1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Gates Percival

Anonymous, in Review of Percival, Clio No. III; Southern Review [Charleston] 1 (May 1828) 442-45.



If Mr. Percival is ambitious of outliving the present generation, he must have done dreaming dreams and seeing visions. Not but that a bright vision and a pleasant dream are very good things in their way — but really to publish page after page, and volume after volume of "musings" — of mere musings — of such incoherent, undefined and shapeless fantasies, as may be supposed to float about at random in the brain of a poetical opium-eater — is not the best possible way of producing any thing worthy of being anointed with cedar oil, or preserved in a cypress case. The little volume placed at the head of this article, is lamentably obnoxious to this censure. It is very much such poetry as we should have expected to see produced, if Mr. Percival had sent his Port Folio to the printer, with instructions to publish its contents without discrimination or correction. It is exceedingly pretty rigmarole — a very brilliant and musical medley of metrical common places — here a little sentiment, and there a little description, and every where a great deal of namby-pamby, in the last degree mystical and diffuse, overrunning and almost choking, many truly poetical beauties of thought and expression. Mr. Percival is not, we suppose, the only poet who has ever fallen into such dreaming moods far the inspired tribe of all men are most given to reverie — but he is, perhaps, the only poet that has published his dreams as they came up, instead of selecting the brightest images, and the happiest conceptions, and combining them with judgment and taste into a perfect work. It is impossible, we think, to read through this little volume without a very laudable exercise of perseverance, and what is still worse, more than ordinary efforts of attention; but it is, at the same time, impossible to do so, without seeing cause to regret that the author should waste his talent — for talent he unquestionably has — upon such loose undisciplined and straggling composition—

Non avea natura ivi dipinto
Ma di soavita di mille odori
Vi facea un incognito, indistinto.

We know that it is become quite fashionable to extol this mystical and rambling — we had almost said raving — style under the plausible title of the Romantic, and to prefer it greatly to the studied regularity of the classic models. The ancients and those of the moderns who follow them, are decried as tame and prosaical, merely because they are precise and perspicuous. They knew so little about the true sublime, that they thought it consistent with perfect simplicity and clearness, and even when they soared up into the most glorious regions of poetry, they were careful never to lose sight of common sense. Their want of philosophical abstraction and a spiritual religion, it seems, made them, most unnecessarily, pay the same respect to the understandings of their readers in poetry or in elevated and ambitious prose, as in their humblest didactic works, and their Ars Poetica is nothing but a system of logic — of which, indeed, the principles are more refined, but not a jot less rigorous than those of the "Art of Reasoning," vulgarly so called. They, therefore, make no drafts at all upon the indulgence or facility of their readers. They take upon themselves the whole burthen of proof, and expect no admiration unless they can shew you what to admire, and why you should admire. They never compass themselves about "with the majesty of darkness." They do not expect that what is only vague shall be considered as vast, and that what is unintelligible shall pass for sublime. For example — such a book as Ossian's poems (which we take to be a specimen of the genuine Romantic) would have been regarded at Athens as an instance of absolute monstrosity. A people accustomed to ask for the reason of every thing, would have seen in the vagueness, obscurity, and bombast of this pretended Celtic Epic only the effusions of a melancholy madness. There have been critics, however, in modern times — and those among the most enlightened and best educated men — who thought differently — who, to borrow a few lines from Mr. Percival, considered these poems

—as words
Spoken in the fever of a dream
Breathless and indistinct, yet full of awe
High and mysterious—

That is to say, they understood a fury in the words, but not the words. Their minds were prepared by previous impressions and habitual associations to believe and tremble — to receive these Gaelic legends in the true spirit of religious humility, with an "arcanus terror sanctaque ignorantia." Ghosts wrapped up in the dark rolling mists of the highlands, or "moving in a sunbeam" over their silence and solitude, or howling in the midnight tempest, or heard to sigh in the echoes of the mountain and the roar of the waterfall — how was it possible that what so nearly resembled and so forcibly recalled the horror-breathing tales of the nursery should not be considered as sublime! This we suppose, was all very well — we do not envy; we wonder rather — for we profess ourselves of that old fashioned, prosaical school, which absolutely refuses to admire in literature what it is not able to comprehend, and lays it down as its first canon of criticism that a reader has a right to see clearly what his author would be after.

However this may be, if what principally distinguishes the modern or romantic poetry from the classical, is, that the former is more concerned about spiritualities than temporalities — about soul than body — about the shadowy abstractions of the mind than the objects of the senses, Mr. Percival is entitled to a very high rank in the school. The volume before us is absolutely haunted.

It is a land of shadows. The reader — who would be all the better of the gift of second sight — meets with a spirit of some sort or other at every step, and is always surrounded by their "sightless substances." There is a "spirit of life," and a "spirit of beauty," and a "spirit of May," and a "sole sitting spirit of loneliness," and a "spirit of delight," and a variety of other spirits not to mention a "soul" of something or other, with pretty little "rainbow wings." Then there are "things of heaven," and things that are "not like things of earth," and "blessed things," which are all undefinable — indescribable, but, as the poet assures us, very beautiful and admirable. "The air is full of sights, that scarce were seen, dim images" — and "visionary pomps" arise "and stand awhile, in terrible obscure," and "glimmerings" spring out of the womb of darkness — pale and uncertain at first "as the flitting glance of moonlight through a storm" — which presently, "however, wax stronger and rear themselves into "dreamy shapes" and "hovering forms," the which again being invested with "a chill and spectral glare" and so becoming of course very awful, make toward the poet in his trance — and as they approach him seem to disclose some dim traces of a human likeness, yet for all that seem "more like a moon-struck ghost than living thing," for they make no motion, even their glaring eye-balls roll not, and no voice issues from their bloodless lips. It is some consolation however, to the reader, to know that no enchanter of old — not Merlin or Prospero — ever had more unbounded control over this disembodied and aerial population — so terrible to children, and so indispensable in poetry — than Mr. Percival.

But I have gained a mastery o'er spirits,
And can evoke them from their secret caves,
Or from the viewless regions of the air,
And call them at my bidding. It is so.
I have seen glorious creatures throng around me,
All loveliness and light. They were not dreams.
But were substantial essences, pure forms,
That had a look and voice. I spake to them,
And they did answer, and their tones were music,
Such as they say the harmony of spheres,
When the seven orbs move round the golden sun.
Hymning too deep and ravishing melodies
For mortal ear to listen to, and live.
They spake, or rather chaunted, and their song
Revealed a mystery so high, methought
The fountains of all knowledge opened up
To meet my gaze, and from their hidden caves
Came forth the darkest elements of things,
And stood before my presence. — p. 77.