The relations of William Gifford to John Murray were such as to warrant a somewhat more extended notice of his life, for in truth he was to the young publisher much more than the Editor of the Quarterly, or a general literary adviser. The large number of letters, notes, and memoranda which passed between them almost daily, go to prove that for many years there was scarcely any enterprise of any moment presented to Murray on which he did not consult Gifford; and in spite of the dilatoriness due to the Editor's ill-health and natural indolence, which at times imperilled the existence of the Quarterly, the mutual affection of these two men remained unshaken till Gifford's death.
The chief incidents of Gifford's early career are recorded in his admirable and most interesting Autobiography, and need only be briefly mentioned here; but as his correspondence with Cookesley, his friend and early patron (carefully preserved by him, in spite of his general practice of destroying all letters in his possession), has never been published, and affords a glimpse of his existence at Oxford, we may be pardoned for dwelling on this portion of his life with somewhat more detail.
Gifford was born at Ashburton, Devon, in 1757. His parents were very poor, and his father was a sort of "ne'er-do-weel." What money he earned was wasted on drink, and the mother had the utmost difficulty in bringing up her family. When eight years old the boy learnt something of the rudiments of education from a humble schoolmistress; but one day, while attempting to clamber up a little table, he fell backward and drew it after him. The edge of the table fell upon his breast and hurt him fearfully; indeed, he never recovered from the effects of the blow. His growth was stopped, and he became partially deformed. Asthma was one of the permanent effects of the injury, and affected him nearly all his life.
In 1770 Gifford and a little brother, then but two years old, were left as orphans to the tender mercies of a man named Carlile, William's godfather, who neglected and ill-treated the children.
Finding that William was too weak and delicate for hard manual labour, Carlile put the boy on board one of the coasting vessels at Brixham with a view to his becoming a sailor. Gifford continued to serve as ship-boy on The Two Brothers for nearly a twelvemonth. He thus became acquainted with nautical terms, and acquired a love for the sea which lasted till the close of his life.
While at Brixham, the future editor of the Quarterly used to be seen among the fish-wives, running about the beach in a ragged jacket and trousers. The women who travelled to Ashburton to sell their fish told this to the townspeople, and a cry of "shame" arose against Carlile, who had seized all the little means of Gifford and his brother. Carlile then recalled the elder boy from Brixham, and put him to school at the age of fourteen.
Gifford had already shown a fondness for arithmetic, and his progress was so rapid that in a few months he was at the head of his class and was able to assist his master. He now hoped to be able to maintain himself as his regular assistant and by undertaking the instruction of a few evening scholars. On reaching his fifteenth year he told his little plans of improvement to Carlile, but this heartless fellow swept them away at a blow. He took the boy from school and bound him apprentice for seven years to his cousin, an Ashburton shoemaker. His new master was an arrogant and conceited Presbyterian — an intolerable bigot and a heartless tyrant. Gifford hated his new trade with a perfect hatred, and was gradually sinking into the condition of family drudge.
At last his mind began to awake; though he had few means of improvement, he made the most of what he had. A treatise on algebra had been given him by a young woman, who had found it in a lodging-house. This he considered as a treasure, and he was enabled to study it by means of "Fenning's Introduction," which he found hid away among the books of his master's son. The way in which he was enabled to produce algebraic signs was remarkable. Being deprived by his hard master of pen, ink, and paper, he beat out pieces of leather as smooth as possible, and worked out his problems on them with a blunted awl. For the rest, his memory was tenacious, and he could multiply and divide by mental recollection.
He had not begun his literary culture as yet. When a boy he had read the Bible left to him by his mother, together with her "Imitatio Christi," and a few odd numbers of magazines. But now, while a shoemaker's apprentice, he made his first literary effort in the composition of verses, by the recitation of which he was enabled to earn a few pence, and thereby to purchase the means of pursuing his studies.
In this obscure condition he was taken up and befriended by one of Nature's gentlemen. Mr. William Cookesley, a country surgeon, had heard of the hard fate of young Gifford, and desired to make his acquaintance. Gifford told the good man the whole history of his life: his struggles, his sufferings, his difficulties, and aspirations. "His first care," said Gifford afterwards, "was to console; his second, which he cherished to the last moment of his existence, was to relieve and support me." Gifford's tale so touched the heart of the surgeon, that he proceeded to get up a subscription for the purpose of "purchasing the remainder of the time of William Gifford, and for enabling him to improve himself in writing and English grammar."
