April 16, 2017

Forgotten Poems #21: James Gates Percival

I'm pretty sure James Gates Percival, author of this week's Forgotten Poem, is the only geologist-poet I've come across so far. He studied and practiced medicine, briefly taught chemistry, and was a state geologist both for Connecticut and for Wisconsin, where he died. He also assisted Noah Webster, of Webster's Dictionary fame. And he wrote poems. It's the kind of oddball career path you really don't see anymore, but he also seems to have been a kind of splendid oddball all around.

I Saw on the Top of a Mountain High (1822)
by James Gates Percival

I saw, on the top of a mountain high,
   A gem that shone like fire by night;
It seem'd a star, which had left the sky,
   And dropp'd to sleep on the lonely height;
I climb'd the peak, and I found it soon
A lump of ice, in the clear, cold moon.
Can you its hidden sense impart?
'Twas a cheerful look, and a broken heart.

I keep wanting to read Percival's scientific interests into this poem. Its central image -- the bright distant gleam that turns out to be "a lump of ice" when seen up close -- seems like something he could have plausibly seen while surveying geological formations, except he hadn't started doing that when he wrote this poem. At the same time, it's a weird image: how big of a patch of ice would it have to be in order to be visible in the moonlight from that distance? Are we talking about a glacier? Are we in the Alps, in reliably Romantic territory, or are we somewhere more like Percival's native Connecticut, where the highest summit is a lot more modest?

This poem's rhythm is a little on the jaunty side, with anapests breaking up the iambic regularity of nearly every line. (I'm not going to go off into an explanation of how meter works in English poetry, because we'd be here all week, but you can read more about it here, if you're curious. But an iamb is a metrical unit of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, as in this line of five iambs: "The CURfew TOLLS the KNELL of PARting DAY." And an anapest is two unstressed syllables and one stressed: "I am MONarch of ALL I surVEY.") Instead of a more metrically regular line like
I saw | atop | a moun | tain high

(four iambs in a row, da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum), we get: 

I saw | on the top | of a moun | tain high

which adds in a couple of anapests, giving the line a hoppity-skippity quality.* All but two of the eight lines in this poem do that, with the extra syllables falling in different places. It's like the difference between walking at a steady pace and doing a dance step every so often. It doesn't sound like something you'd associate with sorrow -- until we get to the last line and find that the speaker has turned the patch of mountain ice into a metaphor for the "cheerful look" that masks "a broken heart."

And it's that last line that's meant to trip us up. We've already seen the exalted imagery of the first four lines -- the "gem" or "star" in its lofty position on top of the mountain -- deflated by the speaker's revelation that it's actually just a prosaic "lump of ice." The speaker seems to be making fun of his own initial poetic vision by insisting on bringing it back down to earth. "Can you its hidden sense impart?", the speaker asks, suddenly addressing the reader like a character in an Elizabethan play confidentially soliloquizing at the audience. I'd expect the poem to end on a note of amused cynicism, after that; I'd expect the answer to that question to be something like "it's a metaphor for all of our foolish human ambitions and grandiose conceptions of ourselves." But that's not what happens, and instead we're left wondering if the upbeat meter and the matter-of-factness are themselves a mask for something much sadder. And that, I think, is why I like this strange little poem so much.

yours, thinking about hiking in the mountains now that it's finally warm enough,

* Yes, I am aware that the words "hoppity" and "skippity" are dactyls, not anapests. Sue me.