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About the First Poet of the United States

By Christian Narkiewicz-Laine


James Gates Percival (1795-1856), poet, scientist, botanist, linguist, and musician, was born at Berlin, Connecticut and was a precocious child, and a morbid and impractical, though versatile man, with a fatal facility in writing verse on all manner of subjects and in nearly every known meter.


Because of his experimentation with verse and departure from the preceding European Romantics, such as Shelley and Byron, he is considered the father of modern American literature.


He had also a reputation as a geologist, which brought him to Galena, Illinois in the 1850s.


His major poetic works include Prometheus I and II (1821-1823), Clio (1822) and The Dream of a Day (1843).


In his day, he was one of Illinois and Wisconsin’s most educated and cultured men, but also one of its most eccentric. One biographer described him: "With the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, no American poet has a life story so charged with the elements that evoke intense pity."


After graduating from Yale University as a medical doctor at age 20, he was admitted to the practice of medicine and relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where he pursued that profession.


Subsequently several years of his labor were devoted to assisting Noah Webster in editing his great American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828.


Percival had unusual linguistic attainments and enjoyed imitating in English "all known metres in all accessible languages from the Sanskrit downwards."


He also wrote poems in different languages, greeting famed Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, for instance, with a poem in Danish.


By age 20, he was fluent in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, French, German, Danish, Slovanic, and Norwegian, and learned native Chippewa and Winnebago while traveling in Illinois and Wisconsin.


In 1835, with Charles Upham Shepard, he made a mineralogical and geological survey of the state of Connecticut, which was published in 1842. He traveled on foot around Connecticut collecting specimens and taking nearly 1,500 pages of notes. in 1835, he became Connecticut’s state geologist.


In the late 1840s, the American Mining Company sent him to the Upper Mississippi River Valley of Wisconsin and Illinois to survey their lead-mining region centered in Galena, Illinois. He became the first state geologist of Wisconsin in 1854.


The History of Grant County reported Percival traveled the state in 1853 in a "tattered gray coat with trousers patched by himself, and an old weather-beaten glazed cap, ear-pieces of sheepskin.”


He left no heirs. A bachelor, Percival allegedly professed "not to know how the hearts of women were won."


His death on May 2, 1856, went mostly unnoticed and his grave in Hazel Green, Wisconsin remained unmarked for many years until an admirer in Connecticut raised money for a monument to his life.


His literary talent also went largely unrecognized until after his death.


One of his poems was set to music and sung before President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863.


In 1872, a short, unpublished poem by Percival, "The Language of Flowers," was set to music by the English composer Edward Elgar at the age of fourteen.


Today, he is also considered the first poet of both Illinois and Wisconsin.

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