1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Leigh Hunt, in Feast of the Poets (1814) 57-61 n.



Mr. Gifford is a man of strong natural sense, with such acquired talents, as are apt to impress us with double respect, when their history is connected with early difficulties and an humble origin. The manner in which he has related those difficulties, in the interesting little memoir prefixed to his Juvenal, is calculated to give his readers a regard for him as well as respect; and upon the whole, there is no living author perhaps, who might have enjoyed a more unmingled reputation, of the middle species, than Mr. Gifford. But a vile, peevish temper, the more inexcusable in it's indulgence, because he appears to have had early warning of it's effects, breaks out in every page of his criticism, and only renders his affected grinning the more obnoxious. There is no generosity in his satire: — the merest folly he treats not only with ridicule but resentment; and even a mistake, upon a point which he understands better than some unlucky commentator, is something upon which he thinks himself entitled to be indignant and retributive. I pass over the nauseous Epistle to Peter Pindar, and even the notes to his Baviad, and Maeviad, where though less vulgar in his language, he has a great deal of the pert cant and snip-snap which he deprecates, and wastes a ludicrous quantity of triumph over every poor creature that comes athwart him; but he cannot repress this spirit even upon better men, as may be seen where he differs with his brother commentators on Juvenal; and every decent mind, I believe, has been disgusted with his tiresome, peevish, and useless insults over his precursors, in the explanation of Massinger. Had Mr. Gifford, for his own mistakes only, been treated with the roughness which he has shewn towards, others, he would have had enough to bear; but to visit on him the full return of his temper, would be a severity, as humiliating to a proper satirist, as intolerable to himself.

Our author however does not appear to have carried this enthusiastic impatience of his against all the circles of life, with which his talents have successively made him acquainted. Like his remorseless but at the same time discriminating brother critics, the Suppressors of Vice, his indignation appears to have made a seasonable stop in approaching the higher orders; and thus from a wrathful, personal satirist of vice and folly, he has softened and settled himself into an editor of old dramatists and of government reviews, who is only wrathful in speaking of the objectors to princely vices, and only personal upon dead men or respectable ladies. Let a man have made a mistake upon an old poet fifty years back, and he shall be properly denounced; let Mrs. Barbauld, to whom the rising generation are so much indebted, publish but a poetical opinion in verse, differing with the rulers that are and the opinions that ought to be, and she shall be brought forward with all her poetical sins on her head; — nay, let a married lady give us but an account of her voyage to India in following her husband, and she shall have gone there to get one; — but speak not of "the imputed weaknesses of the great." Princes might formerly have kept mistresses; they might also have discarded them; and these discarded mistresses, if they sinned in rhyme, might be denounced accordingly, even to their rheumatism and their crutches; but no such things are done now, either by princes or by the favourites of princes; speak not of "the imputed weaknesses of the great;" — there were vices at court formerly, — vices in Juvenal's time, — vices even in our own time, when bad poets were going and ladies fell lame, — but now,—talk of no such thing; every prince lives with his wife as he ought to do, keeps the most virtuous company as he always did, and is hailed, of course, wherever he goes, with shouts of a cordial popularity: — the vices, that might reverse such a character, are only "imputed" to him; — to use a pithy and favourite mode of quotation, "There's no such thing!"

With regard to Mr. Gifford's poetical claims, which I had nearly forgotten, he seems to have thought very justly, that the Juvenal required something better than the usual monotonous versification; but in aiming at vigour and variety, he has fallen into no versification at all, and become lame and prosaical. The only approach that he ever made to the poetical character was in some pleasing and even pathetic lines in the notes to his Maeviad, beginning

I wish I was where Anna lies;—

but such lines coming in such a place, in the very thick of petty resentments and vulgar personalities, contradict the better taste that is in them, and give the reader perhaps as distasteful an idea of the author, at the time of life when he inserted them, as any one passage of his writings.