September 15, 2010

Birth of James Gates Percival

James Gates Percival was born on September 15, 1795 in Berlin, Connecticut. He went on to become a poet, doctor, chemistry professor at West Point, one-time assistant of Noah Webster, as well as a geologist (who served for a time as the state geologist of Wisconsin). As a poet, Percival built up a substantial enough popularity, though he was not financial successful. In one year, for example, his writing reportedly earned him only $65. His personal woes were strong enough that he attempted suicide at age 25. When he died in 1856, his grave remained unmarked for some time.

Perhaps it is somewhat appropriate, considering his difficulty in both life and in poetry, that Percival later witnessed the abandonment of the home of his birth. It inspired a poem in which he still saw its beauty, despite the home's desertion:

...Lonely, desolate appears,
Pale as in the vale of years,
The mansion where my infant eye
First saw the rocks, the woods, the sky.
O! it was a lovely sight,
Though obscured by shades of night;
And though the ivy-mantled wall
At intervals was heard to fall,
Breaking with faintly rattling sound
The quiet hush that reigned around.

...I wandered slow, and fondly viewed
This scene in evening tears bedewed,
And felt around my heart the throe
Of tender grief and melting wo,
To see a spot so sweet, so dear,
Now laid on desolation's bier...

With trembling hand I oped the door,
And wandered o'er the mouldering floor,
Along the slowly crumbling wall,
Where wintry fires were wont to fall
And smile with beams of ruddy light,
Chasing away the gloom of night,
Nought was seen but shadows drear
And sights that filled my soul with fear.

He witnesses "wild fantastic stains" from "trickling autumn rains," a creeping snail leaving a trail of slime, the silken web of a spider, and even a bat which suddenly darts through a broken pane of glass. Percival concludes that, despite its poor condition, the home of his birth can still charm his "wearied eye," like a "genial balm."

Whatever fame remained at the end of Percival's life, James Russell Lowell crushed after the poet's death. In a review of the life and works of Percival, Lowell concluded he did not know the object or purpose of poetry and that most of his "pieces" ("and it is curious how literally the word 'pieces' applies to all he did") are preaching about how to write poetry, without actually doing so. Percival was, according to Lowell, unsympathetic and self-involved, and incapable of turning human emotion into poetry. His works are contrived, unreadable, and artificial. "He never in his life wrote a memorable verse," says Lowell.

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