Mr. Gifford 1
MR. GIFFORD was originally bred to some handicraft. He afterwards contrived to learn Latin, and was for some time an usher in a school, till he became a tutor in a nobleman's family. The low-bred, self-taught man, the pedant, and the dependent on the great, contribute to form the Editor of the Quarterly Review. He is admirably qualified for this situation, which he has held for some years, by a happy combination of defects, natural and acquired; and in the event of his death it will be difficult to provide him a suitable successor.
Mr. Gifford has no pretensions to be thought a man of genius, of taste, or even of general knowledge. He merely understands the mechanical and instrumental part of learning. He is a critic of the last age, when the different editions of an author or the dates of his several performances were all that occupied the inquiries of a profound scholar, and the spirit of the writer or the beauties of his style were left to shift for themselves, or exercise the fancy of the light and superficial reader. In studying an old author, he has no notion of any thing beyond adjusting a point, proposing a different reading, or correcting, by the collation of various copies, an error of the press.
In appreciating a modern one, if it is an enemy, the first thing he thinks of is to charge him with bad grammar: he scans his sentences instead of weighing his sense; or if it is a friend, the highest compliment he conceives it possible to pay him is, that his thoughts and expressions are moulded on some hackneyed model. His standard of ideal perfection is what he himself now is, a person of mediocre literary attainments: his utmost contempt is shown by reducing any one to what he himself once was, a person without the ordinary advantages of education and learning. It is accordingly assumed with much complacency in his critical pages, that Tory writers are classical and courtly as a matter of course, as it is a standing jest and evident truism that Whigs and Reformers must be persons of low birth and breeding, imputations from one of which he himself has narrowly escaped, and both of which he holds in suitable abhorrence. He stands over a contemporary performance with all the self-conceit and self-importance of a country schoolmaster, tries it by technical rules, affects not to understand the meaning; examines the hand-writing, the spelling, shrugs up his shoulders and chuckles over a slip of the pen, and keeps a sharp look-out for a false concord and-a flogging.
There is nothing liberal, nothing humane in his style of judging: it is altogether petty, captious, and literal. The Editor's political subserviency adds the last finishing to his ridiculous pedantry and vanity. He has all his life been a follower in the train of wealth and power, strives to back his pretensions on Parnassus by a place at court, and to gild his reputation as a man of letters by the smile of greatness. He thinks his works are stamped with additional value by having his name in the Red-Book. He looks up to the distinctions of rank and station as he does to those of learning, with the gross and over-weening adulation of his early origin. All his notions are low, upstart, servile. He thinks it the highest honour to a poet to be patronised by a peer or by some dowager of quality. He is prouder of a court-livery than of a laurel-wreath; and is only sure of having established his claims to respectability by having sacrificed those of independence. He is a retainer to the Muses, a door-keeper to learning, a lacquey in the State. He believes that modern literature should wear the fetters of classical antiquity; that truth is to be weighed in the scales of opinion and prejudice; that power is equivalent to right; that genius is dependent on rules; that taste and refinement of language consist in word-catching.
Many persons suppose that Mr. Gifford knows better than he pretends, and that he is shrewd, artful and designing. But perhaps it may be nearer the mark to suppose that his dulness is guarantee for his sincerity, or that, before he is the tool of the profligacy of others, he is the dupe of his own jaundiced feelings and narrow, hoodwinked perceptions.
He would go back to the standard of opinions, style, faded ornaments and insipid formalities that came into fashion about forty years ago. Flashes of thought, flights of fancy, idiomatic expressions, he sets down among the signs of the times, the extraordinary occurrences of the age we live in. They are marks of a restless and revolutionary spirit: they disturb his composure of mind, and threaten (by implication) the safety of the State. His slow, snail-paced, bed-rid habits of reasoning cannot keep up with the whirling, eccentric motion, the rapid, perhaps extravagant combinations of modern literature. He has long been stationary himself, and is determined that others shall remain so. The hazarding a paradox is like letting off a pistol close to his ear: he is alarmed and offended. The using an elliptical mode of expression (such as he did not use to find in Guides to the English Tongue) jars him like coming suddenly to a step in a flight of stairs that you were not aware of. He pishes and pshaws at all this, exercises a sort of interjectional criticism on what excites his spleen, his envy or his wonder, and hurls his meagre anathemas ex cathedrâ at all those writers who are indifferent alike to his precepts and his example!
