Thomas Percy Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Percy 1729-1811

English poet, translator, and author.

A well-known scholar and translator, Thomas Percy is best remembered for his three-volume collection of popular ballads titled Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which he issued in 1765. The work was credited with the revival of English minstrel poetry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and earned Percy both fame and respect as a pioneer in the field. Many of the individual pieces in Reliques were said to have inspired various Romantic poems.

Biographical Information

Born in Shropshire, England, to Jane Nott and Arthur Lowe Percy, a grocer and tobacconist, Percy was encouraged in his early education by his father, who instilled in him an interest in books and reading. The young Percy did well in school and was eventually awarded a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1750. Percy was drawn to poetry as a young man, and he composed numerous poems and songs in these years, all dedicated to a woman named Flavia. Most of these pieces were not published during his lifetime and few have survived; however, those that are extant exhibit the influence of numerous early English balladeers as well as the work of such authors as John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray. Scholars also suggest that Percy's early efforts were influenced by a folio manuscript of ballads, romances, and lyric poems that he had acquired during his school years at the home of an old Shropshire friend, Humphrey Pitt. Percy was probably unaware of the value of this manuscript, and he asked for it only after he saw Pitt's maid using the pages to light the fire.

A second scholarship at Oxford helped Percy attain a master's degree in 1753, the same year he was ordained a priest. Percy was then appointed vicar of Easton Maudit, and acquired a second income as curate of Wilby three years later. The Earl of Wilby encouraged Percy's literary pursuits and also introduced him at court. It was while in London with Wilby that Percy met James Grainger and Samuel Johnson. His friendship with both writers lasted many years, and Grainger was especially influential in helping Percy develop his poetic and editorial talents. In 1759 Percy married Anne Gutteridge, with whom he had five daughters and one son. During these years, Percy continued to write poetry, and in 1758, a thirty-two line “Song” was published in Robert Dodsley's Collection of Poems. An imitation of a Scottish song, this short lyric was well received and frequently republished. Encouraged by Grainger, Percy then contributed several translations—including Tibullus's “Elegy I” and Ovid's “Elegy to Tibullus”—to Grainger's Poetical Translations of the Elegies of Tibullus. Yet, despite repeated entreaties from Johnson, Edward Lye, and other writers, Percy declined working on an edition of the ballads he had earlier acquired in Shropshire. Instead he continued to focus his energies on translating other works, including a seventeenth-century Chinese novel titled Hau Kiou Choaan (1761) and other related nonfiction titles. It was not until the early 1760s that Percy would turn his attention to the early manuscript of ballads and songs he had acquired, issuing it eventually as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, the first of his publications to bear his name. The work was an immediate success, and Percy gained much fame following its issuance. He continued to publish other translations and collections of poetry while fulfilling his duties as a priest in the Church of England. Percy was eventually appointed Dean of Carlisle, and then promoted to Bishop of Dromore in 1782. He served in the latter position for over twenty years, achieving great success and respect for his leadership of the diocese and his devotion to the education of the young. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his literary interests, even editing a fourth edition of the Reliques, which was never published. Percy died in 1811, five years after the death of his wife, Anne. Both were buried in the cathedral of Dromore.

Major Works

Percy's first major translation was from a manuscript of a seventeenth-century Chinese novel titled Hau Kiou Choaan. He himself did not know Chinese, but used as his source a three-part translation into English by an earlier translator. The fourth part of the novel was in Portuguese, which Percy taught himself in order to complete the story, combining all four parts into a coherent whole. While both Percy and his publisher, Robert Dodsley, had expected success for the book, which was very similar in its storyline to such works as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, the book did not sell well. Contemporary reviewers were more impressed with Percy's annotations—which included a preface, a bibliography, a fifteen-page index and numerous notes ranging in length from short sentences to several long essays—than they were with the translation itself. It is believed that Hau Kiou Choaan may have been the first Chinese novel printed in England. Shortly thereafter, Percy issued a collection of seven essays on China by various authors, titled Miscellaneous Pieces Relating to the Chinese. In 1762, Percy published a collection of stories about widows who were false to their vows of fealty towards their dead husbands. Titled The Matrons, this was followed the next year by Five Pieces of Runic Poetry (1763), a slim volume of Icelandic poetry. Very little was known of Icelandic poetry in England prior to this translation. Percy himself was dependent on Latin versions of the works, and he had a great deal of difficulty capturing the spirit of the Nordic battle poems. His subsequent translation of The Song of Solomon (1764), for which he relied on the King James version, was much more readable, and he characterized this effort as an attempt to rescue “one of the most beautiful pastorals in the world.”

