1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Gates Percival

Anonymous, in Review of Percival, Clio No. III; American Quarterly Review [Philadelphia] 2 (December 1827) 482-85.



We are glad to meet Mr. Percival again on the public theatre of literary emulation. The country has much cause to be pleased with what he has contributed towards building up its poetical character. Without having become generally popular, he has yet been universally acknowledged to possess fine powers, and to have exerted them admirably in some instances. The praise of genius and of extensive information belongs to him. There is a variety in the subjects which he selects, and in the manner in which he treats them. The eye that can see nature in her beautiful forms, and the heart that can commune with her silent grandeur, are evidently his.

The general character of Mr. Percival's poetry is peculiar. It is not to the common feelings of mankind that he addresses himself; and we may say also, that the passions which he most frequently delineates, and represents as most intense, are not such as belong to many. In this he differs from the most successful poets of former times. Dryden, and Pope, and Shakspeare, are intelligible to all; depict passions, or deliver truths, which any cultivated mind may comprehend; and without sacrificing the elevation of poetry, are still widely acceptable. Unlike the poets of highest renown, Mr. Percival holds more intercourse with nature than with his own race. The clouds, and the mountains, and the ever-changing, and yet eternal beauties of the earth, are his delight. His muse meditates in loneliness. He tells us more of his own sensations, when his mind is wrought upon by poetic excitement, than of the sympathies of others. It is a metaphysical passion for nature; a sublime, and self-denying, and almost misanthropic spirit of meditation; an indifference to the great mass of men, that we most frequently meet, in his poetry. He forgets that Contemplation is a cherub elevated on a fiery throne, serene, yet not indifferent to the change and progress of the universe.

The liberty of selecting his own topics, and treating them in is own way, is too sacred to be taken from the poet. Many of the best minds in a kindred art, have been doomed to spend their powers on odious and often on loathsome subjects, that the altar of some saint might be decorated with a picture of the very horrors of his martyrdom. It is far wiser to leave the mind to its own impulses, when it aims at inventing; and the greatest success s attained, when genius seizes on the brightest of the living thoughts that crowd on the inventive soul, and imparts to them a glorious permanency. We speak, therefore, of Mr. Percival's peculiarities, not so much to censure him for his choice, as to account for his want of universal popularity.

The tastes of our nation are not averse to poetry. So far from it, there is hardly a family of ordinary culture, of which the resources are not in some measure increased by the stores of verse. If a popular piece finds its way into a journal, and above all, if its spirit is not only poetical, but national, every newspaper in the country repeats it; and perhaps from the beginning of the typographic art to our own day, there has been nothing, unless a presidential message, which, in one form or another, is so many times reprinted, as a popular American poem. In Europe, this number of reprints cannot take place in the same degree, from the limited number and character of their periodical presses. And yet, while some of Mr. Percival's shorter poems have been general favourites, his longer pieces have been almost as a sealed book, and the works in which he has embodied his contempt for the great mass of his fellows, have never found their way to injure the self-complacency of those whom he pretends to scorn.

We say, whom he "pretends" to scorn. We are no believers in the reality of that state of mind, which acknowledges the sublimity of inanimate creation, and has no admiration for the immortal natures which dwell in the midst of that sublimity; that can gaze with rapture on the glittering, and ever-varying hues, which decorate the clouds, and diversify the sky, and has no power to acknowledge the charm of fancy, and the varying brilliancy of the wit and good sense of animated intelligence. A man is ill at ease in society; therefore he declares society dull: he finds men do not share his views; therefore he condemns their judgment. Perhaps we ought, in such cases, to pity and excuse, not to censure. The very object, which the public may wish a writer to attain, is, perhaps, precisely that after which he is ineffectually striving. We admire Mr. Percival's descriptive poetry exceedingly; we should like it still more, if his lovely valleys and shores were peopled, and if he would tell us more of the hardy and beautiful mountaineers, whom he may meet with in the rambles he so gorgeously describes.

