1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Joseph Devey, "Classical School. Gifford" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 136-44.



The Classical School seems to have adopted satire as its peculiar province. Hudibras is the only satirical poet who did not wield his lash in the English heroic couplet. All the other leading satirists of our language, Donne, Pope; Dryden, Churchill, Johnson, employed the pentameter. As the follies of mankind are not very obtrusive in the country, as the stage on which they love to display their eccentricities is reserved for large towns, it almost follows as a matter of course that the language should be as artificial as the subjects on which it is employed. It would ill become the Muse, on abandoning the upland or the dell for the Mall or the Row, if she did not exchange her rustic dress for the meretricious ornaments of fashionable life. As the Roman poets, even while cultivating their farms, never lashed the vices of the Suburra except in heroics, the English poets thought they could not do less. But our English satirists have drawn the connection between conventional themes and classical treatment closer than was necessary, by making their poems mere paraphrases of Roman satires. The example which Pope set in adopting Horace as his model, was followed by Johnson, who paraphrased Juvenal, and by Gifford, who imitated Perseus.

It appears that towards the close of last century, a coterie of literary aspirants happened to domesticate themselves at Florence. Mrs. Thrale, the brewer's widow, who betook herself thither after losing caste in England by her marriage with Piozzi, opened her salons for their reception. There used to congregate Mr. Merry, a son of a country magistrate, who had abandoned the bar for the Muses; Mrs. Robinson, the seductive actress, who had in turn captivated the heart of the Prince Regent and Charles Fox; Mrs. Cowley, who was anxious to reinvigorate the waning empire of beauty by an extraordinary display of sentiment; and Mr. Parsons, who regarded poetic rapture in woman as a genuine proof of voluptuous sensibility. These people, whom congenial tastes brought together, soon found themselves engaged in addressing amatory poetry to each other. They imagined themselves like the swains and shepherdesses of Fontenelle, to unite in their persons the ingenuous transports of rustic life with the exquisite tastes of polished society. Their effusions were circulated under feigned names, with a view to create, while appearing to elude, public inquiry. Merry signed himself Della Crusca; Mrs. Robinson, Julia and Laura Maria; Mrs. Piozzi, Anna Matilda; Parsons, Carlos. It was at Mrs. Piozzi's reunions that Merry recited, with the gesticulations of Statius, to the delight of a languishing auditory, his great poem, The Wreath of Liberty," — a philosophical rhapsody in praise of the French Revolution, which was to transmit his name to future generations. From the opening lines it would appear that Merry was only an earlier edition of "Satan" Montgomery:—

Genius or muse, whoe'er thou art, whose thrill
Exalts the fancy or inflames the will;
Bids on the heart sublime sensation roll,
And wakes ecstatic fervour in the soul.

But the tinsel was just of that kind to waken enthusiasm in the hearts of his female admirers, and the celestial Robinson, fresh from the revels of Drury Lane, could thus address her Della Crusca:

When amidst ethereal fire
Thou strik'st thy Della Cruscan lyre,
Round to catch the heavenly song,
Myriads of wondering seraphs throng.

And again,—

O thou, to whom superior worth allied,
Thy country's honour and thy Muse's pride,
Thy genius flows in every classic line,
And Nature dictates everything that's thine.

Merry seems to have been prodigiously gratified with this incense from the altar of beauty, and implored the fair one to

Let the streaming lightnings fly
In liquid peril from her eye:

But he does not appear to have been of that mood which his name would indicate, for we find him presently exclaiming—

Conjure up demons from the main,
Storm upon storm indignant heap,
Bid ocean howl and nature weep,
Till the Creator blush to see
How horrible His world can be!
While I will glory to blaspheme,
And make the joys of hell my theme:

simply because Mrs. Robinson would not open her eyes. With Anna Matilda, who was equally profuse in his praise, he appears to have got on a little better, though her inexorable correctness made him express his griefs so awkwardly that gaping fiends might think he was triumphing over her virtue:—

Yes, I will prove that I deserve my fate,
Was born for anguish, and was formed for hate,
With such transcendent woe will breathe my sigh,
That envying fiends will think it ecstasy.

To which the fair Matilda replied,—

Ne'er shalt thou know to sigh,
Nor on a soft idea die,
Ne'er on a recollection grasp
Thy arms—

The following lines of Merry were always thought by his fair admirers to eclipse Pope:—

From a young grove's shade,
Where infant boughs but mock the expecting glade,
Sweet sounds stole forth upborne upon the gale,
Pressed through the air and broke upon the vale,
Then silent walked the breezes of the plain,
Or soared aloft and seized the hovering strain.

