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William Gifford (1756-1826)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1889

William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review, was born in April 1756. He was the son of Edward Gifford, whose great-grandfather had ‘possessed considerable property at Halsbury,’ near Ashburton, Devonshire. Gifford's grandfather was extravagant, and was disinherited or spent what fortune he received. The father was a wild lad who twice ran away from school, first going to sea, and afterwards consorting with Bamfylde Moore Carew, the king of the gipsies. He was then articled to a plumber and glazier, became possessed of two small estates (probably by his father's death), and married Elizabeth Cain, daughter of a carpenter at Ashburton.

He set up in business at South Molton, got into scrapes, and after four or five years escaped from prosecution for a riot in a Methodist chapel by going to sea, where he obtained a position on an armed transport. His wife returned to Ashburton, where William Gifford was soon afterwards born. He was taught reading by a schoolmistress, and learnt old ballads from his mother. In 1764 the father returned with £100 prize-money won at the Havannah. He sold his little property, and set up in business as a glazier. The son was sent to the Ashburton free school, under Hugh Smerdon. Three years later the father died of drink, leaving his widow, with an infant son. She tried to carry on the business, was plundered by her assistants, and died in a year. Her goods were seized by a creditor, ‘C.,’ who was also William's godfather. The infant was sent to the almshouse, and ‘bound to a husbandman.’

William Gifford, when his own prospects improved, did his best to help his brother. The boy was sent to sea, but died soon afterwards. Meanwhile the godfather, C., under the pressure of Ashburton sentiment, which held that he had sufficiently paid himself, sent William Gifford to school, where he began to show taste for arithmetic. C. soon tired of the expense, and sent Gifford to work on a farm. The boy had suffered a permanent injury from an accidental blow on the chest, and was incapable of the labour of ploughing. The godfather then tried to export him to Newfoundland, but he was rejected by an employer on account of his puny frame. He was therefore when about thirteen placed in a small Brixham coaster. He stayed in it for a year, acquired a love of the sea, and had a narrow escape from drowning. At Christmas 1770 his godfather took him back to Ashburton, the Brixham fishermen having spread reports of the child's neglected condition, and again roused Ashburton opinion.

He was once more sent to school, and now began to make rapid progress. He helped the master in teaching other pupils, and aspired to succeed to the mastership, Smerdon being now infirm. The godfather, however, insisted upon binding him apprentice to a shoemaker, his indentures being dated 1 January 1772. Gifford's new master was an ignorant dissenter, whose whole reading was confined to the Exeter Controversy.

Gifford procured a black-letter romance, a few loose magazines, and a Thomas à Kempis. He had also a Treatise on Algebra and managed by stealth to read Fenning's Introduction, belonging to his master's son, from which he got the necessary preparation. He beat out pieces of leather, and worked his problems on them with a blunted awl. He also composed a few rhymes of a satirical kind, and sometimes made sixpence in an evening by reciting them. His master unluckily discovered his occupations and his little store of books, which had been increased by his earnings. He was deprived of his treasures, and ordered to desist from writing. His ambition was crushed by the death of his schoolmaster and the election of another person. He fell into gloom, from which he was roused by the kind attentions of a ‘young woman of his own class.’ William Cookesley, a surgeon in the town, had heard of Gifford's doggerel. He talked to the author, gave him good advice, and got up a subscription to buy the remainder of his term of apprenticeship, and enable him to educate himself. His last eighteen months were thus remitted, his master receiving £6., and he was enabled to study at the school to considerable purpose.

The subscribers paid for another year's schooling, and in 1779 the master (Thomas Smerdon) thought him fit for the university. Cookesley, through a friend, Thomas Taylor of Denbury, procured him a Bible clerkship at Exeter College, Oxford. This, with occasional help from friends, would, it was thought, enable him to get a degree. He matriculated on 16 February 1779, and graduated B.A. on 10 October 1782. He had begun to translate Juvenal.

