From a truly interesting biographical account of this gentleman, prefixed to his translation of Juvenal, it appears, that he is a native of Ashburton, Devonshire, and was born in 1757. At the age of thirteen he became an orphan, by the loss of both his parents; was then placed on board a coaster at Brixton, by his god-father, who afterwards bound him apprentice to a shoemaker, with whom he worked till his twentieth year. About this time, some poetical trifles which he had produced, attracted the notice of a gentleman who interested himself so warmly in his behalf that a subscription was raised expressly for the purpose of purchasing the remainder of his apprenticeship, and maintaining him for a short time, while he improved himself in writing and English grammar. Such, however, was his assiduity under the master provided for him, that his patrons extended their views, and determined to send him to the university. The office of Bib. Lect. at Exeter College, Oxford, was procured for him, and thither he removed. About this time, he commenced his translation of Juvenal, which he proposed to publish by subscription, but afterwards relinquished that plan, and returned the money which he had received. Accident introduced him to the acquaintance of the late Earl Grosvenor, whose son, the present Earl, he accompanied in two successive tours to the continent, and by whom he was finally placed in ease and independence. His first avowed work was devoted to the chastisement of the poetasters of the Della Crusca school. He is understood to have been the editor of the Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner, as he is at present of the Quarterly Review.
In 1758, when the imitators of Pope's school continued to fatigue the ears by the monotony of a hundred poetical common places, dressed up in a hundred modes, a coterie, suddenly, usurped an ephemeral vogue, by celebrating platonic love, sentimental friendship, and a pretended enthusiasm for nature, or substituting the affectation and conceits of Italian literature, for the antithesis, and elegant conciseness of the classical models. The coterie Della Crusca was an association of beaux esprits and equivocal females metamorphosed into the shepherds and shepherdesses of salons,
Formes sur le brillant modele
De ces bergers galans qu'a chantes Fontenelle.
Like Don Quixote and Sancho, adopting the names of Quichotis and Pancino, Mr. Merry signed Della Crusca; Mrs. Robinson, Laura Maria; Mrs. Piozzi, Anna Matilda, Adney Yenda; another Carlos, etc. Distributing afterwards their various parts, one was to perform Horace, and proved his title by epistles to his friends, and odes to the moon; the other became an Anacreon, and wrote stanzas to Delia; Mrs. Robinson was surnamed the English Sappho. This free academy was founded at Florence, where chance had brought together Mr. Merry, Mrs. Piozzi, and Mrs. Robinson.
Mr. Merry appertained to a family of magistrates; he was, at first, intended for the bar, but afterwards having purchased a commission, and succeeding to an independent fortune, he took up his residence in Italy, after having made the tour of the divers capitals of Europe. Retained, as it is said, at Florence by love, he devoted himself, while there, to the study of the Italian language, and was received as a member of the celebrated academy Della Crusca, the name of which with singular poetic pedantry, he adopted.
Mrs. Piozzi had become the wife by a first marriage of a rich brewer, Mr. Thrale, whose house the famous Dr. S. Johnson much frequented. At the death of her husband, she retired to Bath, and kept up a correspondence with her literary friend; but they quarrelled on his disapproval of her marriage with Piozzi, a music master, whom Mrs. Piozzi carried with her to Florence. She there became acquainted with the female Adventurer, Mrs. Robinson, who, at first, in the character of an agreeable courtezan and afterwards in that of a seducing actress, had captivated, by turns, a royal prince and the man of the people, the famous Fox, a conquest not less illustrious.
This coterie made a collection of its verses, to which Mrs. Piozzi wrote the preface; and shortly after these fugitive pieces were confided in detail to the literary journals of London, where the Anacreons and Sapphos found complaisant puffers. The adventure of the Metromanie was revived: Anna Matilda, in the character of an invisible muse, inspired by her verses alone some unknown author with a tender passion, which, for a considerable time, exhausted itself in reciprocal sonnets.
It must be confessed, that in the midst of the affectation of Mrs. Piozzi and Robinson, some harmonious couplets and ingenious thoughts are met with; or some sentiments tolerably delicate., and expressed in a graceful manner; but in the height of the greatest intoxication of all these little successes, a satirical voice was suddenly heard — that of Mr. Gifford — which devoted to ridicule all the poetry of the new Parnassus without exception. The Baviad, followed by the Meviad, appeared and effected the disenchantment of all such as had been induced to admire the odes, sonnets, epistles, etc. of Merry and his muses.
The Baviad is a witty paraphrase of the first satire of Persius. "O curas hominum; O quantum est in rebus inane!" But it possesses all the terseness of Juvenal, with a little more decency, and less declamation in expression. The marginal notes compose a commentary still more malicious than the text, and reveal a multitude of little personal details, or comprise quotations, which demonstrate all the enormity of the offenders whom the poet chastises with his inexorable pen.
It is not alone the Florentine coterie which is branded with the derisive epithets of Gifford; but the satirist reviews, in this new Dunciad, the degenerate dramatic authors, such as O'Keefe, Morton, and Reynolds, and demonstrates their trite absurdity. The Meviad is but the supplement to the Baviad, and it was the coup de grace to all those poets who had clamoured in the first instance, that Mr. Gifford was but the slave hired to pursue with his insults the triumphal car of their victory. This double satire excites but little interest in the present day. In order to survive the circumstances which give it birth, it is requisite that this species of poem should paint the ridiculous features of manners rather than of mind. Lord Byron was inspired by the mockery of the Baviad and the Meviad, when he composed his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Unfortunately, all the decisions of Byron have not been confirmed like those of Mr. Gifford. The Dunciad of Pope was the common model of both.
The English have often succeeded in the department of satire, but their satires, more energetic than ingenious, are also more affluent in invectives than in "piquantes" allusions. They may be reproached with all the defects which the English critics have themselves discovered in Juvenal; while they are less obscure than the Latin poet, because they call things by their own names more freely than he, they either descend into a coarse familiarity, or plunge into a style of inflation when they attempt to rise. Under pretence of stripping vice of its deceitful mask and cloak, they lay bare to the eye, with a frequently indecent license, the nakedness of its lineaments. This branch of English literature, is, in short, one of the most faithful indices of the national character, and deserves being studied in the burlesque Epics of Hudibras, in the political satires of Dryden, the elegant imitations of Donne and Horace, by Pope, and that of Juvenal by Johnson, etc.
Mr. Gifford has translated Juvenal into English verse, with a happy freedom of expression, which does not exclude poetical merit. He has published excellent editions of Massinger, of Ben Jonson and Shirley; but he is more especially known as the principal editor of the Quarterly Review — and he has renounced poetry, in order to give the law to poets.
In order to evince that he had every kind of right to protest, in the name of taste, against the bathos and pathos of the disciples Della Crusca, Mr. Gifford introduced into his notes on the Meviad, two elegies, replete with grace and sentiment. That which commences with these words — "I wish I was where Anna lies," exhibits an affecting simplicity, which reminds one of the regret of the two young princes for Imogene, in the play of Cymbeline. — (Historical and literary Tour of a foreigner.)