived in the town of Kensington, so called at first, from the time of its earliest settlement. The father of the poet, whose name was James, was a highly reputable physician in Kensington, where he died 1807, in the midst of life, much lamented by the inhabitants. He left a widow and four children, one daughter and three sons, with a valuable estate, which he had acquired by his profession. The daughter, who was the eldest child, died two or three weeks after her father, and the three sons, all of tender age, were left to the assiduity and care of a mother.
Dr Percival is the second of the sons, and the only one that received a liberal education. From the earliest period at which he could read, he was fond of books; and in a short time treasured up in a remarkably retentive memory all the stores of school-boy learning. Among his companions at school, he was distinguished by the ease with which he could learn his lessons, by superior intelligence, by a gentle and retiring disposition, and by an abstracted turn of mind. He seldom engaged in the common sports of the school, even with the boys of his own age. He possessed also a share of that distressing diffidence, and sensibility to suffering from the rudeness of the older members of the school, which Cowper has so feelingly depicted in his own case.
The occasion of his learning to read, and the rapidity of his progress in the art, show strikingly the bent and powers of his understanding. At a time when he could only spell his words with difficulty, he received a book at school, which it was customary for the master on a Saturday to give to some deserving scholar, to be kept till the following Monday, and then to be returned. James, by spelling along in his book, soon discovered that a portion of it treated of the starry heavens. He felt so solicitous to understand this, that he sought the aid of his friends at home, to make the piece intelligible to him. By persevering effort, aided by their instructions during the time he was permitted to keep the book, he surmounted every difficulty, and was able to read the chapter on Monday morning, with a good degree of fluency.
From that time his proficiency in his studies was great. It was not long before he became so familiar with all that was to be learnt in the district school which he attended, that the exercises were extremely tedious to him. This circumstance, connected with his unquenchable ardor for reading, in which he could indulge at home, often made him reluctant to go to a place where his time was spent to so little purpose. His fathers library at home, and not the common infirmity of children, caused him to creep, like a snail, unwillingly to school.
At this period of his life, he lived, as he has informed the writer of this paper, in a world of his own,an ideal world. He knew and he cared very little respecting the real world of mankind. His cast of mind was highly imaginative; and aided by his extensive recollections of history, geography, and other reading, he lived and acted very much according to the fancies which his knowledge enabled him to contrive. Seme details of this sort, casually given by the poet in conversation, would surprise one as relating to a boy of his age, and instruct the student of human nature, in regard to the incipient workings of a creative and poetic mind. Enveloping himself under circumstances of Egyptian, Grecian, or Roman history, or perhaps the chivalry of the middle ages, or as it might happen, indulging some merely arbitrary creations of his fancy, and seated by a stream, or wandering in the woods, he delighted to call up around him those representations that corresponded with the realities of which he had read, or with the archetype of them existing in his own mind. He could feign to himself in perfect keeping, and in their true costume, the figures and the scenes of those ages pastcould imagine himself to be conversant with them, with such a depth of interest, as scarcely suffered him to realize actual life and its wants. Indeed, in his poem on the Pleasures of Childhood, he has described in verses of great beauty, these wanderings of his fancy.
A thousand wildering reveries led astray
My better reason, and my unguarded soul
Danced like a feather on the turbid sea
Of its own wild and freakish phantasies.
At times, the historic page would catch my eye,
And rivet down my thoughts on ancient times,
And mix them with the demigods of old.
* * * How I loved
To ascend the pyramids, and in their womb
Gaze on the royal cenotaph, to sit
Beneath thy ruind palaces and fanes,
Balbec or princely Tadmor, though the one
Lurk like a hermit in the lonely vales
Of Lebanon, and the waste wilderness
Embrace the other. * * *
* * * Along the stream,
That flowd in summers mildness oer its bed
Of rounded pebbles, with its scanty wave
Encircling many an islet, and its banks
In bays and havens scooping, I would stray,
And dreaming, rear an empire on its shores.
Where cities rose, and palaces and towers
Caught the first light of morning, there the fleet
Such was his boyhood, and the commencement of poetic emotion or creation. His mind, however, has been otherwise tasked since, for although Dr Percival has appeared before the public, almost entirely as a poet, he is scarcely more distinguished in that department, than in others that more especially put to the test the thinking and discursory powers.
