« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »
woefully hard to follow. Words in wild profusion instead of conveying thought seem to conceal it, and the mind gets lost. There are richness of fancy, ornateness of language, and harmonious versification, but there is not enough balance or good sense. Sometimes one loses his way in a wealth of illustration, and again one is enmeshed in a parenthesis of eight or ten lines. The effect of all this is painful. There is too much adornment and not enough clarity of expression. Accordingly the reader begins to wonder whether clear thinking lay behind the involved language. How much some of these long poems needed the pruning knife! Always, however, Percival was resolutely an advocate of the rough draft of inspiration, boasting that he was free from the use of the "file and burnisher." It was a poem of this character that he read on a September evening in 1825, when thirty years of age, before the Connecticut Alpha Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society-a poem of eleven hundred lines in blank verse on "The Mind." That evening of fatigue must have been carried long in the memory by those who suffered. Percival, not knowing human nature and human tastes well, could be a bore, as in this public instance and in recorded instances of interminable private talks-really lectures-to some lone sufferer. Undoubtedly, poems that weary one as that Connecticut audience was wearied will not keep their author's memory green.
Passing to the short poems, we find the situation changes greatly, and the desire to quote more than space permits has to be restrained. As, in a way, Everett's ornate Gettysburg oration is to Lincoln's simple speech, so are Percival's long poems to a few of the short ones. It would seem that some of these should be better known and should give their author a higher place in American literature than he now holds. The critics are doubtless to blame for his unpopularity. Lowell's scathing comment,' unfair as it was, has done him
1 In My Study Windows.
great harm. To illustrate: On looking over one history of American literature for public schools, I find that the author, after saying a word or two generally on Percival, referred the student to Lowell's My Study Windows-a course markedly unenlightened. Surely "error always lurks in generalities." Some day, let us hope, abler pens than mine will in a large way challenge the conclusions of Lowell.
I shall now quote in its entirety "The Coral Grove," written in 1822, which is generally considered Percival's masterpiece and which was first published in the Courier, Charleston, South Carolina, then the leading literary paper in the South:
Deep in the wave is a coral
Where the purple mullet and gold-fish rove,
Where the sea-flower spreads its leaves of blue,
But in bright and changeful beauty shine,
Their boughs, where the tides and billows flow;
For the winds and waves are absent there,
To blush, like a banner bathed in slaughter:
There, with a light and easy motion,
The fan-coral sweeps through the clear, deep sea;
Are bending like corn on the upland lea:
Is sporting amid those bowers of stone,
And is safe, when the wrathful spirit of storms
Then far below, in the peaceful sea,
Through the bending twigs of the coral grove.
A hundred years have passed since this piece, so rich in fancy, appeared. Henry Ware, clergyman, author, and Harvard professor, said in 1826 that "The Coral Grove" was "one of the most distinct and exquisite pieces of fancy work which the muse ever sketched." In 1855 Yale's great naturalist, Professor James H. Dana, delivering at New Haven a popular address on the coral formations, quoted these lines:
And life, in rare and beautiful forms,
In 1859 William Cullen Bryant, comparing favorably Percival's "brilliancy of imagery and sweetness of versification" with Thomas Moore's, cited "The Coral Grove" as an illustration. The poem is found in the Library of Choice Literature, a notable work from all standpoints, edited by A. R. Spofford, librarian of Congress, and published in 1883, sixty-one years after the verses were written. In Wilstach's Dictionary of Similes, these striking lines are quoted: "To blush like a banner bathed in slaughter," and "Are bending like corn on the upland lea." It seems to me this one poem alone establishes the fame of its author as a poet. How seemly, therefore, would it have been if the school literature above mentioned had given a reference to "The Coral Grove" rather than to Lowell's savage onslaught. If time be the great test of merit in literature, then, to be fair, has not this production met the test? Less caricature, more understanding, and more fairness should be accorded James Gates Percival. American literature is not so rich and varied that these lines must be sent to the scrap heap with
2 Professor Henry A. Beers, in his Ways of Yale, edition of 1910, after treating Percival quite jeeringly in the chapter “Our Own Percival," calls himself to account toward its close, and cites exceptions to the general tenor of his remarks-he acknowledges the worth of "The Coral Grove" and "Seneca Lake."
the effusions of dabblers in verse on the ground that they suffer in comparison with the best.
Besides, there are further testimonies that Percival continues to inspire some—that he is not wholly forgotten. Looking over Charles H. Crandall's Representative Sonnets by American Poets, published in 1890, I find the author saying of Percival, "His sonnets have the courtly elegance and fine feeling of old-time poetry." Now, this is far removed from faint praise. Two sonnets from Percival"My Love" and "Night"-which follow are included in Crandall's selections:
If on the clustering curls of thy dark hair,
A veil of tender light is mantling o'er thee;
How the heart trembles, when it bends before thee.
Am I not all alone? The world is still
In passionless slumber; not a tree but feels
The misty river by. Yon broad, bare hill
From the abyss of night, "Not all alone—
Mind and its kingdom now are all thine own.”
Are our standards of taste so high that these poems count as naught? If such lines are not appreciated, is it the fault
of the poet, the critic, or the public? These lines-and they deserve to be better known-should contribute mightily toward keeping the one who penned them from oblivion. In 1859 the poet Bryant, referring to Percival, said: "Some of the sonnets have all the majesty of those of Wordsworth." It must be apparent now that the author of "To a Waterfowl" and "Thanatopsis" thought highly of Percival as a poet-appraised him in a way strikingly at variance with that of Lowell.
As further evidence that this son of Yale has not had fair treatment-that obscurity should not be his portion,-I must revive his lines on "Evening," breathing as they do deep feeling in felicitous expression; and I must once more express wonder that critics have not become better acquainted with little poems of this character, so free from the conceded defects of the longer ones:
O Evening! I have loved thee with a joy
And, far from all the stir and noise of men,
Such as come gathering brightly round us, when
Imagination soars and shakes her wings.
Yes, in that secret valley, doubly dear
For all its natural beauty, and the hush
That ever brooded o'er it, I would lay
My thoughts in deepest calm, and if a bush
The judgment of a later generation than his own is that the little poem "To Seneca Lake," referred to in the Cambridge History of American Literature as a "little gem, ranks high in merit among Percival's writings. It has a place in some of the recent anthologies. In view of its simplicity, contrasting so markedly with the verbiage of