Mr. Gifford, in short, is possessed of that sort of learning which is likely to result from an over-anxious desire to supply the want of the first rudiments of education: that sort of wit which is the offspring of ill-humour or bodily pain: that sort of sense which arises from a spirit of contradiction and a disposition to cavil at and dispute the opinions of others: and that sort of reputation which is the consequence of bowing to established authority and ministerial influence. He dedicates to some great man, and receives his compliments in return. He appeals to some great name, and the Undergraduates of the two Universities look up to him as an oracle of wisdom. He throws the weight of his verbal criticism and puny discoveries in black-letter reading into the gap, that is supposed to be making in the Constitution by Whig's and Radicals, whom he qualifies without mercy as dunces and miscreants, and so entitles himself to the protection of the Church and State. The character of his mind is an utter want of independence and magnanimity in all that he attempts. He cannot go alone; he must have crutches, a go-cart and trammels, or he is timid, fretful and helpless as a child. He cannot conceive of anything different from what he finds it, and hates those who pretend to a greater reach of intellect or boldness of spirit than himself. He inclines, by a natural and deliberate bias, to the traditional in laws and government, to the orthodox in religion, to the safe in opinion, to the trite in imagination, to the technical in style, to whatever implies a surrender of individual judgment into the hands of authority and a subjection of individual feeling to mechanic rules.
If he finds any one flying in the face of these, or straggling from the beaten path, he thinks he has them at a notable disadvantage, and falls foul of them without loss of time, partly to soothe his own sense of mortified self-consequence, and as an edifying spectacle to his legitimate friends. He takes none but unfair advantages. He twits his adversaries (that is, those who are not in the leading-strings of his school or party) with some personal or accidental defect. If a writer has been punished for a political libel, he is sure to hear of it in a literary criticism. If a lady goes on crutches and is out of favour at court, she is reminded of it in Mr. Gifford's manly satire. He sneers at people of low birth or who have not had a college education, partly to hide his own want of certain advantages, partly as well-timed flattery to those who possess them. He has a right to laugh at poor, unfriended, untitled genius from wearing the livery of rank and letters, as footmen behind a coronet-coach laugh at the rabble. He keeps good company, and forgets himself. He stands at the door of Mr. Murray's shop, and will not let any body pass but the well-dressed mob or some followers of the court. To edge into the Quarterly Temple of Fame the candidate must have a diploma from the Universities, a passport from the Treasury. Otherwise, it is a breach of etiquette to let him pass, an insult to the better sort who aspire to the love of letters, and may chance to drop in to the Feast of the Poets. Or, if he cannot manage it thus, or get rid of the claim on the bare ground of poverty or want of school-learning, he trumps up an excuse for the occasion, such as that 'a man was confined in Newgate a short time before.' It is not a lie on the part of the critic; it is only an amiable subserviency to the will of his betters, like that of a menial who is ordered to deny his master: a sense of propriety, a knowledge of the world, a poetical and moral license. Such fellows (such is his cue from his employers) should at any rate be kept out of privileged places: persons who have been convicted of prose-libels ought not to be suffered to write poetry. If the fact was not exactly as it was stated, it was something of the kind, or it ought to have been so; the assertion was a pious fraud; the public, the court, the prince himself might read the work, but for this mark of opprobrium set upon it. It was not to be endured that an insolent plebeian should aspire to elegance, taste, fancy; it was throwing down the barriers which ought to separate the higher and the lower classes, the loyal and the disloyal. The paraphrase of the story of Dante was therefore to perform quarantine; it was to seem not yet recovered from the gaol infection; there was to be a taint upon it, as there was none in it; and all this was performed by a single slip of Mr. Gifford's pen! We would willingly believe (if we could) that in this case there was as much weakness and prejudice as there was malice and cunning.
Again, we do not think it possible that under any circumstances the writer of the Verses to Anna could enter into the spirit or delicacy of Mr. Keats' poetry. The fate of the latter somewhat resembled that of
It is the same in prose works. The Editor scorns to enter the lists of argument with any proscribed writer of the opposite party. He does not refute, but denounces him. He makes no concessions to an adversary, lest they should in some way be turned against him. He only feels himself safe in the fancied insignificance of others. He only feels himself superior to those whom he stigmatizes as the lowest of mankind. All persons are without common-sense and honesty who do not believe implicitly (with him) in the immaculateness of Ministers and the divine origin of Kings.
