Percy, Thomas

Percy, Thomas
   Bishop of Dromore from 1782 to 1798, he also had a lifelong interest in literary matters, wrote poetry, and edited a number of publications, including translations from the Chinese and Icelandic. His major claim to fame, however, came with a manuscript which he discovered (probably about 1753) 'lying dirty on the floor under a bureau in ye parlour' of his friend Humphrey Pitt's house in Shifnal (Shropshire), which the maids were using to light the fire. The manuscript contained, amongst other poetical items, versions of traditional *ballads, and had probably been compiled in the mid-17th century. Percy was finally persuaded to publish his find, in February 1765, as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets (Chiefly of the Lyric Kind) Together with Some Few of Later Date. This was the first real collection of ballads, and was an immediate success, with a new edition required a month later, a third in 1775, and a fourth in 1794. Reliques laid the foundations for ballad collection and study in Britain, but also changed the face of poetry, being cited as a source of inspiration on all sides - including Wordsworth, Scott, and Coleridge. It caught the mood of the time, which was for an unsophisticated, relatively natural style of verse, and the wildness of the ballads, even in the attenuated form printed by Percy, proved irresistible to the stirring romantic notions of the literary world. Neverthless, while poets welcomed the book wholeheartedly, scholars such as *Ritson attacked Percy's editorial methods which by modern standards were extremely poor, but which were unexceptional for the time. Percy had certainly interfered with the ballads he published, editing, conflating, softening, rewriting, and all but faking. He attempted, in later editions, to remove at least the most glaring editorial faults, and was also forced to rewrite the incorporated essays on origins - in particular as regards the history of the professional minstrel class. By the time the fourth edition was needed, in 1794, Percy himself was reluctant to have his name still connected with such trivial matter, and it was thus ostensibly edited by his nephew, also called Thomas (1768-1808). The scholarly world had to wait until 1867-8 to see the manuscript in its entirety and be able to judge for themselves the full nature of Percy's handling of the ballads, when it was finally edited and published in full by J. W. Hales and F. J. Furnivall as Percy's Folio MS, as a result of the perseverance of Professor F. J. *Child. Despite his editorial shortcomings, Percy has retained his fame as a pioneer, and one of the Victorian societies founded to reprint early ballad and poetical material was fittingly called the Percy Society.
   ■ Bertram H. Davis, A Scholar - Critic in the Age of Johnson (1989); Albert B. Friedman, The Ballad Revival: Studies in the Influence of Popular on Sophisticated Poetry (1961); DNB.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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