WILLIAM GIFFORD, the son of a plumber and glazier, who dissipated his property by intemperance and extravagance, was born at Ashburton, in Devonshire, in April, 1755. He lost his father, when only twelve years of age, and in about a year afterwards his mother died, leaving himself and an infant brother, "without a relation or friend in the world." The latter was sent to the workhouse, and the subject of our memoir was received into the house of his godfather, who put him to school for about three months, but at the end of that period, took him home, with the view of employing him as a ploughboy. Being unfitted, however, for this occupation, by an injury on his breast, he was sent to sea in a coasting vessel, in which he remained for nearly a year. "It will be easily conceived," he says in his autobiography, "that my life was a life of hardship. I was not only 'a ship-boy on the high and giddy mast,' but also in the cabin, where every menial office fell to my lot; yet, if I was restless and discontented, I can safely say it was not so much on account of this, as of my being precluded from all possibility of reading; as my master did not possess, nor do I recollect seeing, during the whole time of my abode with him, a single book of any description, except The Coasting Pilot."
He was at length recalled by his godfather, and again put to school, where he made such rapid progress, that in a few months he was qualified to assist his master in any extraordinary emergency; and, although only in his fifteenth year, began to think of turning instructor himself. His plans were, however, treated with contempt by his guardian, who apprenticed him to a shoemaker, at Ashburton, to whom our author went "in sullenness and silence," and with a perfect hatred of his new occupation. His favourite pursuit at this time was arithmetic, and the manner in which he continued to extend his knowledge of that science, is thus related by himself: "I possessed," he observes, "but one book in the world; it was a treatise on algebra, given to me by a young woman, who had found it in a lodging-house. I considered it as a treasure, but it was a treasure locked up; for it supposed the reader to be well acquainted with simple equations, and I knew nothing of the matter. My master's son had purchased Fenning's Introduction: this was precisely what I wanted; but he carefully concealed it from me, and I was indebted to chance alone for stumbling on his hiding-place. I sat up for the greatest part of several nights successively; and, before he suspected his treatise was discovered, had completely mastered it. I could now enter upon my own: and that carried me pretty far into the science. This was not done without difficulty. I had not a farthing on earth, nor a friend to give me one: pen, ink, and paper, therefore, (in despite of the flippant remark of Lord Orford) were, for the most part, as completely out of my reach as a crown and sceptre. There was, indeed, a resource; but the utmost caution and secresy were necessary in applying to it. I beat out pieces of leather as smooth as possible, and wrought my problems on them with a blunted awl; for the rest, my memory was tenacious, and I could multiply and divide by it to a great extent."
Under the same unfavourable circumstances, he composed and recited to his associates small pieces of poetry, and, being at last invited to repeat them to other circles, little collections were made for him, which, he says, sometimes produced him "as much as sixpence in an evening." The sums which he thus obtained, he devoted to the purchase of pens, paper, &c.; books of geometry, and of the higher branches of algebra; but his master, finding that he had, in some of the verses before-mentioned, satirized both himself and his customers, seized upon his books and papers, and prohibited him from again repeating a line of his compositions. At length, in the sixth year of his apprenticeship, his lamentable doggerel, as he terms it, having reached the ears of Mr. Cookesley, a surgeon, that gentleman set on foot "a subscription for purchasing the remainder of the time of William Gifford, and for enabling him to improve himself in writing and English grammar."
He now quitted shoemaking, and entered the school of the Rev. Thomas Smerdon; and in two years and two months from what he calls the day of his emancipation, he had made such progress, that his master declared him to be fit for the university. He was accordingly sent by Mr. Cookesley, to Oxford, where he obtained, by the exertions of the same gentleman, the office of Bible reader at Exeter College, of which he was entered a member. Here he pursued his studies with unremitting diligence, and had already commenced his poetical translation of the Satires of Juvenal, when the death of Mr. Cookesley interrupted the progress of the work. A fortunate accident procured him a new patron in Earl Grosvenor, in whose family he for some time resided, and afterwards accompanied to the continent his son, Lord Belgrave. On his return to England, he settled in London, and, devoting himself to literary pursuits, published, in 1791, and 1794, successively, his poetical satires, The Baviad, and The Maeviad; the one containing an attack on the drama, and the other an invective against the favourite poets of the day. In 1800, he published his Epistle to Peter Pindar, in which he charged the satirist with blasphemy; and Wolcot accused him of obscenity. This led to the assault mentioned in our memoir of Dr. Wolcot, who, it seems, would have inflicted severe chastisement on Gifford, but for the interference of a powerful Frenchman, who happened to be present, and who turned Wolcot out of the reading-room, where the scene occurred, into the street, throwing his wig and cane after him. In 1802, appeared his long-promised version of Juvenal, which was attacked by The Critical Review, in an erudite but somewhat personal article, that called forth a reply from our author, entitled Examination of the Strictures of The Critical Review upon Juvenal.
In 1805 and 1816, he published, successively, his editions of Massinger, and Ben Jonson; and, in 1821, appeared his translation of Persius. He next edited the works of Ford, in two volumes; and he had proceeded with five volumes of those of Shirley, when his labours were terminated, by his death. He died at Pimlico, on the 31st of December, 1826, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Being a single man, he died in opulent circumstances; having enjoyed, for some years, an annuity from Lord Grosvenor, besides holding the office of paymaster of the band of gentleman-pensioners, with a salary of £300 a-year; and, for a time, that of comptroller of the lottery, with a salary of £600 a-year.
The fame of Gifford rests principally upon his Juvenal, which occupied the greater part of his life, and was sent into the world with every advantage that could be derived from the most careful attention on the part of the author, and the correction of his most able friends. It still falls short, however, of Mr. Gifford's attempt to give Juvenal entire, except in his grossness, and to make him speak as he would have spoken among us. In this he has so far failed, that whilst he omits to furnish the glowing imagery, luxuriant diction, and impetuous fluency of the Roman satirist, he has retained many of his worst and most objectionable passages. It has been well observed, by a writer in The New Monthly Magazine, that his translation presents us rather with the flail of an infatuated rustic, than with the exterminating faulchion of Juvenal. His Baviad and Maeviad evince first-rate satirical powers; but in these, as in most of his writings, a degree of coarseness and virulence displays itself, which shows that literary associations had not refined his mind. Of late years, he was principally known as the editor of The Quarterly Review, a work established by himself, in 1809, and of which he continued to be the conductor till 1824. He also for some time edited the Anti-jacobin newspaper, in which he displayed his usual acuteness, asperity, and subservience to the party by which he thrived; his politics being invariably those of his interest.