1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Thomas Percy

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 4:145-46.



DR. THOMAS PERCY (1729-1811), afterwards bishop of Dromore, in 1765 published his Reliques of English Poetry, in which several excellent old songs and ballads were revived, and a selection made of the best lyrical pieces scattered through the works of dramatic and other authors. The learning and ability with which Percy executed his task, and the sterling value of his materials, recommended his volumes to public favour. They found their way into the hands of poets and poetical readers, and awakened a love of nature, simplicity, and true passion, in contradistinction to that coldly correct and sentimental style which pervaded part of our literature. The influence of Percy's collection was general and extensive. It is evident in many contemporary authors. It gave the first impulse to the genius of Sir Walter Scott; and it may be seen in the writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth. A fresh fountain of poetry was opened up — a spring of sweet, tender, and heroic thoughts and imaginations, which could never be again turned back into the artificial channels in which the genius of poesy had been too long and too closely confined. Percy was himself a poet. His ballad, "O Nancy, wilt thou go with Me?," the "Hermit of Warkworth," and other detached pieces, evince both taste and talent. We subjoin a cento, the Friar of Orders Gray, which Percy says he compiled from fragments of ancient ballads, to which he added supplemental stanzas to connect them together. The greater part, however, is his own, and it must be admitted that he was too prone to tamper with the old ballads. Dr. Percy was born at Bridgnorth, Shropshire, son of a grocer, and having taken holy orders, became successively chaplain to the king, dean of Carlisle, and bishop of Dromore: the latter dignity he possessed from 1782 till his death at the advanced age of eighty-two. He enjoyed the friendship of Johnson, Goldsmith, and other distinguished men of his day, and lived long enough to hail the genius of Scott.

A complete reprint of Bishop Percy's folio MS. was published in 1868, in three volumes, edited by John W. Hales, MA. and F. J. Furnival, M.A. Mr. Furnival describes the MS. as "a scrubby, shabby paper book," which had lost some pages both at the beginning and end. Percy found it lying dirty on the floor under a bureau in the parlour of his friend Humphrey Pitt of Shifnall, Shropshire, being used by the maids to light the fire. The date, as appears from the handwriting, was about 1650. "As to the text," says Mr. Furnival, he (Percy) looked on it as a young woman from the country with unkempt locks, whom he had to fit for fashionable society. He puffed out the thirty-nine lines of the 'Child of Elle' to two hundred; he pomatumed the 'Heir of Linne' till it shone again; he stuffed bits of wool into 'Sir Carline' and 'Sir Aldingar;' he powdered everything." The Reliques contained one hundred and seventy-six pieces and of these forty-five were from the folio MS.