“Prevalence of Poetry” by James Gates Percival

by Ann Neilson

This is perhaps one of Percival’s better known works, with its earliest publishing (to my current knowledge) being in Rufus Griswold’s the Poets and Poetry of America. This pensive poem is a conglomeration of raw imagery pertaining to the philosophical and the mystical. Percival seems to bare his utter soul in this poem, although others of his, such as “The Suicide,” also depict his poetical vulnerability.

To accompany this poem, I’ve found a lovely choral arrangement, which you may find linked here. Although he is not credited here in particular, Percival’s words are credited to him on the original arrangement.

Prevalence of Poetry
James Gates Percival

+++ THE world is full of poetry—the air
Is living with its spirit ; and the waves
Dance to the music of its melodies,
And sparkle in its brightness. Earth is veil’d,
And mantled with its beauty ; and the walls,
That close the universe with crystal in,
Are eloquent with voices, that proclaim
The unseen glories of immensity,
In harmonies, too perfect and too high,
For aught but beings of celestial mould,
And speak to man in one eternal hymn,
Unfading beauty, and unyielding power.
+++ The year leads round the seasons, in a choir
Forever charming, and forever new,
Blending the grand, the beautiful, the gay,
The mournful, and the tender, in one strain,
Which steals into the heart, like sounds, that rise
Far off, in moonlight evenings, on the shore
Of the wide ocean, resting after storms ;
Or tones, that wind around the vaulted roof,
And pointed arches, and retiring aisles
Of some old, lonely minster, where the hand,
Skilful, and moved, with passionate love of art,
Plays o’er the higher keys, and bears aloft
The peal of bursting thunder, and then calls,
By mellow touches, from the softer tubes,
Voices of melting tenderness, that blend
With pure and gentle musings, till the soul,
Commingling with the melody, is borne,
Rapt, and dissolved in ecstasy, to heaven.
+++ ‘Tis not the chime and flow of words, that move
In measured file, and metrical array ;
;Tis not the union of returning sounds,
Nor all the pleasing artifice of rhyme,
And quantity, and accent, that can give
This all-pervading spirit to the ear,
Or blend it with the movings of the soul.
‘Tis a mysterious feeling, which combines
Man with the world around him, in a chain
Woven of flowers, and dipp’d in sweetness, till
He taste the high communion of his thoughts,
With all existence, in earth and heaven,
That meet him in the charm of grace and power.
‘Tis not the noisy babbler, who displays,
In studied phrase, and ornate epithet,
And rounded period, poor and vapid thoughts,
Which peep from out the cumbrous ornaments
That overload their littleness. Its words
Are few, but deep and solemn ; and they break
Fresh from the fount of feeling, and are full
Of all that passion, which, on Carmel, fired
The holy prophet, when his lips were coals,
His language wing’d with terror, as when bolts
Leap from the brooding tempest, arm’d with wrath,
Commission’d to affright us, and destroy.
+++ Passion, when deep, is still : the glaring eye
That reads its enemy with glance of fire,
The lip, that curls and writhes in bitterness,
The brow contracted, till its wrinkles hide
The keen, fix’d orbs, that burn and flash below,
The hand firm clench’d and quivering, and the foot
Planted in attitude to spring, and dart
Its vengeance, are the language it employs.
So the poetic feeling needs no words
To give it utterance ; but it swells, and glows,
And revels in the ecstasies of soul,
And sits at banquet with celestial forms,
The beings of its own creation, fair
And lovely, as e’er haunted wood and wave,
When earth was peopled, in its solitudes,
With nymph and naiad—mighty, as the gods,
Whose palace was Olympus, and the clouds,
That hung, in gold and flame, around its brow ;
Who bore, upon their features, all that grand
And awful dignity of front, which bows
The eye that gazes on the marble Jove,
Who hurls, in wrath, his thunder, and the god,
The image of a beauty, so divine,
So masculine, so artless, that we seem
To share in his intensity of joy,
When, sure as fate, the bounding arrow sped,
And darted to the scaly monster’s heart.
+++ This spirit is the breath of Nature, blown
Over the sleeping forms of clay, who else
Doze on through life in blank stupidity,
Till by its blast, as by a touch of fire.
They rouse to lofty purpose, and send out,
In deeds of energy, the rage within.
Its seat is deeper in the savage breast,
Than in the man of cities ; in the child,
Than in the maturer bosoms. Art may prune
Its rank and wild luxuriance, and may train
Its strong out-breakings, and its vehement gusts
To soft refinement, and amenity ;
But all its energy has vanish’d, all
Its maddening, and commanding spirit gone,
And all its tender touches, and its tones
Of soul-dissolving pathos, lost and hid
Among the measured notes, that move as dead
And heartless, as the puppets in a show.
+++ Well I remember, in my boyish days,
How deep the feeling, when my eye look’d forth
On Nature, in her loveliness, and storms ;
How my heart gladden’d, as the light of spring
Came from the sun, with zephyrs, and with showers,
Waking the earth to beauty, and the woods
To music, and the atmosphere to blow,
Sweetly and calmly, with its breath of balm.
O! how I gazed upon the dazzling blue
Of summer’s heaven of glory, and the waves,
That roll’d, in bending gold, o’er hill and plain ;
And on the tempest, when it issued forth,
In folds of blackness, from the northern sky,
And stood above the mountains, silent, dark,
Frowning, and terrible ; then sent abroad
The lightning, as its herald, and the peal,
That roll’d in deep, deep valleys, round the hills,
The warning of its coming, and the sound,
That usher’d in its elemental war.
And, O! I stood, in breathless longing fix’d,
Trembling, and yet not fearful, as the clouds
Heaved their dark billows on the roaring winds,
That sent, from mountain top, and bending wood,
A long, hoarse murmur, like the rush of waves,
That burst, in foam and fury, on the shore.
Nor less the swelling of my heart, when high
Rose the blue arch of autumn, cloudless, pure
As nature, at her dawning, when she sprang
Fresh from the hand that wrought her ; where the eye
Caught not a speck upon the soft serene,
To stain its deep cerulean, but the cloud,
That floated, like a lonely spirit, there,
White as the snow of Zemla, or the foam
That on the mid-sea tosses, cinctured round,
In easy undulations, with a belt
Woven of bright APOLLO’s golden hair.
Nor, when that arch, in winter’s clearest night,
Mantled in ebon darkness, strew’d with stars
Its canopy, that seem’d to swell, and swell
The higher, as I gazed upon it, till,
Sphere after sphere, evolving, on the height
Of heaven, the everlasting throne shone through,
In glory’s effulgence, and a wave,
Intensely bright, roll’d, like a fountain, forth
Beneath its sapphire pedestal, and stream’d
Down the long galaxy, a flood of snow,
Bathing the heavens in light, the spring, that gush’d,
In overflowing richness, from the breast
Of all-maternal nature. These I saw,
And felt to madness ; but my full heart gave
No utterance to the ineffable within.
Words were too weak ; they were unknown ; but still
The feeling was most poignant : it has gone ;
And all the deepest flow of sounds, that e’er
Pour’d, in a torrent fulness, from the tongue
Rich with the wealth of ancient bards, and stored
With all the patriarchs of British song
Hallow’d and render’d glorious, cannot tell
Those feelings, which have died, to live no more.