September 13, 2012

Utterly disgusted with authorship

In 1822, James Gates Percival admitted, "I am utterly disgusted with authorship." He vowed never to write another line of poetry and instead began teaching chemistry and practicing as an occasional medical doctor. Nevertheless, he agreed to present a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa Society at his alma mater Yale College that fall. Soon, he felt he had made a mistake and instead presented an oration — not a poem.

But, three years later, Percival announced to a friend, "I have been appointed to deliver a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa at New Haven, and am resolved to appear there." Their meeting that year was on September 13, 1825. For it, he prepared a long poem which he titled "The Mind." The poem begins with his statement of purpose:

Of Mind, and its mysterious agencies,
And most of all, its high creative Power,
In fashioning the elements of things
To loftier images, than have on earth
Or in the sky their home — that come to us
In the still visitation of a dream,
Or rise in light before us when we muse;
Or at the bidding of the mightier take
Fixed residence in fitly sounding verse,
Or on the glowing canvass, or in shapes
Hewn from the living rock: — of these, and all
That wake us in our better thoughts, and lead
The spirit to the enduring and sublime,
It is my purpose now to hold awhile
Seemly discourse, and with befitting words
Cloth the conceptions, I have sought to frame.

The poem is a strange, rambling, unrhymed, and meterless mesh of abstract thoughts. In a sense, "The Mind" was more like another oration than a poem. One account says he stopped reading halfway through and sat down, declining to finish. Another says he asked not to read it at the ceremony and, when pressed, rushed through it so quickly that his reading was referred to as a "laughable one." Perhaps Percival's reticence to present a poem in 1822 was justified; his 1825 poem went without a publisher for months. Instead, a group of friends paid him for his manuscript and had it printed. Though they offered it to bookstores, very few copies were sold.

After this disastrous period of authorship attempts in the 1820s, Percival turned to something more practical and less imaginative: assisting Noah Webster in the creation of a dictionary of the English language.

1 comment:

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