William Gifford

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:292-94.

WILLIAM GIFFORD, a poet, translator, and critic, afforded a remarkable example of successful application to science and literature under the most unfavourable circumstances. He was born at Ashburton, in Devonshire, in April 1756. His father had been a painter and glazier, but both the parents of the poet died when he was young; and after some little education, he was, at the age of thirteen, placed on board a coasting vessel by his godfather, a man who was supposed to have benefited himself at the expense of Gifford's parents. "It will be easily conceived," he says, "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." Whilst thus pursuing his life of a cabin boy, Gifford was often seen by the fishwomen of his native town running about the beach in a ragged jacket and trousers. They mentioned this to the people of Ashburton, and never without commiserating his change of condition. This tale, often repeated, awakened at length the pity of the auditors, and, as the next step, their resentment against the man who had reduced him to such a state of wretchedness. His godfather was, on this account, induced to recall him from the sea, and put him again to school. He made rapid progress, and even hoped to succeed his old and infirm schoolmaster. In his fifteenth year, however, his godfather, conceiving that he had got learning enough, and that his own duty towards him was fairly discharged, put him apprentice to a shoemaker. Gifford hated his new profession with a perfect hatred. At this time he possessed but one book in the world, and that was a treatise on algebra, of which he had no knowledge; but meeting with Fenning's Introduction, he mastered both works. "This was not done," he states, "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 secrecy were necessary in applying 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." He next tried poetry, and some of his "lamentable doggerel" falling into the hands of Mr. Cookesley a benevolent surgeon of Ashburton, that gentleman set about a subscription for purchasing the remainder of the time of his apprenticeship, and enabling him to procure a better education. The scheme was successful; and in little more than two years, Gifford had made such extraordinary application, that he was pronounced fit for the university. The place of Biblical Lecturer was procured for him at Exeter college, and this, with such occasional assistance from the country as Mr. Cookesley undertook to provide, was thought sufficient to enable him to live, at least, till he had taken a degree. An accidental circumstance led to Gifford's advancement. He had been accustomed to correspond, on literary subjects, with a person in London, his letters being enclosed in covers, and sent, to save postage, to Lord Grosvenor. One day he inadvertently omitted the direction, and his lordship necessarily supposing the letter to he meant for himself, opened and read it. He was struck with the contents, and after seeing the writer and hearing him relate the circumstances of his life, undertook the charge of his present support and future establishment; and, till this last could be effected to his wish, invited him to come and reside with him. "These," says the grateful scholar, "were not words of course: they were more than fulfilled in every point. I did go and reside with him, and I experienced a warm and cordial reception, and a kind and affectionate esteem, that has known neither diminution nor interruption from that hour to this, a period of twenty years." Part of these, it may be remarked, were spent in attending the earl's eldest son, Lord Belgrave, on a tour of Europe, which must have tended greatly to inform and expand the mind of the scholar. Gifford appeared as an author in 1794. His first production was a satirical poem entitled "The Baviad," which was directed against a class of sentimental poetasters of that day, usually passing under the collective appellation of the Della Crusca School, (Mrs. Piozzi, Mrs. Robinson, Mr. Greathead, Mr. Merry, Weston, Parsons, &c.), conspicuous for their affectation and bad taste, and their high-flown compliments on one another. "There was a specious brilliancy in these exotics," he remarks, "which dazzled the native grubs, who had scarce ever ventured beyond a sheep, and a crook, and a rose-tree grove; with an ostentatious display of 'blue hills,' and 'crashing torrents,' and 'petrifying suns.'" Gifford's vigorous exposure completely demolished this set of rhymesters, who were probably the spawn of Darwin and Lichfield. Anna Matilda, Laura Maria, Edwin, Orlando, &c., sunk into instant and irretrievable contempt; and the worst of the number (a man Williams, who assumed the name of Pasquin for his "ribald strains") was nonsuited in an action against Gifford's publisher. The satire was universally read and admired. In the present day is seems unnecessarily merciless and severe, yet lines like the following still possess interest. The allusion to Pope is peculiarly appropriate and beautiful:—

Oh for the geed old times! when all was new,
And every hour brought prodigies to view,
Our sires in unaffected language told
Of streams of amber and of rocks of gold:
Full of their theme, they spurned all idle art,
And the plain tale was trusted to the heart.
Now all is changed! We fume and fret, poor elves,
Less to display our subject than ourselves:
Whate'er we paint — a grot, a flower, a bird,
Heavens, how we sweat! laboriously absurd!
Words of gigantic bulk and uncouth sound,
In rattling triads the long sentence bound;
While points with points, with periods periods jar,
And the whole work seems one continued war!
Is not this sad?

