Behind all good writing is good editing, whether by a gifted amateur or by an equally gifted professional patiently explaining for the umpteenth time to a thin-skinned writer that a particular passage really really isn’t working. The column of errata appearing two weeks after publication of “Ode, Addressed to J. G. Percival, M. D.” in The Bouquet points up that good editing hovers in the background of truly bad writing as well.

James Gates Percival was a geologist and medical doctor who became a poet popular in early-nineteenth-century America. The author of “Ode” was destined for obscurity: the poem was unsigned, as was the poet’s correspondence with his editor. And the poem is worthy of obscurity: a jumble of confusing images and overblown emotions, with an unsystematic structure.

But it piqued the interest of the Bouquet ’s editor, Melzar Gardner, who responds to the author’s complaints about changes in the poem with a careful and respectful explanation. A writer himself, Gardner edited not only The Bouquet, but The Sunbeam (a political paper); he was editing the Portsmouth, Virginia, Chronicle and Old Dominion when he was shot to death. Not especially gifted as a poet, Gardner seems to have had a knack for that part of editing which lies in distilling a serviceable piece of writing from a poorly punctuated and badly written manuscript and in explaining to a sore-headed author why a piece isn’t working. And he ends on a note of enthusiasm and encouragement. It’s an excellent example of what an editor can do for a writer.
“Ode, Addressed to J. G. Percival, M. D.” (from The Bouquet, September 8, 1832; p. 49)

Principubus placuisse vivis non ultima laus est.

Horace, Ep. 17th, Lib. I: 35.


From a calm seat, in pensive solitude,

Retired from shock, or hum, of busy man;

Where nought is heard to wake the listening wood,

Save the wild warble of the thrush’s strain

That faintly comes upon the soft winds wing;

A youthful bard, whose humble name

Shrinks at the mildew breath of soul inspiring Fame;

—Yet who in childhood touched the Thalian string—

Wakes the low music of his lyre again,

And fain would pay the tribute, due to thee, great man.


In Tempe’s flower-enameled vale, ’t would seem

Thy soul was nursed;—there first she pruned her wing

And sought the bowers, where trills the music-stream

Of soothing poesy:—there thou didst fling

Thy trembling fingers o’er the harp of song,

Plaintive and sweet—then prouder rolled along

The flood of numbers,—for thy master skill

Moulded the bard and minstrel strain at will.


A spirit of the hueless air, hath breathed

The magic flame of Heaven o’er thy soul!

Fame, round thy hallowed brow, hath wreathed

Her rare and brightest garlands!—thou dost stand

Lord of the lyre in fair Columbia’s land,

And one who bravest the flood that Albion’s minstrels roll!


Enthusiasm chained thee as her votary.

Imagination, high, thy mind hath led;

On it hath soared through the wide immensity,—

Then, in the ‘coral groves,’—the ‘gold-fish’ bed;—

Now, in the deep and darker dens of ocean,

Where sullen moans the dash of waves

Amid her wild unfathomed caves,

And stirs the sea-weed with a listless motion;

Where too the din of clashing arms rose loud,

Or where sweet murmurs sadden’d mirth to dear [sic] them;

Where too the mountains shook when the rifted cloud

Poured its red terrors forth upon the winds that bear them;

Where too the sunset bleam

On the lake hath rested;

Where too the kissing breezes

Little wavelets crested;

Where pensive Quiet reigns

Deep in verdant solitude:

There too the muse hath led thee—

Thou each sweet hast culled,—each charm hast wooed.


We fear that Sorrow’s bitter train hath lightly

Galled thee, with their foul and venom stings,—

Shapes of haggard gloom and phantoms sprightly

Dance around thy path, and mar the springs

Of thy soul’s deep, burning sensitiveness,

With’ring life’s fair buds—corroding peace—

Calling up grim fiends to rend thy breast!

Hell’s dark nurslings! Nymphs of fabled Acheron!

Pointing to the grave’s cold silent rest,

Bidding thee kiss the tear that makes thee lone.

If so, he who now hath dared

Wake a note of song to merit

Opes the fount of sympathy—

Fain would heal thy bleeding spirit;—

For although youth’s wild heart and step are his,

Gloom hath been his friend and pain his bliss.


There is a sweetness in the poet’s soul

Though all be dreary, dark and desolate;

Despair, hath horror-charms!—the mind will spring

Swift as the lightning’s lance on fiery wing!

Exult! though death his warning flag unfold;—

And sad Melpomene a flood doth roll

Of balm as ’twere, to heal the wounds of fate,

To ease the anguish—bid the spirit rise

Up as the eagle to its kindred skies.


The poet’s mind is far above the crowd’s,

And woos seclusion,—shrinks from sordid sense;—

His thoughts in higher purer air he shrouds;—

In counting coin and profit-heaping pence

He hath no pleasure;—but to be alone

With his sweet lute or harp of pleasang melancholy tone.


And thine too is a spirit veil’d in light;—

Sips, as the bee, its food from rarest flowers;

Mounts till e’en Fancy trembles at the height,

And boldly strays through bright perennial bowers;—

Thy soul was nursed for rare pursuits—she deems

That mind is a bright spark of immortality;

And if we scorn to rise, to her, it seems

’Twere better, we had never been, than be.

