1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Anonymous, "Anecdotes of the Private Life of William Gifford" Literary Gazette (9 June 1827) 362-64.



The world has already been furnished with information relative to the life of Mr. Gifford, his own pen, in the exquisite piece of autobiography prefixed to his Juvenal; and this is sufficient for the general purposes of history. But a simple knowledge of the succession and influence of events which befall men of eminence, is not all that a reasonable curiosity may require. We love to remove the veil which screens their domestic characters from our sight — to draw a chair round their fireside — to listen to their conversation — to sympathise with their sorrows-to rejoice with their mirth. And thus circumstances, in themselves unimportant, become enrobed with a delight and an Interest when associated with recollections of the good or the great. Impressed with the truth of these reflections, I shall throw together a few random anecdotes of the late Mr. Gifford. My family was intimate with him; and I had the honour of enjoying his acquaintance from my birth. One of his most remarkable talents, was the extraordinary rapidity with which he devoured knowledge; and the most remarkable proof of it, perhaps, was his having fitted himself for the university after being but two years at school. Very shortly after his arrival at Oxford he was informed that he need not trouble himself with any further attendance at the mathematical lectures, as he had already carried himself as far in the science as the university required. His sagacity and quickness of apprehension were indeed discoverable on all occasions; it was impossible to converse with him upon any subject, however trifling, without having this forcibly thrust on your notice; and it was considerably heightened in conversation by the peculiar animation and intelligence of his eye, an almost unfailing feature in a sensible face. His acquaintance with matters the most minute and insignificant was equally extraordinary; — as an instance, I remember a lady telling me, that having broken a valuable china basin, she accidentally mentioned the circumstance a short time after to Mr. Gifford; when he, to her great surprise, instantly gave her an excellent receipt for repairing it.

One of his earliest serious attempts at poetry was an elegy on the death of his first friend and patron, Mr. Cookesley, — displaying a singularly classical correctness for one so slenderly acquainted with English literature as he then was, and occasionally equalling in pathos the most successful productions of the kind. I have subjoined it at the end of this article; though not so much for its intrinsic merits, which are, however, very considerable, as for the interest which necessarily attaches to his earliest productions. It was composed whilst he was at college. I have also before me five eclogues, written probably whilst he was at school; they are in the manner of Pope, and have much of his harmonious flow: probably Pope and Virgil were the only pastoral poets with whom he was acquainted at the time of their composition.

There is also among his early poems, though of considerably later date than his eclogues, an ode to the present Lord Grosvenor, then his pupil; and which is one of the happiest of his youthful efforts: in the exordium he obviates any objection that might be taken to his premature devotion to the muses. In a correspondence with the daughter of his patron, he prescribes for her a course of reading in English poetry; adding occasional criticisms of his own, explanations of poetical figures, &c.: these letters are exceedingly curious: the criticisms, coming from one so young, are, of course, not very subtile or refined, but distinguished by that elegance of taste and discrimination which characterised him to a remarkable degree.

When abroad with his pupil, he kept his acquaintance well informed of his adventures, in a series of most entertaining letters: his descriptions are exceedingly humorous — many highly picturesque. Perhaps it may arise from unconscious partiality — but I read his letters with as fresh a delight as if they had been written yesterday, and were addressed to myself. I wish to write the little I have to say in perfect good humour; and, therefore, shall but incidentally hint at his political character: but his" dearest foes" must acknowledge, that his integrity was unimpeachable, and his opinions honest. He disliked incurring an obligation which might in any degree shackle the expression of his free opinion. Agreeably to this, he laid down a rule, from which he never departed — that every writer in the Quarterly should receive so much, at least, per sheet. On one occasion (I dare say others occurred, but I only know of one) a gentleman holding office under government, sent him an article, which, after undergoing some serious mutilations at his hands preparatory to being ushered into the world, was accepted. But the usual sum being sent to the author, he rejected it with disdain, conceiving it a high dishonour to be paid for any thing — the independent placeman! Gifford, in answer, informed him of the invariable rule of the Review, adding, that he could send the money to any charitable institution, or dispose of it in any manner he should direct — but that the money must be paid. The doughty official, convinced that the virtue of his article would force it into the Review at all events, stood firm in his refusal: — greatly to his dismay, the article was returned. He revenged himself by never sending another. Gifford in relating this afterwards, observed with a smile, "Poor man! the truth was, he didn't like my alterations; and, I'm sure, I didn't like his articles; so there was soon an end of our connexion."