With the help of Cookesley he sent out proposals (1 January 1781) for publishing the whole by subscription. Cookesley died on 15 January following. Gifford was greatly depressed by the loss of his patron, and found himself unable to continue his translation. He sought relief in the study of other languages, and the college authorities enabled him to take a few pupils. As his spirits revived he again took up the Juvenal, but found it so bad that he resolved to abandon the attempt, and returned as far as he could subscriptions already received. He was corresponding with a Devonshire clergyman, William Peters, to whom he sent letters under cover to Lord Grosvenor. He accidentally omitted Peters's name upon a letter, which was thereupon read by Grosvenor. Grosvenor became interested, and sent for Gifford, who candidly stated that he had ‘no prospects.’ Grosvenor hereupon said that he would be responsible for Gifford's ‘present support and future establishment,’ and until other prospects offered invited the young man to reside with him. Gifford accepted the invitation, became the permanent friend of Grosvenor, and member of his family, acting also as travelling tutor to his son. Two tours upon the continent occupied ‘many years.’

At Grosvenor's house Gifford proceeded with his Juvenal, which, however, did not appear until 1802, when the autobiography from which the preceding facts are taken was given in the preface. Gifford first became known by the two satires, the Baviad (1794) and the Mæviad (1795), published together in 1797. Gifford attacks the so-called Della Cruscans, a small clique of English at Florence, including Mrs. Piozzi, Mr. Merry, and other scribblers, who published poems in a paper called ‘The World’ under such signatures as ‘Anna Matilda.’ They were so silly as to be too small game for satire. The Mæviad also assails some of the small dramatists of the time.

John Williams, author of some discreditable books by ‘Anthony Pasquin,’ prosecuted Gifford in the Michaelmas term of 1797 for a libel contained in a note to the ‘Baviad.’ Gifford's counsel, Garrow, read some passages from Pasquin to the jury, who immediately nonsuited the plaintiff. The trial is reported in the eighth edition of the ‘Baviad’ and ‘Mæviad’ (1811). In 1800 Gifford had a quarrel with a better-known antagonist, John Wolcot, ‘Peter Pindar.’ Wolcot attributed to William Gifford a criticism in the ‘Anti-Jacobin Review’ really written by John Gifford. He assaulted the wrong Gifford, who was entering the shop of his bookseller, Wright (now Hatchard's), but after a brief scuffle was bundled out into the street and rolled in the mud. The affray was celebrated in a mock-heroic ‘Battle of the Bards,’ by ‘Mauritius Moonshine’ (1800).

Taylor (Records of my Life, ii. 279) asserts that he explained the mistake, and that thereupon the combatants exchanged friendly messages. An ‘explanation’ must have been difficult and its results transitory. Gifford published an ‘Epistle to Peter Pindar’ (1800), in the preface to which he endorsed his namesake's attack upon Wolcot (whom he had never previously mentioned), and in which he calls Wolcot an unhappy ‘dotard,’ a ‘brutal sot,’ a ‘miscreant,’ a ‘reptile,’ and an ‘atheist,’ besides giving anecdotes of his cruelty, blasphemy, and debauchery. Wolcot would be afraid of seeking legal redress after the fate of John Williams. He retaliated in various passages in his works, to which it seems rather strange that Gifford should have submitted. Gifford is accused of supplanting his friend Peters with Lord Grosvenor, and of keeping his patron's favour by the basest services. Taylor tells us that Peters quarrelled with Gifford for the reason assigned; but the other imputation is sufficiently discredited by its author's character.

Gifford was becoming known in the political world. In 1797 Canning and his friends were projecting the ‘Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner.’ The illness of Grant, who had been engaged as editor, caused the substitution of Gifford. The paper appeared from 20 November 1797 to 9 July 1798. Gifford wrote in it himself, and became connected with Canning and his distinguished co-operators. After this paper had dropped a monthly magazine called ‘The Anti-Jacobin Review’ was started by John Gifford, but had no connection with its predecessor.