The poet, who has an imagination exercised and accustomed to rapid action, and who also, from the very nature of his occupation, has leisure, as well as the power, to transfer himself readily into remote scenes, and to receive into his mind strange and uncommon combinations of thought, is often in danger of proceeding beyond the reach of the many, who must be his readers, and who can neither readily follow him, nor devote time to spell out a hidden meaning, to grasp at ideas conveyed with metaphysical refinement, or shadowed out in the mysteries of dark and protracted images. If clearness is the first virtue in the style of an orator, the poet must, in like manner, seize at once on the mind, as readily as the musician does on the senses. A literary dilettante may be pleased with having some obstacles to overcome, and pique himself on his ability to discover latent beauties; but in general, the splendour of genuine poetry will at once be apparent. The poet is not to be humoured in every thing. If he will please mankind, he must show a respect for them, and understand their feelings. But it might be asked, is not the poet more refined, his imagination more cultivated? And ought we not to tower after him, and follow him in his high flights and contemplative musings? and think his thoughts? and share his haughty disdain? It may be so; but the best poets have practised otherwise. Homer set the example in a different way, and others have followed. He takes us at once into the Grecian councils; he walks directly on the banks of Scamander; he deals in real armies and real heroes; Paris going out to battle like the war-horse prancing to the river side; the wife, the mother, in natural anxiety; or, most touching of all, the aged and mourning father a suppliant at the feet of the youthful hero who destroyed his son. Therefore it is, that Homer pleases, wherever the springs of social life flow in their untainted purity; and is read with delight by all classes, in almost every cultivated language, as well as by those who understand the dialect he uses.

In a little poem, by no means one of Mr. Percival's best, entitled "The Soul of Song," the bard demands, in a series of interrogatives, where that soul is to be found: and after declaring that it does not dwell in festive halls, in gay saloons, in the forum, nor with the conquering host, he finds it in the uncultured plain, the depth of woods, "Where the lone wanderer's silent footstep falls." If Mr. Percival's general style in poetry did not agree with this view of its office, we should regard this little piece as a playful effort of a contemplative moment. In sober earnest, the theory thus conveyed is a mistaken one. The Spirit of Song is essentially a social spirit, dwelling in the midst of men, making appeals to their best sympathies, stealing away their sorrows, and beautifying and enlarging their enjoyments. It gathered its thousands in the theatres of old; it sounded the clarion when victory was won; it welcomed the soldier, returning from his toils to the endearments of civil life; it made itself heard at the banquet, the festival, and the triumph. What need of many words? At a later day, it went, with Romeo to the gay saloon and the happy masquerade; it embalmed the virtues of Imogen; it went to battle with Hotspur; it kept Lorenzo and Jessica company. in the moonlight hours; and when the tone Prospero seemed without friends, it taught him to find beings even under the cowslip's bell. Or, if it be not fair to draw examples from the drama, we would go to the very poet, who, more than any other, has contributed to foster the spirit of misanthropy, as a part of a poetic temperament. Lord Byron composed the most glowing and universally popular of his poems, while under the influence and excitement of society; the reigning and the happy favourite of the fair idolaters of genius. The fever of his mind was then at its height; he was impassioned for distinction, and of a peculiar kind, in the gayest circles of London; and it was not till disappointment had destroyed the delirium which pervaded his social as well as his poetic existence, that he indulged his mind in an affectation of indifference to his country and the moral dignity of man. But even yet, as far as we would prove life, human agents, and busy scenes, to be necessary ingredients in fine poetry, his lordship furnishes a most striking example in support of our views. His Don Juan is a creature of society, not of solitude: it is a living picture of the age, of the vices, the ambition, and, in short, all the qualities of high life in a corrupted state. Bad as it is, its moral tendency, in one point of view, may be defended, as a satire on the vices of the higher classes of Europe, — an exposure of the immorality of courts and the privileged orders.

If these views are just, we stand acquitted of a want of justice to Mr. Percival, if our admiration of his productions is comparatively a cold one. We acknowledge his superior powers; the profusion with which he pours forth the most varied imagery; the richness and the charm of his diction; the elevated sentiments and train of thought in his poetry: we delight to bear our testimony to his surpassing merit; and yet, his volumes are hardly favourites; and, except, perhaps, a few of his shorter efforts, excite admiration, rather than impart pleasure: they awaken a respect for the genius of the writer, rather than the enthusiasm which the best poets know how to kindle.