Thomas Percy: A Scholar-Cleric in the Age of Johnson

Thomas Percy: A Scholar-Cleric in the Age of Johnson

Thomas Percy: A Scholar-Cleric in the Age of Johnson

Thomas Percy: A Scholar-Cleric in the Age of Johnson

Excerpt

Of the several roads that led from obscurity to recognition in the eighteenth century, Thomas Percy was not content to travel only one. Born a grocer's son, he died a bishop of the Church of Ireland. The friend as he progressed of such men as Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was the senior member of Johnson's famous "Literary Club" some years before his death, a man of letters celebrated throughout the United Kingdom and on the Continent.

He was something of a united kingdom himself. His interest in early British literature took him into Wales and Scotland while he served his two churches in rural Northamptonshire. He was chaplain, successively, to the Earls of Sussex, the Duke of Northumberland, and King George III. As he rose in the church, he moved north to the deanery of Carlisle and then across the Irish Sea to the bishopric of Dromore.

Most of the ten books that he wrote or edited in the 1760s were pioneer works, and ironically the only one about which he had any misgivings was the best of the ten. He described the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry apologetically as a mere parcel of old ballads gathered together to amuse his idle hours. But it was the Reliques that fired the imaginations of Blake, Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge and helped through them to effect a revolution in English poetry. The rise of the obscure ballad paralleled Percy's own.

At best dimly aware of the book's impact, Percy pursued his literary interests and tended his Dromore diocese through the volatile period that erupted in the Irish rebellion of 1798 and then settled into the uneasy union of England and Ireland. He died in 1811 after a long and eventful life. Percy's Reliques, one of the great works of its century, lived on to inspire other poets and to introduce generation after generation to the magic of English poetry.

Percy's life and works have been commemorated in only one fulllength volume, Alice C. C. Gaussen's Percy: Prelate and Poet (1908) . . .

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