It will be readily imagined that the little English colony at Florence was too small a theatre for the display of genius so startling, and a cargo of the poetry was shipped to London, where a clique of literary coxcombs, headed by Este, had just started a periodical called "The World." The new wares were just fitted for the vehicle, ready to launch them into notice. Every week there appeared in its columns, with a short eulogistic preface, some nonsense, which Merry, the Anacreon of the party, had addressed to Sappho (Mrs. Robinson), or some strain which Greathead, who assumed the part of Horace, poured into the heart of his Delia (Mrs. Cowley). With the rapidity of flame among dry rushes, the epidemic spread not less among editors, anxious to compete with Este for the honour of introducing this stuff to the public, than among the fat dowagers and sickly sentimentalists, eager to prolong the follies of their youth by enacting the scenes of Mrs. Piozzi's reunions over again. Mr. Bell, of the "Oracle," and Urban, of the "Gentleman's Magazine," besides the "Gazetteer," opened their pages to the new contributors. The strains from Florence were re-echoed in still more foolish ditties by the Julias, the Jerninghams, the Edwins, and Tophams of London. Reuben could thus waft his vows to the stout shepherdess in the "Oracle," who signed herself Anna Matilda:—

To thee a stranger dares address his theme,
To thee, proud mistress of Apollo's lyre,
One ray emitted from thy golden gleam,
Prompted by love, would set the world on fire.
To which the stout shepherdess replied,—

This resuscitating praise
Breathes life upon my dying days;
But, bard polite, how hard the task,
Which with such elegance you ask!

Bell, who made himself a vehicle for this sort of interchange, roundly declared, in his pompous introductory preludes, that much of Greathead's poetry was equal to Pindar's, while he was certain that a sonnet of Mrs. Robinson's, addressed to the Nightingale, could not be touched by Milton. Dr. Tasker, a gentleman who should have known better, thus reinforced the discriminating criticism of Bell:—

In Ancient Greece two glorious forms were seen,
Wisdom's stern goddess and Love's smiling queen,
Pallas presided over arms and arts,
And Venus over gentle virgins' hearts;
But now both powers in one fair form combine,
And in famed Robinson united shine.

The result of this systematic puffing was, that Harris, manager of Covent Garden, was induced to accept a tragedy of Merry's, called "Lorenzo," which actually made its author, for a few brief nights, the hero of the town. Merry came over to London, and announced himself to his followers by a sonnet. He grew jealous of Greathead's advances with the fair contributors to the "Oracle," and exchanged still more furious vows with Anna Matilda. The fever at last grew to a frenzy. Even the swains and sempstresses of the provinces caught the infection, till every periodical in the country resounded with nonsense and Della Crusca.

It was to brush this swarm of fools away that Gifford seems to have been sent into the world; for I do not know that he did anything else worthy of special regard. But the glory of restoring Milton and Pope to the places of which they had been dispossessed by Merry and Topham, appears to have surrounded him with a factitious halo out of all proportion to his real merits. The extravagant praises of Byron, who regarded him as a satirist second to none in our literature, have also placed him upon a pedestal to which his works give him no claim. For Gifford was by no means an original genius, even in the poor sense of casting the conceptions of others into the crucible of a fiery imagination, to startle the reader with old thoughts under new combinations. His performances are simply a very good reflex of the favourite authors, in the study of whom he sauntered away his early manhood under the beeches of Eaton Hall. He is tender as well as epigrammatic; but neither his gushes of passion, nor sallies of wit, are ever so strong as to discard conventional language, and clothe themselves in the imagery of nature. His lines on "Anna," and those addressed to a "Tuft of Early Violets," are mere echoes — the one from Collins, the other from Prior — of feelings and phrases with which these two poets attempted to ally heartfelt sentiment with classical diction. Even in the "Maeviad," when he rushes into sentimentality, he succeeds hardly better than Prior might have done with similar materials:—

How oft, O Dart what time the faithful pair
Walked forth, the fragrant hour of eve to share,
On thy romantic banks have my wild strains
(Not yet forgot amidst my native plains),
While thou hast sweetly gurgled down the vale,
Fill'd up the pause of love's delightful tale;
While ever as she read, the conscious maid,
By faltering voice and downcast look betrayed,
Would blushing on her lover's neck recline,
And with her finger point the tenderest line.

That Byron could regard such language as this with rapture, can only be accounted for by his reckless adulation of Pope.

