JAMES GATES PERCIVAL was born in Kensington, Connecticut, a town of which his ancestors had been among the earliest inhabitants, on the 15th of September, 1795. He was the second son of Dr. James Percival, a physician of the place, who, dying in 1807, left his three sons to their mother's care.
An anecdote is related of his early childhood, indicative of strength of mind and purpose. He had just begun to spell, when a book, in compliance with the custom of the district school to which he belonged, was lent to him on Saturday, to be returned on the following Monday. He found, by spelling through its first sentences, that a portion of it related to astronomy. This so excited his interest, that he sat diligently to work, and, by dint of hard study, with the aid of the family, was able to read the portion he desired on the Monday morning with fluency. This achievement seemed to give him confidence in his powers, and he advanced so rapidly in his studies, that he soon compassed the limited resources of the school. At the age of sixteen he entered Yale College, and during his course frequently excited the commendation and interest of President Dwight. He was at the head of his class in 1815, and his tragedy of Zamor, afterwards published in his works, formed part of the Commencement exercises. He had previously begun his poetical career by the composition of a few fugitive verses during his college course, and yet earlier, it is said, had written a satire in his fourteenth year. In 1820 he published his first volume, containing the first part of Prometheus, a poem in the Spenserian stanza, and a few minor pieces. It was well received. In the same year, having been admitted to the practice of medicine, he went to Charleston, S. C., with the intention of following his profession. There he engaged in literature, publishing the first number of Clio in that city in 1822. This publication, a neat pamphlet of about a hundred pages, was evidently induced by the similar form of the Sketch Book and the Idle Man. It was made up mostly of verse, to which a few essays were added. A second part of Clio was published the same year at New Haven, and a few months afterward another portion of Prometheus.
Dr. Percival was appointed, in 1824, an assistant-surgeon in the United States army, and Professor of Chemistry at the Military Academy at West Point. Finding a greater portion of his time occupied in the performance of its duties than he had anticipated, he resigned after a few months, and was appointed a surgeon in connexion with the recruiting service at Boston. In the same year a collected edition of his principal poems appeared in New York in two volumes, and was reprinted in London. In 1827 he published in New York the third part of Clio, and was closely engaged in the two following years in assisting in the preparation of the first quarto edition of Webster's Dictionary, a service for which he was well qualified by his philological acquirements. He next commenced the translation of Malte-Brun's Geography, and published the last part of his version in 1843.
While in college he was inferior to none of his classmates in the mathematics, yet his inclinations led him rather into the fields of classical literature. While engaged in the study of medicine, he also applied himself to botany with ardor, and made himself acquainted with natural history in general Being necessarily much abroad and fond of exploring nature, he became a geologist, and as such has served privately and publicly. In 1835 he was appointed to make, in conjunction with Professor C. U. Shepard, a survey of the mineralogy and geology of Connecticut. In 1842 he published his Report on the Geology of the State of Connecticut. This work, of nearly five hundred pages, contains the results of a very minute survey of the rock formations of the state, and abounds with minute and carefully systematized details.
In the summer of 1854 he received from the governor a commission as State Geologist of Wisconsin, and he entered at once upon the work. His first annual report was published at Madison, Wisconsin, in 1855. He continued this survey the year following.
Dr. Percival was an eminent linguistic scholar, and had a critical knowledge of most of the languages of Modern Europe. As a specimen of his readiness, it may be mentioned that when Ole Bull was in New Haven in 1844 or 1845, he addressed to him a poem of four or five stanzas in the Danish language. This was printed in a New Haven paper of the day.
The poems of Percival have spirit, freshness, and a certain youthful force of expression as the author harangues of love and liberty. The deliverance of oppressed nations; the yearnings and eloquence of the young heart ready to rejoice or mourn with a Byronic enthusiasm; the hour of exaltation in the triumph of love, and of gloom as some vision of the betrayal of innocence or the inroads of disease came before his mind: these were his prominent themes. There is the inner light of poetry in the idyllic sketch of Maria, the Village Girl, where nature and the reality of life in the "long-drawn-out sweetness" of the imagery assume a visionary aspect.
In those days he struck the lyre with no hesitating hand. There is the first spring of life and passion in his verse. It would have been better, sometimes, if the author had waited for slow reflection and patient elaboration — since fancy is never so vigorous as to sustain a long journey alone. Percival, however, has much of the true heat. His productions have been widely popular, and perhaps better meet the generally received notion of a poet than the well filed composition, of many others which have had more consideration at the bands of the judicious and critical....
Dr. Percival died in his seventy-first year, at Hazelgreen, Illinois, May 2, 1856. He was employed in his last years as State Geologist of Wisconsin, traversing vast regions of the West, in an occupation which gave him abundant opportunity to pursue his favorite natural history and scientific studies, and even occasionally to add to his store of languages something of the speech of the native Indian tribes whom he encountered on his journeys. The Poetical Works of Percival have been published since the author's death, by Messrs. Ticknor & Fields, at Boston. The volumes recall the early admiration for the author, and place his reputation on a lasting basis. The collection contains the early poems published with the title Clio, the Prometheus, instinct with classic imagery and modern feeling, and the poem on The Mind, read in 1825 before the Connecticut Alpha of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a passionate blending of the longings of the soul with visions of art and nature. The volume, The Dream of a Day, and Other Poems, first published in 1843, is also included with a series of Classic Melodies; another of Songs for National Airs; and a few Posthumous Poems. These collections exhibit more than one hundred and fifty different forms or modifications of stanza, an exercise of skill in which the author tells us he was greatly indebted to the German. There is, however, one spirit running through them all. Whether the theme be the domestic affections, social festivity, the emotions of nature, or the call of patriotism, Percival's quick, impulsive, passionate genius is paramount. Learned as he was, he was never trammelled by rules or pedantry. His fiery Pegasus, in whatever armor or dress the rider might be clad, bore him rapidly onward, "with full resounding march."
The recent collection of Percival's Poems is prefaced by a biographical sketch, partly prepared by a friend of the author, the late Erasmus D. North, M.D., and on his death completed by Mr. L. W. Fitch. It contains, besides an outline of Percival's career, some interesting passages of his correspondence, showing to what straits of penury this man of genius was sometimes reduced, with several notices of his rare talents by those who had been intimate with him.
The private library of Percival, a vast collection of learned, scientific, and miscellaneous works, numbering nearly thirty-seven hundred lots, was sold by Messrs. Leonard & Co., at Boston, in April, 1860.