F. — 'Tis pitiful, heaven knows;
'Tis wondrous pitiful. E'en take the prose:
But for the poetry — oh, that, my friend,
I still aspire — nay, smile not — to defend.
You praise our sires, but, though they wrote with force,
Their rhymes were vicious and their diction coarse;
We want their strength; agreed; but we atone
For that, and more, by sweetness all our own.
For instance — "Hasten to the lawny vale,
Where yellow morning breathes her saffron gale,
And bathes the landscape — "

P. — Pshaw; I have it here.
"A voice seraphic grasps my listening ear:
Wandering I gaze; when lo! methought afar,
More bright than dauntless day's imperial star,
A godlike form advances."

F. — You suppose
These lines perhaps too turgid; what of those?
"The mighty mother—"

P. — Now, 'tis plain you sneer,
For Weston's self could find no semblance here:
Weston! who slunk from truth's imperious light,
Swells like a filthy toad with secret spite,
And, envying the fame he cannot hope,
Spits his black venom at the dust of Pope.
Reptile accursed! — O memorable long,
If there be force in virtue or in song,
O injured bard! accept the grateful strain,
Which I, the humblest of the tuneful train,
With glowing heart, yet trembling hand, repay,
For many a pensive, many a sprightly lay!
So may thy varied verse, from age to age,
Inform the simple, and delight the sage.

The contributions of Mrs. Piozzi to this fantastic garland of exotic verse are characterised in one felicitous couplet—

See Thrale's gray widow with a satchel roam,
And bring, in pomp, her laboured nothings home!

The tasteless bibliomaniac is also finely sketched:—

Others, like Kemble, on black letter pore,
And what they do not understand, adore;
Buy at vast sums the trash of ancient days,
And draw on prodigality for praise.
These, when some lucky hit, or lucky price,
Has blessed them with "The Boke of Gode Advice;"
For "ekes" and "algates" only deign to seek,
And live upon a "whilome" for a week.

The "Baviad" was a paraphrase of the first satire of Persius. In the year following, encouraged by its success, Gifford produced "The Maeviad," an imitation of Horace, levelled at the corruptors of dramatic poetry. Here also the Della Crusca authors (who attempted dramas as well as odes and elegies) are gibbeted in satiric verse; but Gifford was more critical than just in including O'Keefe, the amusing farce writer, among the objects of his condemnation. The plays of Kotzebue and Schiller, then first translated and much in vogue, he also characterises as "heavy, lumbering, monotonous stupidity," a sentence too unqualified and severe. In the "Maeviad" are some touching and affectionate allusions to the author's history and friends. Dr. Ireland, dean of Westminster, is thins mentioned:—

Chief thou, my friend! who from my earliest years
Hast shared my joys, and more than shared my cares.
Sure, if our fates hang on some hidden power,
And take their colour from the natal hour,
Then, Ireland, the same planet on us rose,
Such the strong sympathies our lives disclose!
Thou knowest how soon we felt this influence bland,
And sought the brook and coppice, hand in hand,
And shaped rude bows, and uncouth whistles blew,
And paper kites (a last great effort) flew;
And when the day was done, retired to rest,
Sleep on our eyes, and sunshine in our breast.
In riper years, again together thrown,
Our studies, as our sports before, were one.
Together we explored the stoic page
Of the Ligurian, stern though beardless sage!
Or traced the Aquinian through the Latine road,
And trembled at the lashes be bestowed.
Together, too, when Greece unlocked her stores,
We roved in thought o'er Troy's devoted shores,
Or followed, while he sought his native soil,
"That old man eloquent" from toil to toil;
Lingering, with good Alcinous, o'er the tale,
Till the east reddened and the stars grew pale.

Gifford tried a third satire, an "Epistle to Peter Pindar" (Dr. Wolcot), which, being founded on personal animosity, is more remarkable for its passionate vehemence and abuse than for its felicity or correctness. Wolcot replied with "A Cut at a Cobbler," equally unworthy of his fame. These satirical labours of our author pointed him out as a fit person to edit "The Anti-Jacobin," a weekly paper set up by Canning and others for the purpose of ridiculing and exposing the political agitators of the times. It was established in November 1797, and continued only till the July following. The connection thus formed with politicians and men of rank was afterwards serviceable to Gifford. He obtained the situation of paymaster of the gentlemen pensioners, and was made a commissioner of the lottery, the emoluments of the two offices being about £900 per annum. In 1802 he published a translation of Juvenal, to which was prefixed his sketch of his own life, one of the most interesting and unaffected of autobiographies. He also translated Persius, and edited the plays of Massinger, Ford, and Shirley, and the works of Ben Jonson. In 1808, when Sir Walter Scott and others resolved on starting a review, in opposition to the celebrated one established in Edinburgh, Mr. Gifford was selected as editor. In his hands the Quarterly Review became a powerful political and literary journal, to which leading statesmen and authors equally contributed. He continued to discharge his duties as editor until within two years of his death, which took place on the 31st of December 1826. Gifford claimed for himself

—a soul
That spurned the crowd's malign control—
A fixed contempt of wrong.