Thus he informed the word that the author [Hazlitt] of TABLE-TALK was a person who could not write a sentence of common English, and who could hardly spell his own name, because he was not a friend to the restoration of the Bourbons, and had the assurance to write Characters of Shakespear's Plays in a style of criticism somewhat different from Mr. Gifford's. He charged this writer with imposing on the public by a flowery style; and when the latter ventured to refer to a work of his, called An Essay on the Principles of Human Action, which has not a single ornament in it, as a specimen of his original studies and the proper bias of his mind, the learned critic, with a shrug of great self-satisfaction, said, 'It was amusing to see this person, sitting like one of Brouwer's Dutch boors over his gin and tobacco-pipes, and fancying himself a Leibnitz!' The question was, whether the subject of Mr. Gifford's censure had ever written such a work or not; for if he had, he had amused himself with something besides gin and tobacco-pipes. But our Editor, by virtue of the situation he holds, is superior to facts or arguments: he is accountable neither to the public nor to authors for what he says of them, but owes it to his employers to prejudice the work and vilify the writer, if the latter is not avowedly ready to range himself on the stronger side.
The Quarterly Review, besides the political tirades and denunciations of suspected writers, intended for the guidance of the heads of families, is filled up with accounts of books of Voyages and Travels for the amusement of the younger branches. The poetical department is almost a sinecure, consisting of mere summary decisions and a list of quotations. Mr. Croker is understood to contribute the St. Helena articles and the liberality, Mr. Canning the practical good sense, Mr. D'Israeli the good-nature, Mr. Jacob the modesty, Mr. Southey the consistency, and the Editor himself the chivalrous spirit and the attacks on Lady Morgan. It is a double crime, and excites a double portion of spleen in the Editor, when female writers are not advocates of passive obedience and non-resistance. This journal, then, is a depository for every species of political sophistry and personal calumny. There is no abuse or corruption that do not there find a jesuitical palliation or a bare-faced vindication. There we meet the slime of hypocrisy, the varnish of courts, the cant of pedantry, the cobwebs of the law, the iron hand of power. Its object is as mischievous as the means by which it is pursued are odious. The intention is to poison the sources of public opinion and of individual fame, to pervert literature from being the natural ally of freedom and humanity into an engine of priestcraft and despotism, and to undermine the spirit of the English constitution and the independence of the English character. The Editor and his friends systematically explode every principle of liberty, laugh patriotism and public spirit to scorn, resent every pretence to integrity as a piece of singularity or insolence, and strike at the root of all free inquiry or discussion by running down every writer as a vile scribbler and a bad member of society, who is not a hireling and a slave. No means are stuck at in accomplishing this liable end. Strong in patronage, they trample on truth, justice and decency. They claim the privilege of court favourites. They keep as little faith with the public as with their opponents.
No statement in the Quarterly Review is to be trusted: there is no fact that is not misrepresented in it, no quotation that is not garbled, no character that is not slandered, if it can answer the purposes of a party to do so. The weight of power, of wealth, of rank is thrown into the scale, gives its impulse to the machine; and the whole is under the guidance of Mr. Gifford's instinctive genius -- of the inborn hatred of servility for independence, of dulness for talent, of cunning and impudence for truth and honesty. It costs him no effort to execute his disreputable task; in being the tool of a crooked policy, he but labours in his natural vocation. He patches up a rotten system, as he would supply the chasms in a worm-eaten manuscript, from a grovelling incapacity to do any thing better: thinks that if a single iota in the claims of prerogative and power were lost, the whole fabric of society would fall upon his head and crush him: and calculates that his best chance for literary reputation is by black-balling one half of the competitors as Jacobins and levellers, and securing the suffrages of the other half in his favour as a loyal subject and trusty partisan!
Mr. Gifford, as a satirist, is violent and abrupt. He takes obvious or physical defects, and dwells upon them with much labour and harshness of invective, but with very little wit or spirit. He expresses a great deal of anger and contempt; but you cannot tell very well why, except that he seems to be sore and out of humour. His satire is mere peevishness and spleen, or something worse -- personal antipathy and rancour. We are in quite as much pain for the writer as for the object of his resentment. His address to Peter Pindar is laughable from its outrageousness. He denounces him as a wretch hateful to God and man for some of the most harmless and amusing trifles that ever were written, and the very good humour and pleasantry of which, we suspect, constituted their offence in the eyes of this Drawcansir.
