Buried deep in southwest Wisconsin, beneath a granite monument at the hamlet of Hazel Green, lies the body of a great nineteenth century student. His works in language, literature, and science have shaped our culture to the present day, yet these contributions are nearly as forgotten now as the name of their maker: James Gates Percival. As a poet, Percival was put to music by Edward Elgar. As a linguist, he was a leading contributor to the original Webster's Dictionary. As a geologist, he compiled the first surveys of two U.S. states: Connecticut and Wisconsin. These accomplishments are now lost among the tomes of dusty archives, for in Percival's own words:
What's earth, what's life, to space, eternity?
'Tis but a flash, a glance—from birth to death;
And he, who ruled the world, would only be
Lord of a point—a creature of a breath;
And what is it to gain a hero's name,
or build one's greatness on the rabble's roar?
'Tis but to light a feeble, flickering flame,
That shines a moment, and is seen no more.
James Gates Percival was born in Berlin, Connecticut, on September 15, 1795. He entered Yale College at age 16, already captive to the pursuit of poetry. Percival's early life, however, was seldom easy. His father had died before James reached his teen years, and at Yale, Percival was so derided by his peers for his poetic ambitions that he left the college in 1812 and employed himself as a farmer for a year before gathering the resolve to finish school.
Returning to Yale, Percival engrossed himself in his studies and avoided society. One classmate noted that "I never knew one who could acquire correct knowledge quicker than Percival," and another observed, "I think he had few acquaintances in college, though I never knew that he had any enemies. The fact that his intercourse was so circumscribed was doubtless to be attributed to constitutional reserve, and not to the consciousness of his own superiority. Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow."
After graduating in 1815, Percival continued to expand his knowledge. He embarked as a private tutor; then sought and obtained a degree in medicine at Yale. The young doctor, however, found himself unable to cope with the emotion of his work. Percival felt a strong sense of empathy for his patients and an extremely self-conscious sense of responsibility to them. He could overwhelm himself with grief when he lacked a cure for someone in pain.
Percival also thirsted, quietly, for companionship. Those who knew him remarked on his sensitive and amicable nature, but they could rarely penetrate his reserved demeanor. Friendships for Percival were often fruitless, and his one cautious letter of love was met with steadfast rejection. As grief stacked on grief, Percival penned a long, rambling, maudlin poem entitled "The Suicide." The work is frenzied and inconsistent, at times unreadable, at times presaging the later vivid imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. A few stanzas follow:
How easy, O! how trifling, with the steel
To pierce a heart that loves no scene below,
To wound a breast too callous e'er to feel
A pang less cruel than a demon's woe.
Does not the smiling surface of the wave
Kindly invite to take my endless sleep?
How sweet to rest within a watery grave;
How soft those slumbers—that repose how deep.
The death-winged ball—can pierce my phrenzied brain,
The knife—can loose the shackles of my soul,
An opiate—that can ease my every pain,
Smiles, how inviting!—in the poisoned bowl.
And thou, sweet drug!—can'st shed the balmy dew
Of sleep eternal, o'er my wearied eyes,
And give repose, as calm to mortal view
As when the infant wrapt in slumber lies.
Still thou art slow though sure—ah! can I wait
A single moment, ere I sink in death;
Perhaps I may lament it when too late,
And struggle to regain my fleeting breath.
Give me the knife, the dagger, or the ball—
O! I can take them with a smile serene;
Then like a flash of lighting I may fall
And rush at once into the world unseen.
Percival made a number of chaotic attempts to take his life in 1820. He bashed his head with stones; he overdosed on opium; he invested in a brace of pistols. In time Percival recovered from these incidents, but he never overcame their scars. He briefly resumed practicing medicine far from home in South Carolina after 1820, but the doctor remarked in one conversation, "I had got my name up for writing verses, and found myself ruined. When a person is really ill he will not send for a poet to cure him."
More a poet than a doctor, Percival withdrew from society, and he spent most of his life in seclusion. He never married. The pathos that marked his early years forever overshadowed his later achievements.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am taking a Creative Writing course at school this semester. We've just finished the half of the class dedicated to poetry, and I thought I would take the occasion to share one of the my poems. Thanks to my classmates for their helpful suggestions and encouragement. With no further ado:
At last you slipped into your white dress
and rose to join us, ready, smiling
when I picked you up and pulled you in
until finally we came so close
you felt my breath against your chin.
You'd waited forever for this, watching
companions get plucked up by young suitors,
one, two, another over your head.
Was the bottom of the pile so bad
in the meantime, when you were cushioned
by friends? I don't know what tissues
get up to when left to their own devices,
but I bet you had fun in that box
when no one was looking. Maybe you miss those days
now, but I know you dreamed for better
things. Then I came along (as if I was your dream!),
and maybe for a moment we felt like forever—
but there was barely time to blink before
I tossed you to the trash can,
soggy and spent, crumpled and crushed.
I know my sorry doesn't mean much
when you're at the bottom of the bin,
covered in gum wrappers and banana peels.
Your new neighbors will never know whose nose
needed you, and when the trash collector
comes, he won't care whose tears