1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Cyrus Redding, in Fifty Years' Recollections (1858) 1:68-71.



The appearance of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers," in the return for the attack of the Scotch reviewers upon young Byron, I well remember. The Edinburgh did not make much noise at its first appearance, but grew rapidly into favour. It would have merited unalloyed praise, had it supported liberal principles only, and taken a tone more exalted. Still it had merit in a point difficult to be understood now, from the alterations for the better effected by time. Intense religious bigotry, the judicial bench little better than a tool of the crown; the Test and Corporation Acts in full force, the press enslaved, illiberality and ignorance triumphant, all showed the necessity for a striking advocacy of equal justice and free opinion. It has since had, too, the gratification of seeing the full realization of the principles with which it set out. On the other hand, the "Quarterly" has been doomed to find its most cherished and reiterated opinions erroneous, and its averments falsified over and over. Its prophetic denunciations of national ruin were met by an increase of prosperity. The more extensive its fulminations, the more false they proved on a comparison of the results with the predictions. The prophetic denunciations in this work would make an entertaining volume.

The waste of labour and logic, the assumed egotism, and something like bombast at times, presented no very edifying example in the use of the critical tomahawk upon those literary men who were so unfortunate as not to be able to claim the reviewer's political brotherhood. The first person named as editor, was Dr. Grant, who could not proceed with his duties from an attack of illness. Gifford then undertook a task for which he had from toil the scholarship, the intense virulence from nature, and the vulgarity by early tendencies. He had no scintillation of genius, but was a plodding labourer over books, when not occupied in pushing his fortunes in other ways. How he became tutor of the late Lord Westminster is well known. In his published account of himself, he took care to omit his turf transactions, and his female acquaintances. Weatherby, of racing calendar notoriety, was the chum, at one time, of the tutor of the young nobleman, when he might, at least, he supposed to "affect" strictness. Jockeys and blacklegs were hardly consistent companions for grave tutors. But he was not likely to be over exact in this and other matters within the circle where he made his debut. The patron's house was not a bad locality in which to illustrate Juvenal.

I had a clerk, when I was in Devonshire, named John Colmer. He and Gifford were companions at Ashburton, of which place both were natives. They separated when Gifford left off the contemplative trade of the last, to go to the college, whither his early patron sent him. Whenever Colmer came to town, for he had been in trade, he used to go and see his old crony. I questioned Colmer as to his knowledge of any female sent down to Ashburton to school by Gifford. He replied in the affirmative, which decided in my mind all I had heard.

What I learned from Colmer, who did not at all suspect the drift of my questions, had better pass into oblivion.

The coarse mind of Gifford, infused fear into many writers, lest he should mangle them in the "Quarterly." Gifford was the very antipode of anything poetical, while affecting to be a poet. His love of arithmetic and the betting-book, were hardly consistent with such an affectation. Byron, a peer, so abused by the "Edinburgh," though not a Tory, obtained the support of Gifford in the "Quarterly," besides that, Murray, the bookseller, owned the "Review." Gifford flattered Byron, and the latter in return, handed over his beautiful verses in MS., for Gifford's "experienced" correction. The critic made such ridiculous, antipoetic work of it, that Byron could not put up with the emendations, and in his teeth fortunately kept to his first text. Byron wrote:—

When all is past it is humbling to tread,
O'er the weltering field, of the tombless dead!

Gifford cobbled these lines as follows:—

O'er the weltering limbs of the tombless dead!

Again, at the passage:—

All regarding men as their prey,
All rejoicing in his decay,
Follow his frame from the bier to the dust.

he omitted the couplet:—

Out upon time! it will leave no more
Of the things to come than the things before!

It is then clear, that the Cannings, Freres, Milmans, Crokers, and other men of talent who contributed, elevated the "Review," not its editor. Some of the scholarship notices are excellent. A selection of these in three or four volumes, from the mass of high-flown rubbish, and falsified prophecies of national ruin, would be most useful. In its classical articles, the "Review" as far outshone the "Edinburgh" as the "Edinburgh" outshone the "Quarterly" in the truth of its political predictions, and that advocacy of improvement and reform for which its reputation is imperishable.

But I digress. The above subject seems to me not a week old. Time carries no scale of the distances of its spoliations; the more remote often appearing the more approximate.