And thou art right great man!—there’s something, deep

In the warm heart of mortals, that doth say—

‘We are not born to brute-like eat and sleep

A little space—then droop and fade away:

But be immortal! every one should claim

For his own brows the laurel wreath of Fame.—

It is a stranger’s prayer that thou may’st stand

Ever honored of our lovely land.


The meed is given, and I now suspend

My simple untaught lyre upon the willow;

And if the breeze that curls the little billow

Beneath its softening influence lends,

And bids the wires wake soothingly, again

The unknown bard may chant a solitary strain.

The editor … edits (from The Bouquet, September 22, 1832; p. 64)

We regret exceedingly that our unknown friend, the author of the Ode in our last number, had so much occasion for complaint. His manuscript came to us through the Post Office, from whence we knew not. It was not punctuated, and many words were hardly intelligible. Some of those which he marks as errors, were altered intentionally, and others are typographical errors, accidentally overlooked. Our reasons for altering we give below—the errata we insert as he has written it.

1st. In the quotation, ‘vivis’ should be ‘viris.’

2d. First part, second verse, last line, ‘minstrel strain’ should be ‘minstrel train.’

3d. Second part, first verse, 9th line, ‘clashing arms’ should be ‘clashing crests.’ In the next line, ‘dear them’ should be ‘hear them.’

4th. Second part, second verse, 10th line, ‘kiss the tear’ should be ‘kiss the sear’—the verb sear used as a noun.

5th. Last line of the same verse, for ‘although’ read ‘though.’

6th. Last verse of the Ode, 4th line, ‘influence lends’ should be ‘influence shall lend,’ and the verb ‘bids,’ in the next line, of course should be ‘bid.’

With regard to the first correction, we would inform the writer that the proof sheet was shown to a Latin scholar (we know but little of Latin) who pronounced it correct, and we considered his declaration sufficient evidence.

2d. That was intentional. He says it should be ‘train,’ meaning the Muses. We understood it to mean, that the person of whom he was speaking, moulded the strain of the bard or the minstrel, at pleasure. The term ‘bard,’ we consider applicable to any poet; while ‘minstrel’ applies to such only as write poetry which is particularly adapted to music. A bard may write only blank verse—a minstrel writes songs. Percival writes both. Therefore we considered the line as we altered it, peculiarly applicable to him. We still doubt the correctness of the original, and for this reason. The Muses of course are considered as persons, and taken collectively, form a train. ‘Molded’ signifies formed into a particular shape. If the Muses courted the poet, he might form their train at will; but the reverse is the case, for the poet, whether bard or minstrel, is always considered as paying court to the Muses.

3d. That, too, was intentional. In the original we did not understand the meaning. The author says—‘crests of the waves—not the field of battle.’ We still doubt the correctness of the figure, for although we have been upon the mighty deep in tempest and in calm, we never heard the ‘crests of the waves’ raise a loud clashing din. But he says, ‘else, where is the sense of the following line?’ We know not; but one line may as well be meaningless as another. Had there been a semicolon after the word ‘loud,’ as the line was printed; and had the next line been made to read

‘Where woodland murmurs saddened Mirth to hear them;[’]

we think both lines would have had a meaning, and the whole been much improved. The d which makes ‘hear’ dear, is a typographical error accidentally overlooked by the corrector, not by the proof-reader.

4th. This was occasioned partly by the illegibility of the manuscript, but wee think it better than the original. It is too great a stretch of the poetic license, to use the verb sear as a noun, in such connexion. The quotation given in the author’s letter—‘He hugs or kisses the burning, wasting thoughts within’—does not exhibit a precedent. We do not like the line as it stands in the printed copy, and were ‘tear’ altered to ‘sear,’ it would in our opinion be still worse. If the line in question was made to read—

‘Bidding thee kiss the tear that marks thee lone,’

we think it would be decidedly improved, and then the quotation given as a precedent would be more applicable. The author will allow the similarity between the expressions ‘kiss the tear,’ and ‘kiss the thought.’

5th. To this we plead guilty. We mistook the metre by substituting sound for syllables. We think few would detect any irregularity in the measure as the line appeared; and, in the original, the accent made it seem lame, when no fault really did exist.

6th. We plead te same excuse for this. The word ‘shall’ was intentionally omitted. If we had not added the s to ‘lend,’ and ‘bid,’ the rhyme, sense and grammar would have been unimpaired, and the verse, we think, would have been more smooth without the verb ‘shall.’ ‘If the breeze, its softening influence shall lend,’ ‘influence should lend,’ and—‘if the breeze its softening influence lend,’ are but different readings to express the same meaning. The first of these examples we do not like; the second we think is better, because we consider ‘should’ preferable to [‘]shall;’ but the last is the best, for reasons above stated. ‘If the breeze lend,’ and ‘if the breeze should lend,’ in this instance, would convey precisely the same meaning. The measure is perfect with or without shall or should; because the words ‘softening,’ and ‘influence,’ either of them separately, may be pronounced with two or three syllables, and taken together, make four, five, or six, as best suits the convenience.

What we have written, we do not intend as a criticism, but as the complaint of the author was occasioned by our alterations, we felt it necessary to explain our reasons for making them. As a whole, we like the piece exceedingly well, and hope to receive many more from the same source. Some other alterations which we made, he does not mention, and therefore we conclude he approves them. Had we known the author, we should not have altered it without first consulting him. One thing we would request him to attend more particularly to—his punctuation; for he must be aware that by this, the sense may sometimes be materially altered. We repeat it, we hope to hear from him again.

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