At the customary age, he commenced the preparatory studies to a public education, and though according to his own opinion, the course of study was not very judiciously prescribed, yet he seems to have improved in a commendable manner, such advantages as he was permitted to enjoy. A mind like his, though comparatively neglected, or unhappily trained by others, will often preserve uninjured or unaltered, its own distinctive qualities. Indeed a great intellect will train itself, and from its own superior discernment, will remedy in a good degree the defects of inadequate or misdirected instruction. Yea more, like a magnet which attracts its promiscuous assemblage of ferruginous particles, a gifted understanding will draw to itself, from every surrounding object, whatever is congenial to its nature. It will select, if not in a regular, yet in an effectual manner, whatever can be of pleasure, of ornament, or of use.
His collegiate course, on which he entered at 16 years of age, was marked by studiousness, and uncommon distinction as a scholar. His proficiency drew from President Dwight, an accurate judge of worth, and diviner of the destinies of his pupils, a justly merited encomium. That great man also administered to young Percival a well-timed caution, to engage in some active pursuit, upon finishing his studies. The neglect of this caution at times, subjected our author, from his desponding temperament and intense mental application, to no common infelicities. These dark shades in his experience, with a thousand apprehensions of yet gloomier scenes, are too faithfully drawn by our poets pencil, on several occasions.
He closed his collegiate career by receiving the customary honors of Yale, and by the very respectable literary exercises which he performed on the day of commencement. The tragedy of Zamor, which was acted on that occasion, was written by Percival, and afterwards published with some emendations in the early volume of his Poems. This play, though it can neither be ranked among his happier efforts nor be remembered in the history of the drama, was no unpromising production for a youth of 19 or 20 years.
It was while our author was a member of college, that he composed a few of the poems that appear in his first published volume, the earliest date of which is 17 years. Like most distinguished men, his powers were early developed, though his prudence doubtless has suffered but a small part of the productions of that period to see the light. Indeed, so precocious were his poetic talents, that he is known to have composed a regular poem of many hundred lines in heroic measure, the summer before he entered college; and so far, in the ardor of literary ambition, did he anticipate the course he has since pursued, that he meditated its publication, at that time.
The year succeeding his graduation, seems to have been peculiarly prolific in the effusions of his muse, since nearly one half of the volume before mentioned is indicated to have been composed in that year. The time that intervened between his leaving college, and the year 1820, when he published his first collection of poetry, was spent in various literary studies, in poetic and other compositions, in the instruction of youth, and in preparations for professional life. As an instructor, he was engaged in one or two private families in Philadelphia, at different times. The profession which he finally adopted was that of medicine; but well qualified as he is for his profession, by a knowledge of the healing art, he has scarcely engaged in the practice of it, at any period since. His own inclination, as well as the voice of the public, has assigned to him a more exclusively literary vocation. His volume before adverted to, together with two numbers of his Clio, and another little volume in continuation of the first, all of which followed in two years, brought him conspicuously before his countrymen.
These works established his poetic character, and placed him in the foremost ranks of American genius. It is however due to the sacred interests of religious truth, to say that some passages of his writings, on account of their sceptical character, gave a just offence to the pious sensibility of many readers. This error, if we are not mistaken, he has avoided in later productions, and it is hoped he has done so, from convictions of its impiety, as well as of its impolicy, and its detriment to his lasting fame.
It is not our design to detail all the particulars of Dr Percivals life, since propriety would forbid it, in the living subject. The delicacy and reserve, not to say the sacredness, that attaches to private life in the contemporaneous author, can allow the communication only of slight and general notices in such a case. More particular and minute sketches, as well as bolder criticisms belong to the professed biographer, when he gives to the public, the character and doings of those, who can no longer claim to be shielded from the censure, or whose modesty might incline them to shrink from the admiration of the community for whom they wrote, and whom they corrupted, improved, or delighted. Dr Percivals course, contrary to the fate of most authors, has been various in incident, and exhibited not a little of the moral romance. As has already been observed in a public account of him, his career has been marked by traits of great eccentricity. At some future day, it is probable that a better understanding of the circumstances which attended his early life, will convince the public that many of the causes of this eccentricity are to be traced back beyond the reach of any voluntary control, on his part.
