1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Gates Percival

James Gordon Brooks, Review of Percival, Poems; The Minerva [New York] 2 (13 December 1823) 287.



We opened this volume with no ordinary interest, and no ordinary expectations. We have finished it with an increase of that interest, and with those expectations amply gratified. Dr. Percival is one of our native bards, and all who feel interested in the intellectual character of our country, ought to look on him with respect and with kindness; his genius demands the former, and the latter may well be claimed for his sorrows. But it is not only for his genius that Percival is entitled to the palm: he has improved and adorned by study the bright gem which nature gave him; his mind not only displays original power, but also the culture, the polish, the taste, and the refinement of education.

The prevailing cast of these poems is melancholy. Judging from them, (and what are the poet's lines but the picture of his heart?) we cannot but feel that a deep and habitual sadness dominates over the mind of the writer. We observe repeated evidences of grief, which, perhaps, may have lost the poignancy of their earliest pangs, but with which the bosom is still heaving; and ever and anon, we meet with wailings so truly and feelingly expressed, that they can only be those of a broken and desolated heart. It is but too plain that there is more than mere fancy in the expression of his griefs: there is the reality of sadness: there are sufferings on which Time has not yet laid his healing hand, and over which forgetfulness has not yet thrown her cloud. We know nothing of the private history of Dr. Percival which might shed some light on the cause of that mournful music which flows from his lyre; and if we did, we should never make it the subject of a public review, nor even of a social conversation. — "The heart knoweth its own sorrows, and the stranger intermeddleth not therewith;" the afflictions of a proud and high spirit should ever be held sacred. As to the general cause, it is easy of divination. It may be read in the annals of genius in all ages, and in all lands. Enthusiasm and excess of feeling are the inseparable attendants of that temperament of mind which is called genius. These meet with but a cold and repulsive reception from the selfish mass of the world, in which "Mammon wins his way where Seraphs might despair."

Incapable of exalted feeling in themselves, the common herd cannot understand it in others; and they confer on its possessor the title of enthusiast, madman, or fool, and shun him as something out of the course of nature; or, when they do approach him, it is only to wound. The ancient Exile of the Euxine tells us that the Creator "Os homini sublime dedit, coelum-que tueri:" But his proud assertion is more physically than mentally true with regard to the great mass of the busy, bustling and mercenary world. Can any thing be more natural than that the crowd should look with unkind eyes on one whom they cannot but own to be their superior? Can any thing be more true than this, that they will not, and cannot forgive the man who is guilty of towering above their own littleness? Harold speaks harshly, but with too much truth—

He who surpasses or subdues mankind,
Must look down on the hate of all below.

And this is the reward of genius! Of those who have shone and dazzled, and who have lighted nature by the torch of science, or adorned her with the wreath of song, were the history of their private feelings made known, perhaps it might disarm envy of her dart, and slander of her sting. Then would be known the universal and eternal truth that genius is not happiness. Where then must it look for solace? In itself: it can there enjoy the proud consciousness of superiority, and there its enthusiasm may revel, undisturbed by the calculating and cold hearted. There too it may derive joy from the anticipation of its immortal fame, and pity its persecutors, who are but formed "To eat, and be despised, and die." But we must return to the more immediate subject of these remarks.

All who have read Dr. Percival's poems (and every person of taste ought to read them) will have observed that the characteristic of his mind is exquisite fancy, always exuberant, rich, and powerful, and sometimes undoubtedly carried it too far. We do not mean by this that he is deficient in the other necessary qualities of intellect. Far from it: in our opinion he possesses, in an eminent degree, every thing that constitutes the first-rate poet. His fancy, however, is seldom of the sportive kind; it is sometimes the bright and beautiful-winged butterfly, amidst flowers and in sunshine, but more often the dark and melancholy bird of night, flapping his wing in solitude, and over ruins. Fancy blends itself intimately with feeling in his strains; and while the latter gives the peculiar colouring and tendency, we think the former predominates. It is with diffidence that we give this opinion, for where both are found in so great a degree, we may err in attributing the ascendency to either. How finely and exquisitely they blend in these lines,

I saw on the top of a mountain high
A gem that shone like fire by night,
It seemed a star that had left the sky,
And dropped to sleep on its lonely height.
I climbed the peak and found it soon
A lump of ice in the clear cold moon—
Canst thou its hidden sense impart?
'Twas a cheerful look and a broken heart.

These eight lines alone, had Percival never written any other, would be a sufficient proof of the highest poetical powers: they could only be written by a first-rate genius.

We regret that our time will not permit us to enlarge on the contents of the volume before us. We have more that we would wish to say of its merits, and this imperfect essay is but a sketch of a picture that we would gladly finish. But we must end by expressing the hope that when we again peruse new effusions of Percival's gifted mind, we may find that sorrow has eventually softened not harrowed his feelings. His poetry is destined for immortality,

—Nec Jovis ira, nec ignis
Nec poterit ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas.

J. G. B.