Gifford was now in the twentieth year of his age, and he had eighteen months yet to serve; but by strenuous efforts enough money was obtained, and Gifford was eventually bought off from his apprenticeship, and sent for tuition under the care of the Rev. Thomas Smerdon. There he assiduously studied English, writing, and other branches, for about three months; and when the means for his support were exhausted, Mr. Cookesley — whom Gifford always spoke of as "his father and friend" — again helped him, and enough was contributed to maintain him at school for another year.
During this time he made considerable progress in his studies, and as his preceptor spoke favourably and confidently of his improvement, Mr. Cookesley had little difficulty in persuading his patrons to renew their donations. At length, in two years and two months from the day of his emancipation from the shoemaker's shop, Gifford was pronounced by his teacher, the Rev. Mr. Smerdon, to be fit for the University.
What was to be done now? It had been intended that Gifford should open a writing school, but that plan having been given up, Mr. Cookesley proceeded with his efforts to obtain some employment for him. He looked round for some one who had interest enough to procure for his protege some office at Oxford. This friend was eventually found in Thomas Taylor, of Denbury, a gentleman to whom Gifford had already been indebted for much kind and liberal support. The situation Mr. Taylor secured for him was that of Bible Reader for Exeter College. Gifford proceeded thither in February 1779. His first act on reaching Oxford was to heartily thank his friend Cookesley for all that he had done for him. Cookesley replied as follows:—
"Though I have ever highly esteemed you, my dear Gifford, yet I was far from perceiving the extent of my regard for you till you left Ashburton; and I am only reconciled to the loss of your society by the prospects of advantage and honour which are now before you. Believe me, I shall ever feel myself as much interested in your future fortune as if you were my brother or my son. Your merit, indeed, hath not been known to me alone, nor was mine the only eye that was moistened at your departure. The family, to whom you had rendered yourself dear by cohabitation and kind offices, have sincerely mourned your loss, and expressed their kind regards for you in a way that fascinated me, and the string of sympathy within me was so tenderly touched, that had I not quitted them I had been a mere baby. Mrs. Earle was ten times worse. About an hour after your departure she positively declared that your great box was nothing else but your coffin! I esteem her for her feeling, and am confident that those tender feelings of humanity are the mark, if not always of a good heart, at least of a generous one.... You may tell me somewhat of Bath and Oxford if you please, but if you do not I shall not be angry, provided you inform me that you are happy and well received. As I told you, if you want my assistance, command it; and if your money is inadequate to your expenditure, you may draw a bill on me for a few pounds twenty days after date, and I will duly honour it."
A long correspondence ensued between Gifford and Cookesley, which the former sacredly preserved.
"I feel myself peculiarly happy," said Cookesley, "in the good opinion you entertain of my friendship, and I want but the power of giving you more efficacious proofs of it. Independent of the regard I bear your merit, I cannot but consider myself as (I had almost said) the entire cause of all that hath been done for you; and therefore, in the character of my adopted, dutiful, and affectionate child, you stand entitled to my best assistance on all occasions. Herein I am influenced both by duty and by inclination. Whilst a little remains, of that little you surely shall not want. I have given Mr. Earle [with whom Gifford had lodged] £10, in part of his bill, with which he is well pleased. As I presume this will give you satisfaction I have mentioned it, but insist upon your making no fuss nor 'to do' about it. Jack can very conveniently forbear till the spring for the residue of the balance."
In the same letter, Mr. Cookesley reminded Gifford of the corrected "Pastorals," and his new poems, which he proposed should be printed and subscribed for amongst his friends. Gifford proceeded with the work, and insisted that Mr. Cookesley's name should stand at the head of the list of subscribers. "I will suck my fingers for a month rather than draw my pen to put a name over yours in my subscription book. Therefore, look to it! I am Wilful and Wishful; and Wilful will do it."
Many of the letters are about money. The contributions for maintaining Gifford at college were always in arrear, though Cookesley's was generally in advance.
"'Tis unlucky," said Cookesley, "that you should have been so ill-provided for the various demands of the college duns — a set of impertinent rascals, not to suffer an innocent youth to breathe one day within their walls till they aim at his very vitals. Had I conceived it possible for your stock of money to be so suddenly exhausted (though I had left myself penniless) you should not have quitted Ashburton without a more plentiful supply."
