James Gates Percival (1795-1856) is one of my favorite poets. Not in the sense that I'd actually like to have his works on a desert island, although on second reflection, that is actually not a bad idea, as I'd need years to probably appreciate many of them. No, I don't like him because I love his poetry, but because he led a bizarre life.
As a young man, Percival was talked about as one of America's great poets. Nearly a caricature of the over-sensitive poet, Percival was unable to speak above a whisper due to a childhood illness, and was prone to bouts of severe depression. He attempted suicide a number of times, and went from being one of New England's brightest literary stars to a new recluse.
Perhaps no literary star has ever faded so quickly. Percival eventually trained himself as a geologist, and moved to Wisconsin, where he completed a major study of the state shortly before he died. In Wisconsin, he designed his dream home, which had no front door. A perfectionist, he delayed submitting his report on the state's geology for many years, which also delayed his being paid.
Percival began his career writing blank verse, and it was that blank verse that made him ever briefly a shining star. Percival was extremely technically skilled, and was highly intelligent. He also fit the profile of a romantic poet. Perhaps most importantly, there wasn't a great deal being produced in America in the 1820s that was any better. It is not clear if Percival wanted greater literary fame or if he hated the public. Or both. In later years, Percival taught himself a number of European languages, and his final collection A Dream of a Day (1843) features a number of poems in translation, poems "in the style of..." and so forth. Percival also seems to have felt a need to demonstrate that he could write in any verse stanza/rhyme scheme imaginable. Extremely erudite, yet not very interesting. On the whole, it was one of the stranger volumes I read while preparing for my comps exam in grad school.
Shortly after he died, a biography of Percival was absolutely savaged by James Russell Lowell. Lowell at once obliterated Percival, yet gave him a kind of everylasting fame as well. Of Percival, Lowell wrote, "he was incapable of receiving into his own mind the ordinary emotions of men and giving them back in music." Lowell paints Percival as a man out of touch with reality, driven by an over-inflated sense of self, "not til after he was fifty, if even then, did he learn that the world never takes a man at his own valuation, and never pays money for what it does not want, or think it wants. It did not want his poetry, simply because it was not, is not, and by no concievable power of argument can be made, interesting."
Lowell goes on to compare Percival to a mad refrigerator maker who expects all his varieties of refrigerator to be bought, just because he went to the trouble of making so many varieties.
However, addressing the three people who made it this far, Percival has some good poems. This one, which describes a coral reef, is one of his best.
The Coral Grove
Deep in the wave is a coral grove,
Where the purple mullet and gold-fish rove,
Where the sea-flower spreads its leaves of blue,
That never are wet with falling dew,
But in bright and changeful beauty shine,
Far down in the green and glassy brine.
The floor is of sand, like the mountain drift,
And the pearl shells spangle the flinty snow;
From coral rocks the sea plants lift
Their boughs, where the tides and billows flow;
The water is calm and still below,
For the winds and the waves are absent there,
And the sands are bright as the stars that glow
In the motionless fields of upper air:
There, with its waving blade of green,
The sea-flag streams through the silent water,
And the crimson leaf of the dulse is seen
To blush like a banner bathed in slaughter:
There, with a light and easy motion,
The fan-coral sweeps through the clear deep sea;
And the yellow and scarlet tufts of ocean
Are bending like corn on the upland lea:
And life, in rare and beautiful forms,
Is sporting amid those bowers of stone,
And is safe, when the wrathful Spirit of storms,
Has made the top of the waves his own:
And when the ship from his fury flies,
Where the myriad voices of Ocean roar,
When the wind-god frowns in the murky skies,
And demons are waiting the wreck on shore;
Then, far below, in the peaceful sea,
The purple mullet and gold-fish rove,
Where the waters murmur tranquilly,
Through the bending twigs of the coral grove.