1898 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Rowland E. Prothero, in Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 1:198-99n.



William Gifford (1756-1826), a self-taught scholar, first a ploughboy, then boy on board a Brixham coaster, afterwards shoe-maker's apprentice, was sent by friends to Exeter College, Oxford (1779-81). In the Baviad (1794) and the Maeviad (1795) he attacked many of the smaller writers of the day, who were either silly, like the Della Cruscan school, or discreditable, like Williams, who wrote as "Anthony Pasquin." In his Epistle to Peter Pindar (1800) he succeeds in laying bare the true character of John Wolcot. As editor of the Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner (November, 1797, to July 1798), he supported the political views of Canning and his friends. As editor of the Quarterly Review, from its foundation (February, 1809) to his resignation in September, 1824, he did yeoman's service to sound literature by his good sense and adherence to the best models. It was a period when all criticism was narrow, and, to some degree, warped by political prejudice. In these respects, Gifford's work may not have risen above — it certainly did not fall below — the highest standard of contemporary criticism. His editions of Massinger (1805), which superseded that of Monck Mason and Davies (1765), of Ben Jonson (1816), of Ford (1827), are valuable. To his translation of Juvenal (1802) is prefixed his autobiography. His translation of Persius appeared in 1821. To Gifford, Byron usually paid the utmost deference. "Any suggestion of yours, even if it were conveyed," he writes to him, in 1813, "in the less tender text of the Baviad, or a Monk Mason note to Massinger, would be obeyed." See also his letter (September 7, 1811), in which he calls Gifford his "Magnus Apollo," and values his praise above the gems of Samarcand. "He was," says Sir Walter Scott (Diary, January 18, 1827), "a little man, dumpled up together, and so ill-made as to seem almost deformed, but with a singular expression of talent in his countenance." Byron was attracted to Gifford, partly by his devotion to the classical models of literature, partly by the outspoken frankness of his literary criticism, partly also, perhaps, by his physical deformity.