1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Thomas Percy

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 7:462-63.



THOMAS PERCY, D. D. dean of Carlisle, and lastly bishop of Dromore, was a descendant of the family of the earls of Northumberland, or, as stated by Boswell, the heir-male of the ancient Percies. He was born at Bridgenorth, in Shropshire, in the year 1728; and educated at Christ church college, Oxford. In consequence of his connection with the family of the late duke of Northumberland he became his chaplain. In the year 1769 he was nominated one of the chaplains to his majesty; in 1778 he was promoted to the deanery of Carlisle; and in 1782 to the bishopric of Dromore, in the county of Down, where he expired, September 30th, 1811, at the advanced age of eighty-three.

He commenced his literary career in 1761, by publishing, Han Kiou Chouan, a translation from the Chinese Miscellanies, and, in the following year, by Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, freely paraphrased from the Icelandic. In 1764 appeared his version of the Song of Solomon, which was succeeded, in the following year, by his most popular work, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. He also published A Key to the New Testament; translations of Mallett's Northern Antiquities; The Hermit of Warkworth, a poem and a curious and valuable record belonging to the Percy family, entitled, The Northumberland Household Book.

The antiquarian researches and literary effusions of Dr. Percy are to be contemplated as the relaxations of an ardent mind. The first of these afforded him relief from his more serious avocations; and the latter introduced him to the friendship of scientific men, whose company gilded those hours in which it was absolutely necessary to unbend and seek those pleasures that arise from select society. In the early part of his life, Dr. Percy became acquainted with most of the men of learning and genius that then adorned our literature. His Reliques of Ancient Poetry, open to the learned new sources of investigation. While his admirable arrangement of some that were mere fragments, and his elegant mode of supplying their deficiencies, systematized the whole in a manner that at once informed and delighted the general reader. The beautiful ballad of The Friar of Orders Grey, upon which Goldsmith founded his interesting poem of The Hermit, was among the remains of antiquity that Dr. Percy completed in the manner above-mentioned. The song of Oh Nannie, wilt thou gang wi' me, was also his composition.

Dr. Johnson once praised Pennant very highly; Dr. Percy, who had measured the extent of his genius, and had, from local knowledge, reason to think meanly of some part of his travels, ventured, with rather more eagerness than was usual to him, to express his opinion; opposition roused Johnson, and humiliation seems to have fanned the flame it was intended to smother; be this as it may, this trifling dispute produced the following letter, which does the memory of both parties honour.

"TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ."

Sir, — The foolish debate betwixt Dr. Percy and me, is one of those foolish controversies which begin upon a question of which neither party cares how it is decided, and which is, nevertheless, continued to acrimony by the vanity with which every man resists confutation. Dr. Percy's warmth proceeded from a cause, which, perhaps, does him more honour than he would have derived from juster criticism. His abhorrence of Pennant proceeded from his opinion that Pennant had wantonly and indecently censured his patron. His anger made him resolve that for having been once wrong, he never should be right. Pennant has much in his notions that I do not like, but still I think him a very intelligent traveller. If Percy is really offended, I am sorry, for he is a man whom I never knew to offend any one; he is a man very willing to learn, and very able to teach; a man out of whose company I never go without having learned something. It is true that he vexes me sometimes, but I am afraid it is by making me feel my own ignorance: so much extension of mind, and so much minute accuracy of inquiry, if you survey your whole circle of acquaintance, you will find so scarce, if you find it at all, that you will value Percy by comparison. Lord Hailes is somewhat like him: but Lord Hailes does not, perhaps, go beyond him in research, and I do not know that he equals him in elegance. Percy's attention to poetry has given grace and splendour to his studies of antiquity. A mere antiquarian is a rugged being. — Upon the whole you see, that what I might say in sport or petulance to him, is very consistent with full conviction of his merit. I am, dear Sir, your most, &c.

SAM. JOHNSON."