The year preceding the publication of his poems, owing, it is believed, to incessant studies, and consequent delicacy of health, he sunk into a despondency and morbid mental excitement, which affected him with the keenest sensations of misery. It seemed as if the operations of an ever accumulating understanding, were really too powerful for a frame, finely tempered indeed, but not remarkable for robustness or strength. In this situation, he sought the alleviations of friendship, and obtained them in a measure, at least. At a time when he mistakingly, but sincerely, supposed himself to be forsaken by almost every one, he was surprised to find, yet he gratefully received, the sympathies of friends and neighbors. Under these manifestations of regard, aided, perhaps, by a change of place, he soon recovered his intellectual elasticity, and the tone of his spirits. Though his disposition seems to be melancholy, he has ever since, it is believed, been exempted from any peculiar sufferings of this sortthe antidote of which, doubtless lies in the more business-like habits, which, as a scholar, he cultivates, and which the literary taste of the age solicits at his hand. A case, parallel in part to his experience as a sufferer, is again presented in the sad and desponding prophet of the British lyre. Would that there had been similarity not in this, but in a happy and assured belief of the verities of the Christian Revelation.
Our poets strongest sceptical tendencies, seem to have been manifested about this period, a fact which his candor led him to intimate, in the preface to the first volume of his poems. It may be proper to observe here, that whatever want of assurance he may have then felt of the truth of religion, it did not have the effect of relaxing the obligations of morality in his view. In his intercourse with his fellow-men, he has carried undoubted testimonials of a scrupulously honest, sincere, and kind man, with a peculiar gentleness and child-like simplicity of manners and character. These and other virtues, directed, as we may hope they will be, by settled and experimental convictions of religious truth, would leave little to wish for, in the character of one who is already an ornament of his countrys genius and literature.
From the period of the publications already spoken of, which were brought down to the year 1822, the principal incidents of a public kind in his life, to the present time, were the printing of his select works in a neat edition in 1824, which were republished with a brief memoir the same year in London, in 2 vols. 12mo.; his appointment by the general government to a professorship at West Point in 1824; his relinquishment of that station, in consequence of ill-health; his employment as a surgeon in connexion with the recruiting service at Boston; his poetic contributions to the United States Literary Gazette; his editing several works for the press; a few public performances before literary societies, besides his general studies; the writing of occasional fugitive pieces, and the publication of Clio, the last of his acknowledged poetical works, at New York in 1827. We may also add, that for the last two years he has been assisting Mr Webster in the preparation of his Dictionary for the press, a task for which his extensive and critical philological learning eminently qualified him. He has lately returned to his native village, where he now1 resides. He is understood to be occupied in some prose work of magnitude, which will be given to the public at no distant period.
We believe Dr Percival has lately written little poetry, and, eminent as he is in this department of literature, standing certainly in the first rank of our native poets, still, we apprehend that he does not esteem poetry his forte, and that he will hereafter seek some other path of distinction. We incline to the opinion that should he do so, he will eclipse the reputation he has gained as a poet.
The character of Dr Percival has perhaps been sufficiently presented, though it may be added, that he is cold and diffident in his manners, yet steadfast in his feelings, frank and candid in the expression of his opinions, and particularly averse to display and noisy approbation, though keenly alive to the enjoyments to be derived from a delicate and considerate expression of public regard. His passion for study, and the reserve, and even timidity of manner, which characterizes him in mixed company, may naturally lead common observers to suppose that he has little aptitude for social intercourse, and little delight in it. But this opinion, if it be entertained by any, respecting the poet, is incorrect. He may never be known in mixed company, in all the intellectual superiority which distinguishes him, yet in the free communications of intimacy, few discover more ability, or are more entertaining; and none less dogmatic or mystical. His range of topics extends to every department in morals, science, politics, history, taste, and literature. On points as to which he differs from others, he can he approached without the danger of offending even his strong sensibility. Arguments he seems to hear and weigh with much consideration; but his own opinions he maintains with great firmness: he is always ready and ingenious, and often convincing in his answers. He rarely ventures mere assertions, and few, perhaps, are more uniformly in the habit of maintaining their opinions by particular facts and strenuous and elaborate reasonings. One peculiarity may be observed in his manner of conversation, and that is, when he approaches a subject he enters deeply into it, views it on every side, and pursues it till it is exhausted, if it be exhaustible.