His attacks on Mrs. Robinson were unmanly, and even those on Mr. Merry and the Della-Cruscan School were very much more ferocious than the occasion warranted.4 A little affectation and quaintness of style did not merit such severity of castigation.5 As a translator, Mr. Gifford's version of the Roman satirist is the baldest and, in parts, the most offensive of all others. We do not know why he attempted it, unless he had got it in his head that he should thus follow in the steps of Dryden, as he had already done in those of Pope in the Baviad and Mæviad. As an editor of old authors, Mr. Gifford is entitled to considerable praise for the pains he has taken in revising the text, and for some improvements he has introduced into it. He had better have spared the notes in which, though he has detected the blunders of previous commentators, he has exposed his own ill-temper and narrowness of feeling more. As a critic, he has thrown no light on the character and spirit of his authors. He has shown no striking power of analysis nor of original illustration, though he has chosen to exercise his pen on writers most congenial to his own turn of mind, from their dry and caustic vein -- Massinger and Ben Jonson. What he will make of Marlowe, it is difficult to guess. He has none of 'the fiery quality' of the poet.
Mr. Gifford does not take for his motto on these occasions Spiritus precipitandus est! His most successful efforts in this way are barely respectable. In general, his observations are petty, ill-concocted, and discover as little tact, as they do a habit of connected reasoning. Thus, for instance, in attempting to add the name of Massinger to the list of Catholic poets, our minute critic insists on the profusion of crucifixes, glories, angelic visions, garlands of roses, and clouds of incense scattered through the Virgin-Martyr, as evidence of the theological sentiments meant to be inculcated by the play, when the least reflection might have taught him that they proved nothing but the author's poetical conception of the character and costume of his subject. A writer might, with the same sinister, short-sighted shrewdness, be accused of Heathenism for talking of Flora and Ceres in a poem on the Seasons! [See Thomson.] What are produced as the exclusive badges and occult proofs of Catholic bigotry, are nothing but the adventitious ornaments and external symbols, the gross and sensible language -- in a word, the poetry of Christianity in general. What indeed shows the frivolousness of the whole inference is that Decker, who is asserted by our critic to have contributed some of the most passionate and fantastic of these devotional scenes, is not even suspected of a leaning to Popery. In like manner, he excuses Massinger for the grossness of one of his plots (that of the Unnatural Combat) by saying that it was supposed to take place before the Christian era; by this shallow common-place persuading himself, or fancying he could persuade others, that the crime in question (which yet on the very face of the story is made the ground of a tragic catastrophe) was first made statutory by the Christian religion.
The foregoing is a harsh criticism, and may be thought illiberal. But as Mr. Gifford assumes a right to say what he pleases of others, they may be allowed to speak the truth of him!
1 Hazlitt in this essay writes of William Gifford (1756-1826). Gifford is best known as the first editor of the Quarterly Review. The Quarterly Review, was started in 1809 and was published by John Murray in London with the support of Scott and Southey. It became a powerful forum of Tory opinion. As for Gifford: "he was one-sided, prejudiced, and savagely bitter, and much more influenced in his judgments by the political opinions than by the literary merits of his victims." (Biographical Dictionary -- www.bibliomania.com) Gifford continued on as editor of the Quarterly Review, quite successful in this capacity, until 1824. Dying two years later, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. [Your compiler.]
2 What an awkward bedfellow for a tuft of violets! [Hazlitt's comment.]
3 [Hazlitt's comment:]
4 Gifford first came into notice by the two satires, the Baviad (1794) and the Mæviad (1795), published together in 1797. The Baviad (1794), a satire directed against a certain class of poets, known as the Della Cruscans; the Mæviad was another satire against certain dramatists. The name Della Cruscans, incidently, originally, was the name of an Academy established in early 16th century Italy (Florence) the object being to sift and purify the Italian language; whence its name, and its emblem, a sieve. It was a name, Della Cruscans, which came to be applied to a group of English poets living in Italy at the end of the 18th century. [Your compiler.]
5 [Hazlitt's comment:] Mr. Merry was even with our author in personality of abuse. See his Lines on the Story of the Ape that was given in charge to the ex-tutor.