His objection to asking a personal favour was, owing to the same principle, exceedingly strong. If the united influence of the Anti-jacobin and the Quarterly be considered, as may probably be justified, in assigning to Gifford's literary support of government, a rank second only to Burke. His services, at all events, formed a very powerful claim to any moderate favour in the power of ministers to bestow; and yet, though anxious at all times to gratify the wants of his needier friends to his utmost ability, his aversion to soliciting the bounty of government was seldom overcome: on one occasion, indeed, in particular, he exerted his influence in favour of the son of a deceased friend; but, uudoubtedly, not without being driven to it by such importunity as left an application to ministers the less of two evils. About two years before his death, he wrote, I believe to the Chancellor, requesting a small living for a distressed relative of his first patron: his request was not complied with. But then it should be remembered, that at the time it was made, the Quarterly had passed into other hands. Othello's occupation was gone; and Gifford had to digest, as well as he could, the mortification which commonly awaits every political writer, of finding that the favour of a government is self-interested, extorted, and ungrateful. It is true, his independence of opinion might seem to be interfered with by the situations he held; but they were bestowed on him unsolicited, and from motives of personal regard. I am sure every one acquainted with him will admit, that he would have rejected with scorn any kindness which could be considered as fettering the freedom of his conduct in the smallest degree. I am not more certain of many conjectures, than I am that he never propagated a dishonest opinion, nor did a dishonest act. He enjoyed a very close intimacy with Mr. Pitt: he used to mention that when he dined with the minister tete-a-tete, or with but a few chosen others, a servant was never permitted to remain in the room. The minister's "dumb waiters" were as serviceable in his private as in any other house.

Amongst other engaging talents, Gifford possessed that very agreeable one of telling a story well, in singular perfection. The gest of trifles of this kind depends principally on the manner in which they are told. Many people acquire a right over particular stories, which, from their peculiar happiness in relating them, become exclusively their own: but Gifford had an inexhaustible supply, and his arch drollery rendered all almost equally good. I will merely mention one, the first that occurs, which has nothing particular in it, but which he contrived to render exceedingly entertaining.

While at Ashburton, he contracted an acquaintance with a family of that place, consisting of females somewhat advanced in age. On one occasion, he ventured on the perilous exploit of drinking tea with these elderly ladies. After having demolished his usual allowance of tea, he found, in spite of his remonstrances to the contrary, that his hostess would by no means suffer him to give up; but persisted in making him drink a most incredible quantity. "At last," said Gifford in telling the story, being really over-flooded with tea, I put down my fourteenth cup, and exclaimed with an air of resolution, 'I neither can nor will drink any more.' The hostess then, seeing she had forced more down my throat than I liked, began to apologise, and added, 'but dear Mr. Gifford, as you didn't put your spoon across your cup, I supposed your refusals were nothing but good manners!'" He was a great tea-drinker himself, though not equal to the encounter of these Amazons: he generally had some brought to him between 11 and 12 at night, besides the regular meal which every one makes of tea who can afford it. I remember, when I complained once that I had met with some bad tea at a house where I had been dining, a friend observed, "Your host has not enough of a gentleman's polish about him to set a right value on good tea." Estimated by this standard, Gifford was the very first of gentlemen — none of my acquaintance have such delicious tea as he used to give. The ladies used to complain of its being too strong; but they, seeing they have nerves, are quite out of the question.

