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Prometheus, Part II. with other Poems. By JAMES G. PERCIVAL.
New Haven, 1822. pp. 108. WE do not know that there are many things of greater importance to a reading community, than the character of its authors. Even literary taste partakes something of a moral nature, when it is considered how far a right or a false taste in books, may go to form and modify the whole habit of thinking and feeling throughout a community. We are accustomed, therefore, to cast a a watchful eye upon the works which are sent out from our presses, and to hope or fear for the cause of morality and religion, according to the character of the books which are favourites with the people.
We have watched the course of no author with more anxiety than that of Mr. Percival. He is a young man, but has opened a poetical career uncommonly rapid and promising. He has published so much and so frequently as to be universally known, and with so mucb genuine genius, as to bave drawn to himself do small portion of flattering attention. We have been among those who have looked on with an eager and uneasy interest ; believing him to possess those rare gifts of intellect and fancy, which render him capable of taking a high place among our authors; yet fearful that the indications he has given of impatience and a certain waywardness of fancy and taste, might prevent his permanent success ;-while at the same time, we could not fail to be alarmed at the very equivocal language he has seen fit to use in his allusious to revealed religion and a future state.
We bave hoped from the beautiful strains of moral feeling and elevated sentiment, which pervade some portions of bis works, that the cause of virtue would find in him a powerful advocate ; but the darkness and doubts which bang over other passages, have made us fear that he would prove the ally of infidelity and misanthropy. How far his admiration of Byron,---whom in passages he resembles, and in some bardly less than equals,—may have unwittingly beguiled him into this style, more for the sake of the poetry and the declamation, than from New Series_ool. V.
serious conviction and set purpose to injure, we cannot pretend to say. We charitably hope that this may be the true solution of those consistencies of moral sentiment and speculation with which his writings abound; and that he will not long suffer these, or any of his other faults, to stand in the way of that permanent reputation, to which he is entitled by the endowments of his nature.
When we say this, we speak both in a literary and a moral point of view. And such are the feelings with which we have been accustomed to contemplate the possible excellence and fame of this writer, and the obstacles which he is himself throwing in their way; that we propose to devote a few pages to a more than usually diligent examination of his last volume. In doing this, some may regard us as departing from our proper province. But if it be in some measure a departure, yet such is the reciprocal influence of letters and morals, and such the interest which a religious community must necessarily take in the character of all its popular authors, and such the importance that our popular literature should be, from the first, chaste and correct, critically as well as morally; that we are persuaded we shall be readily excused; and instead of deviating from our duty, shall be only thought to pursue it by another path.
The work before us is a second part of the desultory, unconnected, unequal, but spirited poem of Prometheus. It is without a subject, and seems to have neither beginning, middle, nor end. We are told in the preface, that it is not entirely destitute of a plan to those who are able to detect it;' but as we are unable to do this, it has no plan for us. The author, however, derives an advantage from this discursive method, in the great variety of constantly shifting topics which he may introduce, and the scope which is thus given to all the fertility and flexibility of his genius. But it injures the interest of the whole, or rather takes
away all its interest as a single poem, and leaves no attraction to the reader, except what may be found in detached pas. sages. For this reason it must be read in scraps; and for another besides--that the perusal demands an effort and severity of attention, which soon fatigues. It is rather characteristic of Mr. Percival's poetry, that it requires to be studied. Many passages must be read, repeatedly before their beauty or their meaning become apparent; and some remain covered in misty obscurity after every effort to understand them. This is a fault. But there is for the most part an affluence of diction, an harmonious flow of verse, a rich variety of imagery, and a felicity in the description of the scenes and objects of nature, which unequivocally de
clare the power of the writer, even when they fail of being attractive to the reader.
A principal cause of the hard reading and obscurity at which we have hinted, we suppose to be the extreme baste with which the author writes. When this is considered, all his faults and fail. ures are accounted for, and it is perhaps matter of surprise, that they are not greater and more numerous. It is still more serious matter of surprise, that any man will hazard his reputation and success by such impromptu publications. The present poem, we are told, ' was written hastily in a very few days.' Against such wanton rapidity we think it the duty of every friend of letters and genius seriously to protest. For what is to be gained of honest fame to an author, or of valuable acquisition to our literature, by such basty throwing off of crude and indigested thought? Who can expect to find any thing like completeness, or continued and sugtained merit, in a poem of two thousand lines, which is made in a few days and sent uncorrected to the press ? It can be little more than a melancholy testimony, that the writer might do well if he would. For allowing, what is undoubtedly true, that the finest productions of the pen are oftentimes thrown off, as the author of Waverley says of his own, without care or preparation, by the spontaneous effort of an excited mind; yet no man's mind is capable of operating thus through a number of days successively, and making a long poein so felicitously, that it shall need do revision. Those are rare moments, seasons of occasional inspiration, like angel visits few and far between. He imposes upon himself who believes that he is always in this frame, or that what he writes at such a time is all good and accurate, foaming up with the spirit of life, and glowing with the rainbows of a glad inspiration.' 'Even the champaign wine, from which our author draws this illustration, may be very poor stuff notwithstanding its rainbows and foam.
