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rather retiring from insult or injury. He showed, too, a purity of thought and firmness of purpose unusual for youth, and could never bear to see any creature suffer. The simplicity of manners and rural beauty of his native town had much to do with the shaping of his intellect and character. That meeting with temptation, which makes the ordeal of less ethereal natures, he never experienced. He had a general distrust of human nature, which doubtless ripened as he knew more of it, and when, in later years, he came to know human life as it is, and saw the possible goodness and actual depravity of the race, it almost drove him mad. There are two characters in modern literary history whose boyhood was like his, Novalis and Shelley. They had the same sensitiveness, the same childlike simplicity, the same innocence and depth of thought, the same natural insight, the same spiritual feeling and aspiration. Belonging to the same age, each felt the throbbing of a more religious spirit than was then prevalent; each lived amid and knew more of the mysteries which are aback of reality, than of reality itself; and though their course in life was widely different, each had a secret affinity for the other.
We have already seen, that to “ dwell in the still air of delightful studies," to meditate, not to act, was the part assigned to Percival in life. His poetic genius early showed itself. At the age of fourteen, he wrote a poem of considerable length, a burlesque on the times, in which the “ Embargo” – a topic which Bryant made the subject of one of his earliest poems — was not forgotten. He also projected an epic, and under the inspiration (perhaps) of Thomson's Seasons, in his sixteenth year wrote the greater part of a poem which he entitled “ Seasons of New England,” and which, though bearing the marks of youth, is no unworthy prelude to his later works. In the same year he entered Yale College, poorly prepared in Latin, yet so largely stocked with knowledge and so rich in meditative energy, that his mind had already mapped out its future course. The following picture, from the pen of his room-mate* at Yale, is not without interest. “ His manner of life while with us was something like what I am about to relate. On leaving the
* Rev. N. S. Wheaton, D.D.
breakfast-hall, he would go out on a long, solitary walk, in the suburbs, returning about an hour before the eleven-o'clock recitation, when he would steal silently into the chamber, unlock his desk, and write a few minutes, making a record, as we supposed, of the poetic inspirations which had visited him in his rambles. Having done this, he would return his paper to the desk, lock it, and take up the text-book of the subject of the next recitation. This he would look at for half an hour, silent and motionless, when he was fully prepared, whatever the subject might be. After tea, the solitary walk would be repeated, and sometimes prolonged till late in the evening. During all the time we were room-mates, he rarely took part in conversation, his mind seeming to be always preoccupied, and dwelling apart in a world of its own; yet he was uniformly amiable, and sometimes even cheerful; and would occasionally, when encouraged, read to us a few lines of what he had written. But it would be difficult, I think, to prove that, during his whole collegiate course, he ever unbosomed himself, even in the slightest degree, to any one of his companions. The inner history of his mind, at this period, will never be written.”
He himself once said that he gained the respect of the Freshman class, by writing satirical verses against some of his classmates who had begun to persecute him.* In his Freshman year he had already by him a manuscript volume of poetry, which he first offered to Noah Webster, wishing him to sanction its publication; but Dr. Webster advised him to wait, and be in no hurry to publish it. He then handed it to General Howe, the leading bookseller in New Haven, but was met with such a cool estimate of his poetic ability, (his volume being unexamined,) that he silently withdrew. In allusion to this, his classmate, from whom we have just quoted, remarks : “ This brought upon him the raillery of the college boys, — which deeply wounded his sensitive nature; and to a question from one of us as to the truth of the report, and some remark perhaps not complimentary to his discretion, he burst into a passionate flood of tears, and sobbed out, “I don't care, I will be a poet. After that, we were careful how we touched the tender spot. His mortification was extreme, as much probably at the publicity of this youthful escapade as his failure to appear as an author. During the short remainder of the term, he seemed to shun, more than ever, all intercourse with the students, and at its close withdrew from college.” He pleaded sickness as the cause, and resolved to give up his education and become a farmer; but the love of study conquered his disappointment, and he returned to college the following year, entering the next class. Ever after he was known in college by the nickname of “Poet." The first draft of “Prometheus” was read before the society of the Brothers in Unity, of which he was a member, in his Sophomore year, and caused much excitement in college at the time.* He also frequently sent in poetry anonymously, to be read at the society meetings, and generally gave his leisure hours to poetic composition. In his studies he was regular and faithful, but, from his modest manner, not appreciated; for recreation he often busied himself with the higher mathematics; he also made good the vacancies in his reading which his father's library could not supply; and though he devoted himself with zeal to the natural sciences, the languages had by far the best share of attention. His compositions were always listened to with interest, but he read them in so low a tone, as often to call out the remark from Dr. Dwight, “ Read up louder, Percival ; you have got nothing to be ashamed of.” While he was delivering his oration at Commencement, Dr. Dwight said to a friend, that Percival was the most remarkable scholar he had known for many years, and gave him as his parting advice, that he must follow an active profession, or he would be a ruined man. The poet Brainerd and the Rev. Dr. Sprague of Albany were his classmates, the latter of whom says, “ Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow.” He had a perception almost intuitive, united with a never-failing memory. This not only gave him superiority as a student, but enabled him to keep in store everything which he learned. Nor did this trait suppress the action of original thought. Indeed, the leading fact which a classmate recollects of him is his originality and independence of mind; and his vast stores, far from becoming disordered, were as trusty and exact as a dictionary.
