1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Gifford

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (November-December 1833) 892.



In the vast harm and little good which Jeffrey did to literature, he was aided by WILLIAM GIFFORD, who, if he did not originate, edited for many years the Quarterly Review. He was a man of extensive knowledge; was well acquainted with classic and old English lore; so learned, that he considered all other people ignorant; so wise, that he was seldom pleased with anything; and, as he had not risen to much eminence in the world, he thought no one else was worthy to rise. He almost rivalled Jeffrey in wit, and he surpassed him in scorching sarcasm and crucifying irony. Jeffrey wrote with a sort of levity which induced men to doubt if he were sincere in his strictures: Gifford wrote with an earnest fierceness, which showed the delight which he took in his calling. There was no personal ill-will in what Jeffrey did; he wished to raise a laugh at the author's expense, and provided he said a good thing, he was satisfied: it was otherwise with Gifford; he wrote as if he wrote in contempt of man — as if he had a grudge against the whole human race; he was not content with making the author ridiculous, he desired to make him out a fool, a knave, or an atheist. This was pitiable — an the more so, when we reject on the birth and breeding of the critic. Though once a sea-boy — not on the high and giddy mast, but in a coasting collier; though once a shoemaker — no one who equips the feet with what is elegant and new, but a patching cobbler — he had no sympathy with genius struggling into notice from a condition as humble as his own; — with him Bloomfield was but "the shoemaker;" Burns, "the Scotch ploughman;" and Hogg, a shepherd, whose verses smelt of the surgery of sheep; of Clare, the Northamptonshire peasant, he spoke with unlooked-for-kindness — as the lady in Pope once paid the tradesman, "to make him stare." Though he obtained his learning through the accidental charity of a neighbour, and the almost miraculous bounty of Earl Grosvenor, he had no charity for other struggling scholars: he held out a kindly hand to no one, except when the prosperity of the Quarterly Review, or his own personal predilections, required it. With certain of the old Whigs he lived on the same terms as the giant did with Ulysses in the cave — spared them for the present, resolved, when tenderer food failed, to make them his last regale. But show him a young Whig, who did not pertain to his coterie, presuming to set a foot on Parnassus, then forth came Gifford in his strength. He lay and looked quietly on him with his rattlesnake eyes; moved towards him as if he moved not at all; then dropped suddenly on him, crushed his bones like a boa, and left not a vestige of him in the land. It was sometimes his pleasure to hunt higher game; if he injured genius, he was not slow in exposing ignorance, or in heaping scorn on shallow pretence. The Review abounds with instances of successful and meritorious criticism; there are admirable discussions on old English poetry, and on dramatic literature: there Gifford was in his glory and in his strength.