Saturday, December 31, 2022

Percival's verse sketch of "Faithful Love" in the Troy SENTINEL, December 1823

James G. Percival
NYPL Digital Collections

Pamela McColl in her sumptuous new compendium of all things "Night Before Christmas" 

calls attention to a largely forgotten poem that appeared in the Troy NY Sentinel on December 2, 1823 under the heading "Faithful Love," three weeks before the first printing of the immortal Visit from St. Nicholas

Troy Sentinel - December 2, 1823
via NYS Historic Newspapers
As McColl observes, the earlier verses were submitted to editor Orville L. Holley by an unnamed female reader who stated she had copied them "from the manuscript of one of our most distinguished American bards."

MR. HOLLEY--

The following lines were copied from the manuscript of one of our most distinguished American bards, who composed them in 1822, in New York, while the yellow fever was [raging?] here. I believe they have never been published, and it would give me much pleasure to see them in the Sentinel. They exhibit a picture of devoted and faithful and courageous love, in my estimation well drawn and tenderly interesting. 

One of your Female Readers.

FAITHFUL LOVE.

She sat beside her lover, and her hand
Rested upon his clay-cold forehead. Death
Was camly stealing o'er him, and his life
Went out by silent flickerings, ...  --Troy Sentinel, December 2, 1823.

As McColl also points out, the female reader who submitted this verse "picture of devoted and faithful and courageous love" remains unknown. The unidentified reader's idea that the manuscript lines "have never been published" was wrong, since the poem had already appeared in the New York Commercial Advertiser in December of the previous year. Reprinted without any title in a number of newspapers including the Vermont Gazette on December 10, 1822; and the Boston Christian Register on December 27, 1822. Pamela McColl thinks the author of "Faithful Love" likewise remains "unknown," which is kind of true in the sense that nobody remembers James Gates Percival. Well, almost nobody remembers James Gates Percival...

Oblivionated now, James G. Percival was well known and highly regarded by his contemporaries. The poem headed "Faithful Love" in the Troy Sentinel was collected in Poems by James G. Percival (New York, 1823) where it appeared under the title, "Night Watching." We learn in Julius H. Ward's The Life and Letters of James Gates Percival (Boston, 1866) that multiple early readers had urged Percival to include "Night Watching" in the 1823 volume. Chauncey A. Goodrich was so moved that he wrote Percival in praise of his pathetic verse "sketch of the maid watching over the pillow of her dying lover." In a footnote to Goodrich's letter of November 30, 1822, Ward also quotes the following editorial "preface" from an unidentified Virginia newspaper that reprinted the poem in February 1823:
The lines which follow, from the pen of Mr. Percival, an American poet, seem to have been composed with a distinct allusion to the awful calamity that spread a gloom over the most busy part of the city of New York during the last summer. That the picture is drawn with a pathos and a feeling true of nature, every heart must own; and many can bear witness to a mournful exemplification of a portion of it in our humble village. Those who saw the tender assiduities, the heart thrilling grief, of the agonized wife, over the couch of her departing husband, or heard her sorrow-moving accents, as she took a “last, last look' at 'him she loved,' must admit that the poet has not indulged a mere fiction of the brain, but has portrayed the feelings of humanity with a sentiment and a tenderness inspired by the noblest and best affections of the heart.
Transcribed below, the poem as it appeared in the Troy Sentinel under the heading, "Faithful Love": 

FAITHFUL LOVE.

She sat beside her lover, and her hand
Rested upon his clay-cold forehead. Death
Was camly stealing o'er him, and his life [*calmly]
Went out by silent flickerings, when his eye
Woke up from its dim lethargy, and cast
Bright looks of fondness on her. He was weak,
Too weak to utter all his heart—His eye
Was now his only language, and it spake
How much he felt her kindness, and the love
That sat, when all had fled, beside him. Night
Was far upon its watches, and the voice
Of nature had no sound. The pure blue sky
Was fair and lovely, and the many stars
Look'd down in tranquil beauty on an earth
That smil'd in sweetest summer. She look'd out
Thro' the rais'd window, and the sheeted bay
Lay in a quiet sleep below, and shone
With the pale beam of midnight: air was still,
And the white sail, that o'er the distant stream
Mov'd with so slow a pace, it seemed at rest,
Fix'd in the glassy water, and with care
Shun'd the dark den of pestilence, and stole
Fearfully from the tainted gale that breath'd
Softly along the crisping wave. The sail
Hung loosely on its yard, and as it flapped,
Caught moving undulations from the light,
That silently came down, and gave the hills,
And spires, and walls, and roofs, a tint so pale,
Death seem'd on all the landscape; but so still,
Who would have thought that any thing but peace
And beauty had a dwelling there! The world
Had gone, and life was not within those walls—
Only a few, who linger'd faintly on,
Waiting the moment of departure, or
Sat tending at their pillows, with a love
So strong it master'd fear. But they were few,
And she was one—and in a lonely house,
Far from all sight, and sound of living thing,
She watch'd the couch of him she lov'd, and drew
Contagion from the lips that were to her
Still beautiful as roses, tho' so pale
They seemed like a thin snow curl. All was still,
And even so deeply hush'd, the low faint breath
That trembling gasp'd away, came thro' the night
As a loud sound of awe. She pass'd her hand
Over those quivering lips, that ever grew
Paler and colder, as the only sign
To tell her life still linger'd. It went out!
And her heart sank within her, when the last
Weak sigh of life was over, and the room
Seem'd like a vaulted sepulchre, so lone
She dar'd not look around; and the light wind
That play'd among the leaves & flow'rs that grew
Still freshly at her window, and wav'd back
The curtain with a rustling sound, to her,
In her intense abstraction, seem'd the voice
Of a departed spirit. Then she heard,
At least in fancy heard, a whisper breathe,
Close at her ear, and tell her all was done,
And her fond loves were ended. She had watch'd
Until her love grew manly, and she check'd
The tears that came to flow, and nerv'd her heart
To the last solemn duty. With a hand
That trembled not, she clos'd the fallen lid,
And press'd the lips, and gave them one long kiss;
Then decently spread over all a shroud,
And sitting with a look of lingering love,
Intense in tearless passion, rose at length,
And pressing both her hands upon her brow,
Gave loose to all her gushing grief in showers,
Which, as a fountain seal'd till it had swell'd
To its last fulness, now gave way and flow'd
In a deep stream of sorrow! She grew calm,
And parting back the curtains look'd abroad
Upon the moonlight loveliness. All sank
In one unbroken silence, save the moan
From the lone room of death, or the dull sound
Of the slow-moving hearse. The homes of men
Were now all desolate, and darkness there
And solitude and silence took their seat
In the deserted streets, as if the wing
Of a destroying angel had gone by,
And blasted all existence, and had chang'd
The gay, the busy, and the crowded mart
To one cold, speechless city of the dead.
Transcribed above from the Troy Sentinel of December 2, 1823; accessible online courtesy of the great Troy Public Library via NYS Historic Newspapers:
First collected as "Night Watching" in Poems by James G. Percival (New York, 1823) pages 238-9.
 
E-text of "Night Watching" by the American poet James Gates Percival (1795-1856) is conveniently accessible online at https://www.bartleby.com/96/332.html.

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