Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication of this Poem

An Analysis of James Gates Percival’s “To Seneca Lake”

The poem “To Seneca Lake” by James Gates Percival presents a picturesque description
of one of the largest glacier finger lakes in New York: Seneca Lake. The narrator observes all
that is around them, basking in the natural beauty of the lake. It should be noted that James Gates
Percival had a reputable background and interest in geology, so the reader can infer that he is the
narrator of this poem who is present observing this lake. After an in-depth analysis on this
poem’s formal characteristics, it is apparent that “To Seneca Lake” centers around someone who
is going to a place which exudes serenity and peacefulness to reflect on life and to find inner
peace cultivated by the natural world around them.

While moving through the poem from stanza to stanza it is evident that the poem isn’t
only speaking about the visual factors in coherence with the lake, but that it is actually a
metaphor for the narrator's life. The first stanza reads: “On thy fair bosom, silver lake, / The wild
swan spreads his snowy sail, / And round his breast the ripples break / As down he bears before
the gale” (1-4). At first glance, the reader is provided with a beautiful image of a swan spreading
his wings as he lightly skims the surface of the water facing and pushing through the strong wind
that tries to hold him back. Of course, the swan which can symbolize grace, succeeds in his
excursion despite the winds that should hold him back. This beginning stanza paints a strong
mental image to the reader in which one can infer that the narrator is comparing himself to the swan who overcomes such strong winds that would knock him off track or backwards. This
strong metaphor painted by Percival in the very beginning of this poem establishes the tone and
deeper meaning of this poem quickly.

The next stanza reads: “On thy fair bosom, waveless stream, / The dipping paddle echoes
far, And flashes in the moonlight gleam, And bright reflects the polar star” (5-8). After reading
this second stanza, images of someone paddling on a stream of water in the night should flood
the reader’s mind. Even though it is nighttime and dark out, this person is still paddling to where
he needs to be or wants to be despite obvious issues that would hold the paddler back. While he
is doing this, he reflects the moonlight gleam and the polar star, making them bright despite the
darkness surrounding them. The narrator takes this interaction they have witnessed and applies it
to their life metaphorically. Throughout the darkness, they shall too continue paddling, and when
they do they will glow. The next four stanzas follow the style of the previous two stanzas with
accounts of eye-opening natural occurrences that can be applied to real life situations that inspire
hope, self-reflection, and serenity.

Moving into the more formal elements of this poem, it is important to note that Percival’s
poem exclusively possesses masculine rhyme containing lines which end on heavy stress such as
“stream” and “gleam” in lines five and seven as well as “far” and “star” in lines six and eight as a
few examples. A major speculation that could be credited as reasoning for this could be that
when a word ends on an emphasized heavy stress, it evokes feelings of certainty and confidence
from the narrator's end which seems to be inspired by their natural surroundings. On top of the
masculine rhyme that occurs throughout the entirety of this poem, it is extremely interesting that
this poem seems to have a pretty fast paced rhythm when read aloud. This may be caused by the
strict rhyme scheme and meter this poem possesses. It is important to note that although it is
quite fast paced, it never strays from its strict form; it stays steady and still offers a melodic and
calming tone while keeping it adventurous with the pace. Each line and stress fits perfectly
causing an up-down, up-down rhythm that is constant, inspiring, and euphonious.

There also seems to be a major emphasis on the “s” sound within this work with that is
shown in line two: “The wild swan spreads his snowy sail”; line thirteen: “How sweet, at set of
sun, to view”; and line eighteen: “A sheet of silver spreads below”. Although up for
interpretation, it seems that “s” sound can be interpreted as sound and flow of the stream. It
almost seems as though Percival included onomatopoeia within this poem without evidently
doing so. This reoccurring sound of that “s” is a very smooth one that flows right off of the
tongue which skillfully adds meaning to this piece. Along with this “s” sound, there are many
uses of alliteration in line four with “snowy sail”, in line four with “bears before”, in line twelve
with “hies him home”, and in line eighteen with “silver spreads” as a few examples. This
alliteration can almost become somewhat synonymous with the repetition of that “s” sound even
if the alliteration does not possess the letter “s”. The alliteration can also be credited with how
smooth this poem rolls off the tongue.

If there is one stanza in this poem that holds more meaning than the first stanza, it is the
last. The last stanza reads: “On thy fair bosom, silver lake, / Oh, I could ever sweep the oar, /
When early birds at morning wake, / And evening tells us toil is o’er!” (21-24). This stanza
perfectly wraps up the meaning of this poem into morning and night. Through personifying the
lake and their natural surroundings in this stanza, it becomes extremely apparent that day scenes
symbolize self-reflection and pondering upon daily struggles and that with night, or evening to
be exact, that a new and fresh start overcomes not only the natural world, but a more personal
one as well.

Throughout the entire poem, Percival uses clear and precise diction to paint a picture in
the reader's mind. “To Seneca Lake” is a richly reflective and sentimental piece that finds peace
and new beginnings through a meditative view of nature. After an in-depth analysis on this
poem’s formal characteristics, it is apparent that “To Seneca Lake" centers around someone who
is going to a place which exudes serenity and peacefulness to reflect on life and to find inner
peace cultivated by the natural world around them.