1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 248.



Gifford (1756-1826) was a native of Ashburton, in Devonshire. His parents were poor, and at thirteen he was a penniless orphan. His godfather first sent him to sea as a cabin-boy in a coasting-vessel, and then apprenticed him to a shoemaker. He was a lad of eager intellect, with a taste for verse and mathematics. Through the efforts of a Mr. Cookesley, he was placed at school, and when twenty-two years old was sent to Oxford. In 1791 he wrote The Baviad, a satire ridiculing some of the small poets of the day, who, under the signatures of Anna Matilda, Edwin, Orlando, Della Crusca, etc., gained a transient notoriety. The game was hardly worth the candle; but the satire was read and praised, and had a transient reputation. The name of Bavius for a dunce is taken from Virgil's line: "Qui Bavium non odit amet tua carmina, Maevi." The Maeviad followed The Baviad, but is inferior to it in spirit. Gifford attacked Wolcot in an Epistle to Peter Pindar, and Wolcot replied with A Cut at a Cobbler. This led to a personal collision, in which Gifford would have got the worse of it but for the interference of a bulky Frenchman who happened to be present, and who turned Wolcot out of the reading-room, where the scene occurred, into the street, throwing his wig and cane after him.

Gifford's "small but sinewy intellect," it has been said, "was well employed in bruising the butterflies of the Della Cruscan school." He afterward edited the Anti-Jacobin (see "Canning"), translated Juvenal, and in 1808 became editor of the Quarterly Review, in which he labored to keep alive among the English aristocracy a feeling of dislike toward the United States. As a literary critic, he was merciless and bitter. Southey says of him: "He had a heart full of kindness for all living creatures except authors; them he regarded as a fishmonger regards eels, or as Izaak Walton did slugs, worms, and frogs." Gifford seems to have had a tender place in his heart for Ann Davies, a faithful attendant who died in his service, and in whose memory he wrote some pathetic, but rather faulty and commonplace lines, entitled "The Grave of Anna." As a poet his claims to remembrance are very slender.