“The Broken Heart” by James Gates Percival

by Ann Neilson

James Gates Percival, once a prolific and outstanding poet, has been completely forgotten by the public—in fact, according to author and critic Nathaniel Parker Willis in an 1830 article from the American Monthly Magazine, Percival had resorted, then, to becoming a seldom-spoken name, although he was esteemed to be one “of the finest-strung and loftiest [minds]” of his time (286-89). Despite garnering little fame during and after his lifetime, his poetry, in my opinion, should rank with that of such commonly read poets as Poe, Longfellow, and Whittier. I digress.

Percivals life was encapsulated by tragedy, and he roamed life as a fragile recluse. His earlier poems reflect this sensitive nature, as well as the mental turmoil which he endured during his younger years, being a gentleman of suicidal tendencies. “The Broken Heart” clearly illustrates his grief and a tortured mind, “And his life was a dream of madness”; “His agony was the rack of Hell” (ll 4, 7). There is no strict evidence as to what or whom may have influenced this poem; however, our above context can give us enough clues to surmise Percival was not in a good place when he wrote this poem. It also simply lends to the genius of his pen.


The Broken Heart

James Gates Percival
From The Poetical Works of James Gates Percival: With a Biographical Sketch, Volume 1, 1866

HE has gone to the land where the dead are still,
And mute the song of gladness;
He drank at the cup of grief his fill,
And his life was a dream of madness;
The victim of fancy’s torturing spell,
From hope to darkness driven,
His agony was the rack of Hell,
His joy the thrill of Heaven.

He has gone to the land where the dead are cold,
And thought will sting him—never;
The tomb its darkest veil has rolled
O’er all his faults for ever;
O, there was a light that shone within
The gloom that hung around him;
His heart was formed to woo and win,
But love had never crowned him.

He has gone to the land where the dead may rest
In a soft, unbroken slumber,
Where the pulse, that swelled his anguished breast,
Shall never his tortures number;
Ah! little the reckless witlings know,
How keenly throbbed and smarted
That bosom, which burned with a brightest glow,
Till crushed and broken-hearted.

He longed to love, and a frown was all
The cold and thoughtless gave him;
He sprang to Ambition’s trumpet-call,
But back they rudely drave him:
He glowed with a spirit pure and high,
They called the feeling madness;
And he wept for woe with a melting eye,
‘T was weak and moody sadness.

He sought, with an ardor full and keen,
To rise to a noble station,
But repulsed by the proud, the cold, the mean,
He sunk in desperation;
They called him away to Pleasure’s bowers,
But gave him a poisoned chalice,
And from her alluring wreath of flowers
They glanced the grin of malice.

He felt that the charm of life was gone,
That his hopes were chilled and blasted,
That being wearily lingered on
In sadness, while it lasted;
He turned to the picture fancy drew,
Which he thought would darken never;
It fled;—to the damp, cold grave he flew
And he sleeps with the dead for ever.