Gifford always — that is, for the last twenty years of his life — dined at four, and drank tea at six, and for several years slept immediately after dinner till tea time. Then he was always glad to see his private friends: it was at this meal that I saw him for the last time. He was for many years exceedingly feeble, and so dreadfully oppressed with asthma, as very often to he entirely deprived of speech. The fatigue of business entailed on him by the Review, and the various calls with which he was incessantly harassed during the morning, produced an overpowering exhaustion, which tends to sour the temper or excite irritability. And if, when suffering under the complicated misery of distressing bodily disease and mental exhaustion, he occasionally became fretful or peevish, the most illiberal cannot withhold indulgence, nor the most malignant affect surprise. He continued the editorship of the Quarterly much longer than a just regard for his health authorised: but no successor that was proposed pleased him; and nothing but a bodily decay, little short of dissolution, compelled him to resign. Ho never stipulated for any salary as editor: at first he received 200, and at last 900 per annum; but never engaged for a particular sum. He several times returned money to Murray, saying "he had been too liberal." Perhaps he was the only man on this side the Tweed who thought so! He was perfectly indifferent about wealth. I do not know a better proof of this, than the fact that he was richer, by a very considerable sum, at the time of his death, than he was at all aware of. In unison with his contempt of money was his disregard of any external distinction: he had a strong natural aversion to any thing like pomp or parade. A very intimate friend, who had risen like himself from small beginnings, having taken his doctor's degree, conceived his importance to be somewhat augmented by this new distinction. Having called on Gifford shortly after, he brought the subject on the tapis, and observed, with evident self-satisfaction, "But I hope, Gifford, you won't quiz me, now I'm a doctor?" "Quiz thee! God help thee! make what they will of thee, I shall never call thee any thing but Jack." Yet he was by no means insensible to an honourable distinction; and when the University of Oxford, about two years before his death, offered to give him a doctor's degree, he observed, "Twenty years ago it would have been gratifying; but now it would only be written on my coffin." His disregard for external show was the more remarkable, as a contrary feeling is generally observable in persons who have risen from penury to wealth. But Gifford was a gentleman in feeling and in conduct; and you were never led to suspect he was sprung from an obscure origin, except when he reminded you of it by an anecdote relative to it. And this recalls one of the stories he used to tell with irresistible drollery, the merit of which entirely depended on his manner. I know an excellent mimic, who was immeasurably delighted with the story, but who never could produce more than a smile, with all his powers, by repeating it. It was simply this: — At the cobbler's board, of which Gifford had been a member, there was but one candle allowed for the whole coterie of operatives: it was of course a matter of importance that this candle should give as much light as possible. This was only to be done by repeated snuffings; but snuffers being a piece of fantastic coxcombry they were not pampered with, the members of the board took it in turn to perform the office of the forbidden luxury with their finger and thumb. The candle was handed, therefore, to each in succession, with the word "sneaf" (anglice, "snuff") bellowed in his ears. Gifford used to pronounce this word in the legitimate broad Devonshire dialect, and accompanied his story with expressive gestures. — Now, on paper, this is absolutely nothing; but in Gifford's mouth it was exquisitely humorous. I should not, however, have mentioned it, were it not that it appears to me one of the best instances I could give of his humility in recurring to his former condition. He was equally free from personal vanity. A lady of his acquaintance once looked in upon him, and said she had a rout that evening, and endeavoured by every inducement to persuade him to join it. "Now do, Gifford, come in: it will give such an eclat," she added, patting him familiarly on the shoulder, "to say, 'There is Mr. Oliford, the poet!'" "Poet, indeed! and a pretty figure this poet," he answered, looking demurely on his 'shrunk shanks,' "would cut in a ball-room!" He was a man of vary deep and warm affections. If I were desired to point out the distinguishing excellence of his private character, I should refer to his fervent sincerity of heart. He was particularly kind to children, and fond of their society. My sister, when young, used sometimes to go to spend a month with him, on which occasions he would hire a pianoforte, and once he actually had a juvenile ball at his house for her amusement. * * He formed an attachment for his pupil which no subsequent circumstances could abate. The change in his lordship's political sentiments did not shake Gifford's unalterable affection for his character. He, on the other hand, met this attachment with an equal degree of warmth: their mutual respect was built on principle, and reflected equal honour on both. In Gifford's last protracted illness, when he was in bed, or asleep on the sofa, during the greater part of the day, Lord Grosvenor occasionally ventured on an infringement of his strict orders not to be disturbed, and walking on tiptoe to his side, used to gaze on his almost expiring instructor!