Dr Percival is a lover of rural walks, and rural retirement; especially have the external objects and scenery of his native parish thrilled his bosom with delight, as well from their variegated beauty, as from the associations of his childhood. In conversing of these rambles, however, the poets remarks do not often turn on the beauties of nature, which are so apt to captivate a poetic mind. These beauties he has certainly felt exquisitely, but he reserves the expression of his feelings, for the chosen hours of solitude, and gives them to the public in verse. His conversation more commonly assumes a scientific cast, and turns frequently upon botany, mineralogy, geological appearances, and the phenomena of nature in general.
Of all our poets, it is not known that any surpass Dr Percival in learning. This perhaps appears in his poems. His scholarship is indeed of a high order, and for accuracy and extent, is probably exceeded by that of few professedly learned men, in this country. His information is universal, his mind is in itself a sort of encyclopedia. And notwithstanding he has found time to lay up in his memory so many treasures of learning, he is known to examine most subjects minutely, accurately, and fully; he observes and judges for himselfis perfectly independent in his opinions; possesses broad and comprehensive views, and is distinguished rather by generalization and method in his ideas, than by a splendid and confused mass of other mens knowledge. His attainments in literature may be judged of from the fact, that he reads more or less familiarly in ten or twelve languages, ancient and modern. An employment of the poet occasionally, has been to translate extemporaneously in the hearing of a friend, portions of the standard works in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and other continental languages of modern Europe; an exercise, in which he is surprisingly expert. His distinction in the severer studies is still more remarkable. In the sciences, particularly the physical sciences, he is known to have made an early and great proficiency. What attention he has bestowed upon them, or what advance he has made in them, during the latter part of his career, is not known to the writer; yet it is presumed he retains his early fondness for their attractions, and cultivates them with his usual success.
The poetry of Dr Percival has been sometime before the public; its merits are consequently well known. On this account, we need not dwell upon it at much length. It is, in general, more imaginative than sentimental, and from the profusion and stringing together of similes, the effect as to entireness of impression, is often weakened. His language is well selected and picturesque, bold and idiomatic; his verse is harmonious, and contains many of those sweet and hallowed forms of expression, which render poetry the repository of the most striking truths, as well as the vehicle of the finest emotions. His numbers seem to flow in the highest degree easily and naturallyand to be thrown off in moments of sparkling and salient feeling, with the greatest rapidity.2 Hence it is, that careless lines sometimes occur, and a passage becomes obscure, rendered more so indeed, by the intenseness or depth of emotion, which is designed to be depicted. In Dr Percivals poetry, there is nothing like that neatness, that fastidiousness of language which is dictated by a taste, that takes and rejects a word by turns, and is long undecided what it shall finally fix upon, though the selected word often proves to be the right one. His poetry, to use his own language in the preface of one of his books, is very far from bearing the marks of the file and burnisher. It is, as he further says he likes to see poetry, in the full ebullition of feeling and fancy, foaming up with the spirit of life, and glowing with the rainbows of a glad inspiration. This characteristic of poetry, it may be observed, however, is attended with its disadvantages, as well as its felicities. The neglect of the file and burnisher, cannot be excused on the plea which the poet has set forth: for poetry ought, if possible, to be a perfect thing in letter and expression, as well as in spirit, for the sake of the memory, and the feelings also.
A considerable proportion of Dr Percivals poetry deals in the description of the visible world and the beauties of nature, or in the impressions which these objects make on his own mind: but this is done in no commonplace manner. His delineations are in general, very happy and original, and his colors are fresh and glowing. We meet occasionally in our author with bursts of strong and genuine passion; and sometimes the softer and gentler tones of sentiment breathe in his numbers; there is also often an attempt to affect the heart by the splendor of diction merely. We could point out many overwrought representations of human feelings and conductdelineations much beyond life and nature, and bordering on the fictitious and extravagant. We believe nevertheless that these aberrations of taste are mostly to be attributed to the ardor of youth.