It is the fundamental and ruinous error of this writer to act on. this principle of temporary inspiration, and to despise the excellence which comes from care and correction :--an error, which forebodes the disappointment of the high expectations he has raised, and the destruction, in the bud, of that reputation on which our country has already begun to pride itself. The deliberateness with which this is done is truly mortifying. The preface to this volume is wholly occupied in defending this sad mistake: smartly, and wittily, but not satisfactorily. There is little of sober argument, and a great deal of far fetched analogy and flippant remark, which is wide of the real question, and can serve only to divert attention from the actual merits of the case. Let us follow him in this course a little
. This has been,' he says, 'a standing law of sober criticism for two thousand years—Write much, if you please, but keep it long and prune it well. I must confess I do not relisb this mode of writing by the rule of subtraction. I had rather publish what was thrown out hastily from my mind, than reduce it by laboured correction, from forty to four. I do not like that poetry which bears the marks of the file and burnisher.'
This is merely stating that his own inclination is opposed to the experience of two thousand years :—a pretty convincing proof, one would think, that his inclination is wrong. It is not always a good argument against a thing that we do not relish it.'
• . It may be excellent in itself notwithstanding; and what has been found salutary for so long a period, it is hardly wise to discard because the stomach revolts at it a little at first. As to the file and burnisher, the more and the more skilfully they are used, the less are the marks of them visible.
No person has used them more fastidiously than Rousseau, and none has given his writings more entirely the air of fervour and inspiration. No man ever laboured and pruned and corrected his composition more than Demosthenes; yet there is no lack in his orations of ardour and energy. The smart application of the rule of subtraction, does not alter the sober fact, that almost every man writes something ip his first draft, which were better blotted than retained.
I like to see it in the full ebullition of feeling and fancy, foaming up with the spirit of life, and glowing with the rainbows of a glad inspiration. It would be a mourntul task to distil off the vivida vis, that comes out only in the moments of happy excitement, and reduce the living materials to a caput mortuum of chaste and sober
When there is a quick swell of passion, and an ever com. ing and going of beauty, as the light of the soul glances over it, I could not have the heart to press it down to its solid quintessence. This would do, if poetry was meant to be a string of proverbs, moving on, in the rank and file of couplets, with the regular slow-step of a Prussian army. But I like to see something savage and luxuriant in works of imagination, throwing itself out like the wild vines of the forest, rambling and climbing over the branches, and twining themselves into a maze of windings. What would you think of a fine horse, if you saw him always on the curvet and the denivolte ? Would be pot seem a grander object, if, after gathering his strength on the bit, he should burst out, and sweep over the plain in the full force of his speed; or, as Homer finely expresses it, (I give my own English), "Like a full-fed horse, who breaks his band, and suns prancing through the plain, to where he loved to bathe in the fair Aowing river; exulting he holds his head aloft, and his mane tosses around his shoulders." ;
We cannot believe that Mr. Percival imagined there is any reasoning in all this array of figures. It appears to us like the
attempt of a wilful man to disguise from bimself what he knows to be wrong, but what he is determined to persist in, and to persuade others to be right. We cannot marshal arguments for the overthrow of these images. We will only ask, whether it is intended to be implied, that there is any hostility or incompatibili. ty between poetry and chaste and sober reason? If there be not, there is no force in what is said. If there be, then poetry is good for nothing, and the more carelessly written the beiter, because the sooner it will perish. We ask also, if it is ever supposed that vines are injured by being pruned? Or il a man would choose to have his horse always 'gather his strength on the bit, and sweep over the plain in the full force of his speed ?' If this be the mode in which Mr. Percival chooses to ride Pegasus, he must not be surprized to find that his readers are left behind, and that none at last will ride with him--nay, that he himself is tbrown. Sober men would choose to have the animal under control, and to adapt bis paces to the purpose of the journey ; no more desiring to be run away with by a full fed horse who has broken his band,' than to be always on the curvet and the demivolte.'
As far as we can gather the intention of this paragraph of figurative argumentation, our author does not perceive, certainly does not allow, that there is any alternative to a writer, but to leave
every thing just as it comes fresh from his pen, or to make it stupid and duli, by attempts to correct it. He must either print all that he writes, or annibilate thirty-six lines in every forty, and leave the remaining four nothing but a caput mortuum of poor prose. He must either have å thick forest of vine branches and mazes, whether they can be seen through and got through or not; or else must leave a dead uniform barren level of sand. We hope that he is not quite so perverse as all this would seem to imply.
In what follows there is something more plausible.
• Again, I contend that this free and careless style is the natural one of a dawning national literature. The public does not then reward authors sufficiently, to warrant them in giving months and even years to the perfecting a few hundred lines. They cannot then afford to write and rewrite, muse and revolve, blot and interline, till they have made all as smooth, but as tame, as if poetry was only meant to show how softly our language can flow onward, and how carefully the fancy can obey the severest laws of the judgment, Authors, bere, cannot afford to trim the lamp much. If they would live by their pens, they must write by the job, and take long ones too. They cannot afford to exhibit such a muititude of variæ lectiones as Pope could. What comes out first must go abroad, and meet its fate. We should here write in prose, and write on bụsia