Of Gifford's kindness to children I had numerous instances in myself. While at school I received more presents from him than from all my other acquaintance put together. Nor was his liberality confined to the importunities of a school-boy, as my more considerable prodigalities at college found in his bounty an unfailing remedy. The last time I heard from him he wrote to discharge a bill for me; and that, too, at a time when the labour requisite for writing a letter was such as to exhaust him. The reader will probably smile, but I wish to be understood literally. His debility for many months previous to his death was such as to incapacitate him for the smallest exertion — even that of writing! I called on him some little time ago, and learnt he was on the sofa; having undergone the fatigue of having one foot washed, which entailed an exhaustion requiring a glass of wine and an hour's sleep to restore him. He would sometimes take up a pen, and, after a vain attempt to write, throw it down, exclaiming, "No! my work is done!" Excessive infirmity rendered existence a great burthen: the most common and involuntary thoughts, in their passage through his mind, seemed to leave pain behind them. He was once talking with perfect tranquillity — as indeed he always did — of the approaching termination of his life, when the friend with whom be was conversing expressed a hope that he might yet recover, and live several years: but he added, "Oh! no! it has pleased God to grant me a much longer life than I had reason to expect; and I am thankful for it: but two years more is its utmost duration." He died exactly two years after using these words. As my last interview with him, he spoke of Valpy's new edition of Stephens's Greek Thesaurus: he said, "I examined the former numbers, but finding it clumsily done, I left off." I spoke of Ford, and observed that the public would be more gratified by an edition of that dramatist than of Shirley; adding, that it was a pity so noble a writer should have no worthier editor than Weber. At the mention of this man's name he seemed irritated, and said, rather angrily, "He's a sad ignorant fellow." The formal demolition of this poor man, to which he has condescended in his own edition of Ford, may seem like breaking a gnat on a wheel; and can only, indeed, be accounted for on the supposition, which is, however, probably a correct one, that Weber was only the ostensible, and a much greater antagonist the real, editor. Speaking of Dryden, whose genius he admired exceedingly, he observed, "Dryden's Besetting Sin was a want of principles in every thing." I used sometimes to send him the Etonian, which was published whilst I was at school: I found this no bad speculation. He had a great admiration of the poetical powers of the author of Godiva: he said, after reading that poem, "If Moultrie writes prose as well as he does verse, I should be glad to hear from him" — meaning, he should be glad to receive an article from him. He once quoted to me, with great glee, the two lines in Godiva,

Leofric thought he had perplex'd bet quite,
And grinn'd immensely at his own sagacity;

adding, with a laugh,"they are admirable."

I was at his house shortly after Sheridan's death: I took up a magazine, which had for its frontispiece a head of that orator: Gifford, observing my attention to be directed to the picture, asked what it was? On my informing him, be stretched out his hand for it: "Aye! it's very like him," he said. He looked at it for some time with a melancholy air, and returned it, merely observing, "Poor Sheridan!" In truth, his kindness of heart was universally warm and strong. He was greatly attached, amongst other domestics, to a cat and a dog; which last was the most exquisitely proportioned spaniel I ever saw. These two used to take great liberties with him; but he never permitted them to remain in the room during dinner; and It was amusing to see this pair of domestics spontaneously walk out of the room together on the appearance of the first cover. He survived Tabby; and poor Fid is not likely to be long in following his master; for natural decay has entirely deprived him of locomotion; and he is at present sleeping away his existence in a lethargy few degrees removed from death. By the by, this little fellow shewed one very remarkable piece of sagacity: he used to bark upon the arrival of any other carriage at the door, but never at his master's.

Mr. Gifford was short in person: his hair was of a remarkably handsome brown colour, and was as glossy and full at the time of his death, as at any previous period. He lost the use of his right eye, I believe, by gradual and natural decay: but the remaining one made ample amends for the absence of its fellow, having a remarkable quickness and brilliancy, and a power of expressing every variety of feeling. His head was of a very singular shape; being by no means high, if measured from the chin to the crown; but of a greater horizontal length from the forehead to the back of the head, than any I remember to have seen. I believe he would have puzzled the phrenologist strangely; but that is an ordinary occurrence; and I, not being a disciple of these philosophers, shall not concern myself in their distress. His forehead projected at a right angle from his face, in a very uncommon manner. The portrait of him in his Juvenal, taken from a picture by his friend Hoppner, is a very good likeness: but there is a still better, painted by the same artist, from which I understand Mr. Murray is now having a print taken.

A few days before his death he said, "I shall not trouble myself with taking any more medicine — it's of no use — I shall not get up again." As his last hour drew nearer, his mind occasionally wandered; he said once — "These books have driven me mad, — I must read my prayers—" singular words, as coming from a man deeply impressed with religious feeling. (By the by, I remember seeing in his library what appeared to be a paraphrase, or translation of the Book of Job, in his own handwriting.) Soon after, all power of motion failed him; he could not raise a tea-spoon to his mouth, nor stir in his bed. His breath became very low, and interrupted by long pauses; his pulse had ceased to beat five hours before his death. He was continually inquiring what time it was. He once faltered forth, "when will this be over?" At last, on his nurse coming into the room, he said, "now I'm ready; (words he generally used when he was ready to be moved) very well! — you may go." These were his last words; on retiring, the nurse listened behind the door; she observed the intervals of his breathing to grow longer; — she re-entered the room just in time to catch a breath that had a little of the strength of a sigh. — It was his last! The few who saw him afterwards, agreed that the usual serenity of death was exceeded by the placid composure of his countenance.