With a few readers, it is doubtless an excellence of some of Dr Percivals poetry, that it details and embodies so fully his own feelings and character: and yet these are so peculiar, and partake so largely of idiosyncrasy, that with a greater number of readers, this feature of his poetry will not be deemed an excellence. Many minds probably cannot entirely sympathise with him, in this portion of his productions. We refer to those numerous pieces, the sentiments of which are those of solitude and soliloquyof lofty musing, and impassioned sensibility. So far, our authors compositions are designed for a particular class, and for a chosen few, and not for that great world which requires the multiplication of books for its entertainment or instruction. But the whole of his effusions are not embraced in these remarks, since there are among them, those, which, touching the more common, yet refined, feelings of the human heart, have made their way through the bosoms of his countrymen, and are destined to descend to posterity.
The volume of Dr Percivals selected poetry consists of some 80 or 100 poems of various lengths and descriptions, from the philosophical and discursive Prometheus, to the lightest sonnets and erotics. Besides these he has since published many poems in the United States Literary Gazette, and other periodicals, which have been duly noticed in the public prints, and are highly esteemed by his countrymen; and also a poem of some length delivered by him before the Phi Beta Kappa society of Yale College at New Haven. This last has been elaborately reviewed in the North American Review. We cannot better close this notice than by subjoining some very just remarks extracted from that article. It exhibits freely and forcibly the faults of the poet, but none can better bear such an exhibition than a man of true genius.
We think that there is an excessive diffuseness in the style of Mr Percival. It is not sufficiently compact. It wants pith and joint; it lacks the energy, which conciseness imparts. Everything is drawn out as far as possible, always flowing and sweet, and therefore sometimes languid and monotonous. His poetry is too much diluted. It consists too much in words, which are music to the ear, but too often send a feeble echo of the sense to the mind. There is also a superabundance of images in proportion to the thoughts; they skip about the magical scene in such numbers, that they stand in the way of one another and of the main design. He is too careless in selection; whatever occurs to him he puts down and lets it remain. He is not master of
That last, the greatest art,the art to blot.
Writing, as he evidently does, from the fulness of an excited mind, upon the impulse of the moment; his thoughts crowd one another, and cannot always fall at once into their places and in the happiest expression. There will be confusion sometimes in their ranks, and want of due proportion. This can only be remedied by the free use of the pruning knifecutting down sentences, changing epithets, rejecting superfluities, expelling parentheses, and various other mechanical operations, to which a less gifted but more patient author would resort. By the neglect of this, he does the greatest injustice to his own powers. Everything wears an extemporaneous and unfinished appearance. Strength and weakness are most strangely combined, and passages of surpassing elegance and magnificence crowded in amongst slovenly and incomplete. Hence it is rare to meet with a paragraph of any length equally sustained throughout. Flaws show themselves in the most brilliant, and the reader is compelled to stop with a criticism in the midst of his admiration. Instead of giving us, like other poets, the finished work, he gives us the first rough draft; as if Phidias should have ceased laboring on his statues as soon as the marble assumed a human semblance. It is the last touches, which create perfection. It is in them that immortality lies. It is they that remove the last corruptible particles, and leave the mass indestructible. Without them, Virgil, Pope, and Milton, would have gone down to forgetfulness, and Demosthenes and Bossuet have been remembered only by tradition. But Dr Percival, through impatience of labor or some false notions, declines the necessary toil, and takes his chance of immortality in company with imperfection.
For this reason, his powers are displayed to greater advantage in particular passages and short pieces, than in any extended composition. At a single heat he may strike out a fine conception, and give it the happiest shape. But when his thoughts and pen run on through successive parts of a subject, he easily loses himself in a wilderness of words, beautiful and musical, but conveying indistinct impressions, or rather conveying impressions instead of ideas; reminding us of poetry read while we are falling asleep, sweet and soothing, but presenting very shadowy images. Yet no man has more felicity in expression, or more thoroughly delights and fascinates in his peculiar passages. He has a superior delicacy and richness of imagery, together with an extraordinary affluence of language, of which he can well afford to be, as he is, lavish. It is probably a consciousness of this opulence, which betrays him so often into verbiage. He throws away images and words with a profusion which astonishes more economical men, and which would impoverish almost any one else. He may possibly afford it, yet a discreet frugality of expenditure would be far more wise; as a simple, chastened elegance is far preferable to a wasteful display, which exhibits its whole wardrobe and furniture without selection or arrangement.