Mr. Cookesley was by no means a rich man. Indeed, like most country surgeons, he worked hard for very little pay. Yet he was always ready with a share of his earnings for the still poorer Gifford. He often wrote his letters between sleeping and waking. One day he gives, as an excuse for the shortness of his letter:—
"I am quite fatigued, having been without sleep for a great part of the past night, and on horseback for several hours to-day.... Your account of the meadows of Christ Church, where you express a wish for my being with you, almost made me so far forget myself as to cry out, 'I am resolved forthwith to set out for Oxford,' but, alas! to begin one's journey without money would be rather worse than ending it so. Nothing but my family keeps me from flying to you. Every day affords me fresh reasons for despising this wretched place, from which I most earnestly pray to be released."
Nevertheless, Mr. Cookesley continued to live at Ashburton, and, to encourage Gifford with his advice and assistance, he was perfectly indefatigable in endeavouring to obtain the means of keeping him at College. He obtained renewed contributions from his friends, though in the meantime Gifford occasionally suffered from want; and he circulated Gifford's poems, and obtained help from many persons outside Ashburton. Gifford was correspondingly grateful. When Cookesley lost a favourite child, Gifford wrote an elegy, which was greatly admired, and caused the parents' tears to burst forth afresh. Mrs. Cookesley, as a token of regard, sent Gifford "a ring, in memory of the dear child."
While under the tuition of Mr. Smerdon, Gifford had translated the 'Tenth Satire' of Juvenal for a holiday task. He now contemplated translating the remaining Satires with a view to their publication, but for this purpose he wanted a copy of the volume in which they were printed. He had no money with which to buy the book, and wrote to his benefactor on the subject.
Mr. Cookesley was one day dining with Governor Palk, near Ashburton, when he told him that on account of the arrears of the subscription for Gifford he could not yet afford to buy the book, though a second-hand copy had been offered him for sixteen shillings. The Governor then exclaimed, "Oh, dear! He shall not want a Juvenal! My dear" (to his wife), "give Mr. Cookesley a guinea, and tell Gifford from me that he shall have his Juvenal, and a little firing to read it by; and tell him, moreover, that I'll make my subscription three guineas annually. Oh, yes, he must have his Juvenal!"
Besides studying Greek and Latin, Gifford learnt French and Spanish while at Oxford. He went through Moliere's plays twice and Voltaire's works once. Cookesley sent him a number of French books to read; in fact, made him a present of them. "I am exceedingly happy," wrote Cookesley to Gifford, in June 1780, "to learn by Mr. Ireland of your well-doing. Indeed, I receive fresh satisfaction each time I hear of you, and begin to grow mighty proud of the honour of patronizing a man whose great merit, gratitude, and prudence more than repay everything that can be bestowed upon him." Gifford was then proceeding with his translation of the 'Satires' of Juvenal, and a correspondence took place between him and Cookesley as to their publication by subscription.
But the noble and self-sacrificing Cookesley was not to know the success of his efforts on behalf of his young protege. In the pursuit of his profession as a country surgeon he caught a severe cold in January 1781, which ended in his death. The intelligence was communicated to Gifford by Mr. Savery.
"Our poor dear friend," he said, "was in perfect health and in his usual high spirits. On Wednesday morning he had a very cold ride to Withycombe, from which he returned with rheumatic complaints in his head and limbs. These hung about him, with some fever, for several days. His mind became much agitated. Dr. Birdwood said his disease was not so dangerous in itself, but that his own fears would destroy him. For he conceived himself to be in danger, and his distress of mind, on account of his family, deprived him totally of his reason. He had no sleep for eight days. At last convulsions seized him; he continued in a dying state till two o'clock on Sunday morning, when the dearest and most beloved of all my friends yielded up his spirit to God who gave it. I saw him in his expiring agonies about an hour and a half before he died. I kissed his dear face, and bathed his cold hands with the tears of friendship. Oh, Gifford! how insensible we are to the blessings of Providence until we lose them! Poor Mrs. Cookesley bears up as well as can be expected. I trust there will be money enough to discharge the debts, but of this I will write to you another time. God will, I trust, raise up many friends for the unhappy family; for myself, I will only say to you, that I should ill deserve to be called a friend to Cookesley if I now omit showing every friendship and giving every assistance to his family in my power. Now, Gifford, I offer you my hearty and sincere friendship. If you cannot find a more proper person, I will undertake your affairs, and receive your subscriptions, and promote your interest by every means we can devise. I will supply your wants as far as I can, and when you think of revisiting Ashburton you shall be as welcome to me as a brother."
