James Gates Percival

Nathaniel Parker Willis, in "The Editor's Table" American Monthly Magazine [Boston] 2 (July 1830) 286-89.

The most legitimate poet — the most authentic child of the Muses, baptized and cradled undeniably by our deserted well — is Percival. It is written broad on his forehead. He is the only poet in the land who looks like one. His eye (a capital picture of him from the free pencil of Alexander hangs directly before us) is itself a palpable evidence — large, wild, and full of the uncertain fire of genius. His features are thin and pointed, his mouth variable and expressive of a sensibility painfully acute, and his head marked from his temples back like the very eidolon and model of phrenology. There is a mixture of timidity and pride, of weakness of purpose and conscious power in the expression of his face which it is difficult to reconcile. His whole aspect is that of a perfectly intellectual creature — a shrinking, susceptible being — out of place in the world, and refined every way above the tone and temper of society. There is a similar incongruity between his productions and his acquirements. It is not, we believe, generally known, that in the accurate sciences, Mr. Percival has not his superior in this country. As a mathematician, a geologist and a chemist, he might at the present moment take equal rank with men who have devoted their lives to either. We are not making an idle or an unfounded assertion. We have trod the same wood-paths, and haunted the same solitudes, and been conversant with the same neighborhoods and people with him for years. We know that there is not a flower that springs from the earth, nor a pebble that has its like in the hills, with which he is not as familiar as with the fingers on his hand. He has studied nature like a book of life: His poetry is full of traces of fine and searching observation — full of the inward philosophy, the rare and difficult spirit of the natural world. You may get from his wildest rhapsody, scraps of knowledge, and unexpected truths. And you may go through his singular and voluminous writings. written, as they often are, with the apparent recklessness of insanity, and find from end to end, never a false philosophy, nor a shade of inaccurate allusion, nor an imperfect, or in the slightest degree unscientific, illustration. We challenge criticism upon it.

For the last two or three years nothing has been heard of Percival abroad. He has published no poetry, and the public, with its usual ungrateful fickleness, has dropped his name from its lips. He is spoken of, it is true, whenever the scattered children of the "Phoebi Chorus" come together, and, for one, we never forget him in the mention of choice spirits about the tripod, and in the "aurea pocula" of the fraternity— but the trumpet that fills the ears of the vulgar is not blown by such wandering breaths, and he must wake and electrify with his own touch the sluggish keys that govern it. How applicable to himself are his own glorious stanzas upon "Genius Slumbering:"—

He sleeps, forgetful of his once bright fame;
He has no feeling of the glory gone:
He has no eye to catch the mounting flame,
That once in transport drew his spirit on;
He lies in dull oblivious dreams, nor cares
Who the wreathed laurel bears.

And yet not all forgotten sleeps he there;
There are who still remember how he bore
Upward his daring pinions, 'till the air
Seemed living with the crown of light he wore;
There are who, now his early sun has set,
Nor can, nor will forget.

He sleeps, — and yet around the sightless eye,
And the pressed lip, a darkened glory plays!
Though the high powers in dull oblivion lie,
There hovers still the light of other days;
Deep in that soul a spirit, not of earth,
Still struggles for its birth.

He will not sleep forever, but will rise
Fresh to more daring labors — now, even now,
As the close shrouding mist of morning flies,
The gathered slumber leaves his lifted brow;
From his half-opened eye, in fuller beams,
His wakened spirit streams.

Yes, he will break his sleep — the spell is gone—
The deadly charm departed — see him fling
Proudly his fetters by, and hurry on,
Keen as the famished eagle darts her wing;
The goal is still before him, and the prize
Still woos his eager eyes.

He rushes forth to conquer — shall they take,
They, who with feebler pace still kept their way,
When he forgot the contest — shall they take,
Now he renews the race, the victor's bay?
Still let them strive — when he collects his might,
He will assert his right.

The spirit cannot always sleep in dust,
Whose essence is ethereal — they may try
To darken and degrade it — it may rust
Dimly awhile, but cannot wholly die;
And when it wakens, it will send its fire
Intenser forth and higher.

Mr. Percival's lot has been that of Genius in its most sensitive shapes since the world began. He has suffered, and wandered, and thrown aside, from caprice or feeling, every gift of Fortune, till his fine fancy has been fettered and put down, and his mind broken into traces, and he is now one of the most devoted of laborers in the dryest and most heart-stifling paths of literature. His unequalled and universal acquirements as a linguist, have thrown upon him a task to which, as the author himself remarked, no other person in this country was equal — the revision and superintendence of Mr. Webster's Etymological Dictionary — a labor to which, for two or three years, he has devoted from twelve to fifteen hours a day, with barely compensation enough for a subsistence. Since this was completed, he has translated and improved for the press Malte-Brun's Universal Geography — another labor which demanded the most extensive and minute acquirements, with the same engrossing and assiduous industry. And this is what the world calls a triumph! This is what is lauded and rejoiced over among men, as if the lofty spirit that is broken to their familiar and plodding uses, were redeemed from a reproach by the sacrifice — as if to break the wings of the eagle, and put out his eyes, and train him to the turning of a wheel, were a better destiny for the monarch bird than the enjoyment of Heaven's own gifts, and the range of the illimitable air! Thus was Burns, the glorious, best lyrist of an age, appreciated by his penny-saving country — and it is not their posthumous apotheosis, and their eulogies that cost them nothing now that he is dead, that will wipe out from the page of history the dark lines that will record it. How long will men put to the hewing of wood and the drawing of water the angels they entertain unaware?

We have perhaps offended against the delicacy due to a living author, in the freedom with which we have spoken. But we have not done it unadvisedly or without a purpose. It would have been a rich service to Burns, that should have anticipated, in his life-time, but a hundredth portion of the eloquence that has been unavailingly wasted over his grave. If his countrymen had but bought his books, (shame on human nature, that so heavy a sin should be incurred in so trivial a neglect!) he would have been saved from his degrading employment — the unquestionable and acknowledged cause of his sad errors and his early grave. We do not fear a similar fate for the pure subject of our comments, but a spirit may be broken though not degraded, and we would save our country from the lasting reproach of neglecting and perverting the gifts that should have been its grace and honor. It is a fact that should be recorded now while it is within remedy, that the works of the finest-strung and loftiest mind among us lie unsold — that a meagre edition of five hundred of Poems that will outlive the memories of the best of us, cumber the shelves of the bookseller, and compel the fiery-hearted author to pay the cost with a slavery which wastes and stifles the very inspiration of Heaven!