* Vol. I. p. xviii.
After his separation from college, he looked out upon active life rather as one who must press into service to earn a living, than as a man who had a real zest for action. He first turned his attention to medicine, but devotion to literature and love of abstract science were even then struggling to win the energies of his life. Led on by a master passion, — the love of study for its own sake, - he engaged in study on a much broader scale than he had done before, and throughout life, amid trials which he could hardly withstand, his self-forgetting devotion to mental pursuits never lagged. Though his mind had such largeness and elasticity that he could take up many studies at the same time, he generally threw his whole soul into the subject at hand, until he had grasped its essence, and then seldom touched it again. In this way he soon compassed wide tracts of knowledge; and as memory never failed him, his resources in such walks at length became almost marvellous. While Webster's Dictionary was passing through the press, if there were difficult points which no one else of the New Haven literati could throw light upon, Percival was the oracle resorted to, and his response taken as final. So he often had letters and visits, not only from all parts of the country, but even from Europe, with regard to knotty questions either in learning or science. He had both the industry and generosity of the scholar. No one came to him with questions of an answerable nature, and went away unsatisfied. One who had frequent occasion to make use of his kindness, and had as often tried to repay him, once managed, as he left him, to slip several dollars into his hand. But a few days after, passing by a bookstore which the poet used to frequent, he was called in, and received back the amount which he had given him.
Percival had no mean notions of the scholar's character; the service of truth, the spread of knowledge, and the best interests of humanity were the objects which he not only proposed to himself, but actually lived for. He regarded the seclusion of his library as sacred; if he had a call, he would step out of his room and talk as long as his visitor wished; but that place where he lived a life far more intense than most men. ever dream of, and gave himself up with energy to the fascinations of his favorite studies, he could not have profaned by “lion-hunters," nor even echo with the voice of friendship. A foppish young man, attended by ladies, once on a visit to the Hospital, where was Percival's room, wished to pay his respects to the poet. He was shown the way to his room, and knocked at the door. Percival quickly thrust his head out to see who had come. The young man, bowing politely, said, “ Have I the honor of beholding the distinguished poet, Percival ?" but the words were hardly spoken before the door was shut in his face, with an exclamation of contempt. He was ever kind to those who would consult him, but took the empty honors of the world as an insult. Aside from his studies, he kept up an interest on all matters of the day, and few were so generally or accurately read in the literature and events of his time. Whenever there was a chance to extend scientific knowledge by the explanation of new facts, his pen was in hand, and the New Haven newspapers amply testify to its use. But as he grew older he grew more fond of the great and earnest pursuits of the scholar. Many favorite plans, which he had spent nearly a lifetime in maturing, now demanded execution. The love of study, self-kindled in his youth, was now mingled with the desire to spend his strength upon an enduring work; the melancholy which had shaded his earlier years had now lost its gloom ; he longed for a few years of unbroken devotion to his studies; he wished to build a small library, where he could pass the evening of his life in peaceful retirement. But he was not free from debt, and when Governor Barstow of Wisconsin offered him the post of State Geologist, he could not refuse. He stayed in Wisconsin a year, and then made a visit to New Haven. All the delight which ushers in the old age of the scholar seized him as he again saw his library at the Hospital, though now packed in boxes; it was sad to leave the consolations of study for the drudgery of scientific toil. Percival sought the advice of friends, but none advised him to stay, and he felt almost angry to find so little sympathy with the earnest feelings which now agitated his