In a following letter Mr. Savery informed Gifford that Cookesley had advanced for him between £20 and £30 more than he had received in subscriptions, and that he hoped that he would now proceed with his Juvenal, so that further subscriptions might be obtained. He added—
"With respect to your pecuniary wants, I expect you to use no reserve with me, as I shall always be happy when I can supply them. I wish I could altogether prevent them. I am subject to these kind of wants myself, but I hope I shall always be able to assist you, and that you will in a few years be above the want of assistance of any kind."
It was with inexpressible regret and distress that Gifford heard of the death of his benefactor, whose friendship had, indeed, continued unbroken until the end of his life. "He died," said Gifford, "with a letter of mine unopened in his hand." Gifford was not, however, to remain alone and unbefriended, as a new benefactor soon came to take the place of the one he had lost. Gifford had thus been enabled, by his generous friends' help, to pass through several years of conscientious study at Exeter College, where he completed the entire translation of the 'Satires' of Juvenal. His subsequent career as an author, until he assumed the editorship of the Quarterly, comprising as it did his attack on the Della Cruscan School of Poetry, a clique of Poetasters, including Mrs. Piozzi, Bertie Greathead, and Robert Merry, whom he demolished in the "Baviad" and "Maeviad," two brilliant Satires in imitation of "Persius" and "Horace," is already well-known. The following letter, however, addressed to him by Cobbett, will be read with interest:—
Mr. Wm. Cobbett to Mr. Gifford.
"Philadelphia, October 29th, 1797.
I am this day honoured with your valuable present, the 'Baviad' and 'Maeviad,' and lose not a moment to make you my acknowledgments for it. By a pile of papers, which I shall do myself the honour to forward you by the first vessel going from here to London, you will perceive that two of your small pieces had graced my Gazette previous to the receipt of the 'Baviad' and 'Maeviad'; and, after the high opinion which they had given me of the genius and taste of the author, nothing could have pleased me more than to learn that my honest endeavours had met with his approbation.
"As Merry appears to be one of your favourite heroes, it may, perhaps, be agreeable to you to be informed of his fate in this country. I believe you know that he came hither all in a flame of patriotism. This was soon cooled. This is a very fine country for cooling a British patriot. But before the heat had quite gone off him, he published his 'Pains of Memory,' which, though well larded with yawning interpolations about the 'God-like Washington,' and 'free Columbia,' and 'land of promise rising beyond the Western Main,' and many other republican abominations, notwithstanding all this, and as much puffing as would serve to drive a Flanders windmill, the 'Pains of Memory' are to this day severely experienced by several of my brother booksellers, unfortunately for whom there are here no pastrycook shops, as there are in London.
"Anna Matilda went on the stage; but this is so poor a trade here now, that I am assured it is with the utmost difficulty they can live. The players are a set of strollers; and Merry is the Ragotin of the company. He is now as completely unknown here as if he lived under Matilda's petticoats.
"The only production of the Della Cruscan's pen, since his emigration, you will receive enclosed; and from it you will see his genius is not on the rise. It must, however, be confessed that this is no climate for poetry. The bathos is so entirely adapted to the bias and the powers of the American mind, that no one ever aspires even to what you call doggerel. The first vessel that sails direct from here to London shall carry you some proofs of what I have been here asserting.
"Mr. Wright tells me he is about to publish your translation of Juvenal. May I venture to beg a copy at your hands, Sir; and also of such other works as you have published? Be assured, that I think myself highly honoured by your present, and particularly when I look upon it as a testimony of my having merited the applause of a gentleman of genius and a true Englishman.
I am, Sir, your very devoted Servant,
The Anti-Jacobin was started by Canning and his friends in 1797, and Gifford was eventually appointed the editor. Its principal importance, so far as Gifford was concerned, was, that it brought him into connection with Canning, Frere, and others, and secured for him their friendship. After the termination of the Anti-Jacobin, he proceeded with the completion of his translation of the "Satires" of Juvenal, which he finished and published in 1802. Sir Walter Scott pronounced it to be the best poetical version of a classic in the English language. In 1805, Gifford edited and published an admirable edition of the plays of Massinger; and was proceeding with the works of the other old English dramatists, when he was selected, chiefly at the instance of Canning, as editor of the Quarterly Review; and the exercise of his functions in this important position for many years absorbed nearly the whole of his literary energies.