Gifford was disqualified by habit, as well as by nature, from the role of a great satirist, who, while having a heart keenly sensitive to wrong, must have sufficient independence to hurl at the perpetrators of it, the lightnings of his indignation. Every chord of his heart must vibrate in unison with nature. Convention, and the victims of its artificial restraints, must arouse in him feelings akin to those felt by the knight-errants of old, when they beheld virtue suffering in the gripe of some savage monster of the woods, and rushed forward to imperil their heart's blood in its release. But all these were qualities which Gifford did not only want, but of which he had the very opposite. He entertained little respect for anything in the world but the artificial creations of rank and fashion. An author who had never been at either of the Universities, or who did not live in the vicinity of May Fair, could expect little mercy from Gifford, except, indeed, he had some peculiar claims upon his party. The writer who took his instructions from Pitt, as to the tenor of his next paper in the Quarterly, or of his next contribution to the Anti-Jacobin, who threw his shield over the worst errors of Lord Liverpool, or the wildest vagaries of Castlereagh, was not the man to array himself in the glittering armour of satire, and hew down in song the complicated blunders, vices, and follies he had defended in other spheres. To break a butterfly on a wheel, to expose a poetaster or some literary charlatan, to scalp a youthful genius of liberal tendencies who evinced talents which might, under proper encouragement, eclipse his own, — these were the things in which he shone, this constituted the petty sphere of his vocation.

His translations of Juvenal and Perseus, by which he is most known, after his "Baviad" and "Maeviad," are tame and insipid renderings of the originals, except where a jest or a repartee has to be given with force and propriety. The verse falls flat on the ear after the dashing couplets of Dryden. What he gains in correctness, he loses in force. To anglicise Juvenal required every quality which Gifford lacked most, — a mind replete with great fire and energy, a thorough disgust with the vices of the great, and a hearty sympathy with every kind of undeserved oppression. With Perseus he was far more at home. For the stoical poet resembled Gifford in his seeming indifference to the mass of suffering which political misgovernment threw in his path, and in confining his satire to those obliquities whose exposure would do harm neither to his patrons nor himself. When, therefore, he applied his lash to the Della Cruscans, Gifford was in his element. Their offences were of that ridiculous character that only could be laughed out of fashion by quiet irony and by that airy banter of which Gifford was perfect master. Had the delinquents been of a graver sort, — had they been eccentric madmen like Charles of Sweden, or social monsters like Chatier, — Gifford's glittering weapon would have fared as ill in dealing with the subject as a fencing rapier in a broad-sword skirmish. When Byron called on the satirist to attack gigantic vice in high places, and make the

Guilty glare through future time,
Eternal beacons of consummate crime,

he entirely miscalculated Gifford's powers. For it is one thing to demolish a school of wretched poetasters, and another to make

Bad men better, or at least ashamed.

And when Gifford tried his hand at the latter, in his epistle to Wolcott, he resembled a child lifting a club he was unable to wield, and earned from his victim a sound horsewhipping. He mistook a string of vituperative abuse for those brilliant touches of satire which makes the spirituality of our common nature act as a foil to project into deeper blackness of guilt those vices which in the lowest or loftiest criminals overshadow its splendour. Gifford should have remembered that "monster of turpitude," "reptile gorged with bile," "ruffian," and other kindred terms, no more constituted satire than "crashing torrents," "petrifying suns," "hoar hills," and "glassy brooks" constituted pastoral poetry.

Perseus, on account of the limited range of his sympathies, as well as his want of force, is confessedly far below Juvenal; but Gifford had even a narrower range of mind than Perseus, though he seems to have been possessed of a tenderness to which the Roman stoic could lay no claim. He stands therefore in a more inferior relation to Dryden or Churchill than Perseus does to the great master of Roman satire; for Perseus, with all his deficiencies, was still original, whereas Gifford, like Pope and Johnson, cast the framework of his design in the mouldings of others. Yet even here he suffers by comparison, for Johnson and Pope had somewhat of the fire, the vigour, and the caustic. irony of their masters. But in each of these qualities Perseus is singularly deficient, and his imitators are far more deficient than Perseus. The state of wretched dependence in which Gifford had been reared, his social thraldom in the Belgrave family, his disposition to wear the livery and perform the meanest offices of his party for daily bread, must have materially interfered with the development of any talents for satire, in the broad and unfettered arena upon which alone they can be cultivated with success. I cannot, then, do otherwise than place Gifford with Johnson among the second-class satirists; but while placing the sturdy Johnson among the first group in that class, I feel reluctantly compelled to consign Gifford, notwithstanding his Court buckles and Corinthian polish, to the last.