In 1760, Percy had also begun work on a collection of ancient poems, selecting the best ballads from a folio manuscript of lyrics and poems he had acquired years earlier during his school days in Shropshire. He supplemented these songs with later poems, searching out ballads from other parts of Britain, particularly Scotland. Percy was aided by several of his friends in the selection effort. The resultant collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, bearing a dedication by Samuel Johnson, was finally published by Robert Dodsley in 1765. The book was an instant success with readers and reviewers, and Percy himself was immediately appointed tutor to Algernon Percy, the younger son of the Earl of Northumberland. The Countess of Northumberland had supported Percy's work on the volume, and it is speculated that much of its initial success was due to her patronage as well as to Percy's adept citing of the several poets who had provided him assistance in its compilation. The list included such notables as Johnson, William Shenstone, and David Garrick. Regardless of the reasons for its initial success, the collection had been compiled with great care, quality being Percy's principal criteria for inclusion. Both Scottish and English ballads were included, and the poems were arranged chronologically. The three-volume collection also placed poems on similar subjects together and each group was preceded by an introduction or essays that were themselves noteworthy milestones in English literary history. Prior to Percy's interest, ballads had not been taken seriously and he was concerned that his efforts would be considered an inappropriate activity for a minister of the Church. Therefore, he took great pains to minimize the work and even went so far as to refer to it as “a strange collection of trash.”

In addition to the Reliques, Percy had also begun work on numerous other translations; of these he completed work on only two, A Key to the New Testament (1766) and a translation of Paul Henri Mallet's Introduction a l'Histoire de Dannemarc, which was issued in 1770 as Northern Antiquities. A Key to the New Testament drew on several contemporary scholarly works for information and was written in clear and concise language. Although Percy modestly contended that the work had originally been written for the use of his parishioners, it found an enthusiastic audience with university students as well as clerical scholars, and at least six editions were published during Percy's lifetime. Northern Antiquities served a similar purpose to his earlier Runic Poetry, helping to familiarize his English readers with Scandinavian poetry and Nordic mythology and folklore. During Percy's service as Bishop of Dromore, he continued to edit several other works; his best-known work from this era is a long poem titled The Hermit of Warkworth (1771). In addition, Percy issued two more editions of his Reliques, and wrote several articles for the various literary magazines of the day.

Critical Reception

Prior to Percy's publication of the Reliques, ballads had not been considered a suitable subject for scholarly investigation. Because of this, and because of his position in English society as a church minister, Percy himself frequently minimized his efforts on this collection. Nonetheless, the Reliques have since been acknowledged as one of the most lasting and powerful influences in the revival of English minstrel poetry during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A few years following the publication of the Reliques, Percy's editorial methods and accuracy came under attack by contemporary antiquarian, Joseph Ritson, who specifically focused on Percy's practice of altering the pieces in the collection without noting each change for the reader. This criticism led Percy to revise and reissue several new editions of his work during his lifetime. More recently, though, critics have come to Percy's defense, praising him as a highly-skilled scholar and editor. According to Cleanth Brooks, an assessment of Percy's talents must rest not only on his work with ballads but with several other pieces of pioneering work, including his translations of Nordic and Chinese literary texts. Similarly, in an essay appraising Percy's editing skills, Zinnia Knapman has noted that Percy's significance as a folklorist has been only grudgingly acknowledged. Knapman points out that most discussions of Percy's Reliques tend to focus on the influence this collection had on the Romantic poets or on the controversial nature of Percy's editorial methods. However, she believes that when examined from a historical perspective, Percy's work on this anthology can “only been seen as a sensible, creative, and positive force.” Despite the controversy surrounding the editorial practices employed on the Reliques, Percy's achievement with the collection is now universally acknowledged, and the work is considered England's primary anthology of ballads and lyrics.