When the Quarterly Review was started, with the concurrence of Canning, Scott, and other eminent tories, Gifford became the editor. The first number appeared in February 1809. Its success is a presumption that he must have had some good qualities as an editor, though he was so well supported that a good start was insured. An imperfect list of the authors of articles in the early numbers is in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1844, 1845 and 1847. Among his most regular contributors were Scott, Southey, Croker, and Barrow. His own contributions seem to have been mainly literary. According to Southey, he looked upon authors as Izaak Walton looked upon worms; something beyond the pale of human sympathy. His rigorous adherence to the old school in literature and his hatred of radicals gave especial bitterness to his judgments of the rising authors. He was probably the author of the famous assault upon Keats's ‘Endymion’ (number dated April 1818, which appeared in September following). His antipathy was repaid in full by the radicals. Hazlitt replied to some attacks in a bitter ‘Letter to W. Gifford’ (1819), part of which was reprinted as an appendix to Leigh Hunt's ‘Ultra-Crepidarius,’ a satire in verse (1823). Byron, however, speaks with exaggerated deference of Gifford, to whom Childe Harold was shown (against the author's wishes) in manuscript, and to whom nearly all the later poems were submitted. Byron always professed to agree in theory, though not in practice, with Gifford's admiration for the old or ‘classical’ school. Southey's frequent references show that Gifford exerted to the utmost the editor's right of altering and interpolating. Southey was frequently so stung by this and by some differences of opinion that he would, he says, have broken off the connection if he could have afforded to do so. Gifford doubtless knew that Southey had good reasons for submission. The first article left unspoilt by Gifford, one phrase excepted, was in November 1821. Gifford was a little man, almost deformed, and had long been full of ailments, which may partly explain his sourness. His health began to break in 1822, but, at Murray's request, he continued to edit the review until the publication of the sixtieth number.

He announces his resignation to Canning on 8 September 1824. His illness had caused the review to be two numbers in arrear. John Taylor Coleridge took his place until Lockhart succeeded in 1825. Gifford died on 31 December 1826, in his house at 6 St. James's Street, and was buried in Westminster Abbey 18 January 1827. He had received at first £200 a year, afterwards raised to £900, for editing the Quarterly Review. He also held a commissionership of the lottery at £100 a year, and was paymaster of the gentlemen-pensioners at £1,000 a year. On 5 March 1826 he acknowledged ‘a splendid and costly proof of affection,’ apparently of a pecuniary nature, presented to him by Canning, in which Lord Liverpool and John Hookham Frere had taken part.

Gifford seems to have been of penurious habits. He left the bulk of his savings, amounting to £25,000, to the Rev. Mr. Cookesley, son of his first patron, the lease of his house to the widow of his friend Hoppner, the painter to whom the ‘Baviad’ was dedicated, other sums to the poor of Ashburton, and £2,000 to found two exhibitions at Exeter College. He also left £3,000 to the relatives of his beloved servant-maid, Ann Davies, who died 6 February 1815, and upon whom he wrote an elegy of which the second line runs, ‘I would I were where Anna lies.’ He was amiable in private life, kind to children, and fond of dogs.

His portrait by Hoppner prefixed to his ‘Juvenal’ is said to be very like him. It is now in the possession of Mr. John Murray. Gifford's works include valuable editions of the old dramatists: Massinger, 1805, 1813; Ben Jonson, 1816; Ford, 1827; his notes upon Shirley were used in Dyce's edition, 1833; and some manuscript notes on Shakespeare are in a copy in the British Museum. The editions have always had a very high reputation for thoroughness and accuracy, and although as a literary critic Gifford was crabbed and strangely wanting in taste, the fault was redeemed by strong common sense.

A second edition of his ‘Juvenal’ appeared in 1817, and a translation of ‘Persius’ in 1821. A reply to strictures of the ‘Critical Review’ upon the ‘Juvenal’ appeared in 1803, and a collection of ‘beauties’ from Gifford's prose and verse, edited by A. Howard, in 1834.

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