The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 19. James Gates Percival
James Gates Percival (1795–1856) typified that crude manifestation of Romanticism, the self-constituted, the self-conscious poetic genius. Similarly, he typified the poetic mood that is without the poetic reason. The stuff of him is preeminently the stuff of poetry, but unclarified, uncontrolled, unorganized. It is often as if the personalities of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Moore, and Bryant had been merged into one helpless hypnoidal state of metrical and emotional garrulity. Yet every now and then an open-minded reader is surprised by some first-hand observation, some graceful analogy, some picturesqueness or energy, some short lyric cry; and once at least he wrought a little gem—his simple stanzas on Seneca Lake. He typified, too, a not altogehter ignoble phase of earlier American culture in his zealous acquisitiveness, both in science (he died as state geologist of Wisconsin), and in languages (he wrote verse in Scandinavian and German, and translated from innumerable tongues). But he belongs chiefly to the student of human nature; lonely, shy, unmarried, disappointed, poor, and dirty, he was in appearance and mode of life a character for Dickens, in heart and soul a character for Thackeray or George Eliot. Lowell pilloried him in an essay; Bryant was perhaps juster in his kindlier obituary criticism in The Evening Post. He was once a famous man.