He was high spirited, courageous, and sincere. In most of his writings, however, there was a strong tinge of personal acerbity and even virulence. He was a good hater, and as he was opposed to all political visionaries and reformers, he had seldom time to cool. His literary criticism, also, where no such prejudices could interfere, was frequently disfigured by the same severity of style or temper; and whoever, dead or living, ventured to say aught against Ben Jonson, or write what he deemed wrong comments on his favourite dramatists, were assailed with a vehemence that was ludicrously disproportioned to the offence. His attacks on Hazlitt, Lamb, Hunt, Keats, and others, in the Quarterly Review, have no pretensions to fair or candid criticism. His object was to crush such authors as were opposed to the government of the day, or, who departed from his canons of literary propriety and good taste. Even the best of his criticisms, though acute and spirited, want candour and comprehensiveness of design. As a politician, he looked with distrust and suspicion on the growing importance of America, and kept alive among the English aristocracy a feeling of dislike or hostility towards that country, which was as unwise as it was ungenerous. His best service to literature was his edition of Ben Jonson, in which he successfully vindicated that great English classic from the unjust aspersions of his countrymen. His satirical poetry is pungent, and often happy in expression, but without rising into moral grandeur or pathos. His small but sinewy intellect, as some one has said, was well employed in bruising the butterflies of the Delia Cruscan Muse. Some of his short copies of verses possess a quiet plaintive melancholy and tenderness; but his fame must rest on his influence and talents as a critic and annotator — or more properly on the story of his life and early struggles — honourable to himself, and ultimately to his country — which will be read and remembered when his other writings are forgotten.

I wish I was where Anna lies,
For I am sick of lingering here;
And every hour affection cries,
Go and partake her humble bier.

I wish I could! For when she died,
I lost my all; and life has proved
Since that sad hour a dreary void;
A waste unlovely and unloved.

But who, when I am turned to clay,
Shall duly to her grave repair,
And pluck the ragged moss away,
And weeds that have "no business there!"

And who with pious band shall bring
The flowers she cherished, snow-drops cold,
And violets that unheeded spring,
To scatter o'er her hallowed mould?

And who, while memory loves to dwell
Upon her name for ever dear,
Shall feel his heart with passion swell,
And pour the bitter, bitter tear?

I did it; and would fate allow,
Should visit still, should still deplore—
But health and strength have left me now,
And I, alas! can weep no more.

Take then, sweet maid! this simple strain,
The last I offer at thy shrine;
Thy grave must then undecked remain, remain,
And all thy memory fade with mine.

And can thy soft persuasive look,
Thy voice that might with music vie,
Thy air that every gazer took,
Thy matchless eloquence of eye;

Thy spirits frolicsome as good,
Thy courage by no ills dismayed,
Thy patience by no wrongs subdued,
Thy gay good-humour, can they fade?

Perhaps — but sorrow dims my eye;
Cold turf which I no more must view,
Dear name which I no more must sigh,
A long, a last, a sad adieu!

The above affecting elegiac stanzas were written by Gifford on a faithful attendant who died in his service. He erected a tombstone to her memory in the burying-ground of Grosvenor chapel, South Audley Street, with the following inscription and epitaph:—

"Here lies the body of Ann Davies, (for more than twenty years) servant to William Gifford. She died February 6th, 1815, in the forty-third year of her age, of a tedious and painful malady, which she bore with exemplary patience and resignation. Her deeply afflicted master erected this stone to her memory, as a painful testimony of her uncommon worth, and of his perpetual gratitude, respect, and affection for her long and meritorious services.

Though here unknown, dear Ann, thy ashes rest,
Still lives thy memory in one grateful breast,
That traced thy course through many a painful year,
And marked thy humble hope, thy pious fear.
O! when this frame, which yet, while life remained,
Thy duteous love, with trembling hand sustained,
Dissolves (as seen it must), may that blessed Power
Who beamed on thins, illume my parting hour!
So shall I greet thee where no ills annoy,
And what was sewn in grief is reaped in joy:
Where worth, obscured below, bursts into day,
And those are paid whom earth could never pay."