The ultracrepidarian translator of Juvenal

Lackington was no revolutionary, but his subversion of the classical motto, like Woodhouse’s, reflects the defiant spirit of early 19th-century Britain. Only a few years later, the motto was mobilised against a former shoemaker named William Gifford (1756-1826) (Figure 20.5). Now a famous literary critic and editor of the Tory literary journal, The Quarterly Review, in an 1819 open letter from the radical Whig writer of Dissenting background, William Hazlitt, Gifford was dubbed an ‘ultracrepidarian critic’. The letter begins

Sir, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you if it. You say what you please of others: it is time you were told what you are.

William Gifford (1756—1826) by John Hoppner (1810), reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London

FIGURE 20.5 William Gifford (1756—1826) by John Hoppner (1810), reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Hazlitt calls Gifford ‘a little person, but a considerable cat’s-paw’, because he has become the willing instrument of the Tory right.44 He is the ‘Government critic’ and thus the supporter of the interests of the landed gentry and the Anglican clergy—in modern terms, a class traitor.

Leigh Hunt had long been an outspoken enemy of Gifford, rejecting him from his Feast o f Poets (1814). He released a poem called Ultra-Crepidarius: A Satire on William Gifford (1823). The middle-class Hunt avoids stressing Gifford’s earlier lowliness: ‘Nothing can be more foreign from my purpose than to treat it with contempt for its own sake ... What are called low origins and high origins are equally, to me, matters of indifference’.4’ Hunt attacks him for ‘treating the community from which [he] sprung with scorn, and helping to deliver them into the hands of their taskmasters’,46 along with his misogyny and party politics. In The Baviad (1810), Gifford lampoons the disability of the much-loved ‘Della Cruscan’ poet Mary Robinson, who suffered from rheumatism in her final years:

See Robinson forget her state, and move

On crutches towards the grave, to “Light o’ Love”.47

Robinson had given up her stage career when the Prince Regent had pestered her amorously. Long after she turned her coat from Radical Whig to Tory, like Wordsworth, Hunt defended her on egalitarian grounds.48

The ‘ultracrepidating’ Gifford seized the most rigorous classical education available, and rose to a position from which he sniped at almost everything that moved. The son of a sporadically employed seaman, plumber, house-painter and glazier, Gifford was born in Ashburton, Devon. Until he reached the age of seven, Gifford’s father was absent, having fled to sea after inciting a riot in a Methodist chapel, but his mother managed to send him to school, where he learned to read. Gifford’s father died of drink;49 and he was orphaned at 12 when his mother followed her husband to the grave the following year.

Gifford’s godfather sent him to drive the plough. After a day, he swore never to return to it. He was not cut out for farm work, being small and having been injured in the chest as a child. He was tried out in a store-house, then found a place on a Torbay fishing boat, before working as a ship-boy on a coaster. Fortunately, family friends discovered his plight, returned him to his native village and (importantly) to school.50 He wanted to become a teacher, and at 15 was more than qualified, but instead he was apprenticed to a Presbyterian shoemaker. He loved algebra, but lacked writing materials; this developed his memory, since at work he used a blunted awl to make only the most essential notes from concealed books on a thin scrap of leather?1

His master confiscated the algebra books he subsidised by reciting poems he composed. But a surgeon named William Cookesley showed an interest in the cobbler’s talented apprentice. He drew up a subscription to buy out Gifford’s remaining apprenticeship for six pounds and send him back to school.52 In two years and two months he was declared ‘fit for university’; his schoolmaster, Mr Smerdon, once Gifford had shown an aptitude for Latin and Greek, set him to translation:

I do not know a single school-book, of which I did not render some portion into English verse. Among others, JUVENAL engaged my attention, or rather my master’s, and I translated the tenth satire for a holyday task. Mr Smerdon was much pleased with this, (I was not undelighted with it myself;) and as I was now fond of the author, he easily persuaded me to proceed with him, and I translated in succession the third, the fourth, the twelfth, and I think the eighth satires.53

Cookesley helped him find a subsidised position at Exeter College, Oxford, and he also did some tutoring. In 1781 a subscription was put out for his verse translation of the satires of Juvenal and Persius, which made his name when published in 1802. It became the primary route of access to Roman satire for English readers for over a century. Its commercial edition was published in 1803, a second edition following in 1804 and its popularity exploded when it was printed alongside a prose version in Bohn’s Classical Library (1852). It was repackaged once more in Joseph Malaby Dent and Ernest Rhys’ Everyman edition (1902). A shoemaker who leapt across class boundaries but despised his class, Gifford might have been surprised that his vibrant, learned and accessible translations opened up Roman satire to generations of non-classically educated readers.

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