LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
The Three Asses.—Mr. Gifford.
The Examiner  No. 731  (6 January 1822)  4.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH


No. 731. SUNDAY, Jan. 6, 1822.


In the last number of the Quarterly Review, the Editor, wishing, we suppose, to be thought in a sportive mood while entering on a notice of Mr. Hazlitt’s Table-Talk,—intimates, that if Apollo should occasionally condescend to grace his study with his presence, he might not perhaps be ill-entertained; since it is odds but he found him occupied in his favourite amusement, the sacrifice of Asses—Hone, Hunt, Hazlitt, and others.

As Messrs. Hone, Hunt, and Hazlitt, are fortunately not at all deficient in the means of reply, the writer of this article has no intention to attempt to do that for them, which they are so much more capable of doing for themselves; yet there are one or two matters he chooses to strike upon, which may chance to throw out a little light upon Mr. Gifford’s gloomy endeavour at pleasantry.

And first of Ass the First, Wm. Hone—he assuredly must be allowed to be a very singular specimen of the race, partaking little of the dull, submissive, bearing-burthen character of the long-eared tribe, or he never could have caused by his movements such a hubbub and alarm among all the reverend and irreverend orthodox animals in Church and State. He most certainly cannot be of the patient and half-starved breed of English asses, but must rather be able to boast of his sprightly and vigorous Spanish blood; or perhaps, which is still more likely, he may be one of the Zebra or “Queen’s ass” tribe,—a wild and hitherto untameable race, as we all know. If these suppositions will not satisfy the inquiring naturalist, he may consult some of the hundred thousand purchasers of the House that Jack Built, the Matrimonial Ladder, and the Slap at Slop, who may possibly be better able to decide upon the breed and merits of this frolicsome, high-mettled, independent, and not-to-be-ridden beast.

Of Leigh Hunt, by the grace of Wm. Gifford and John Murray, Ass the Second—it will be sufficient to observe here, that besides his stubborn consistency in labouring all his life on the dangerous and difficult road of reform, and his uncourtly and not-to-be-repressed habit of now and then throwing out his hinder legs at Kings and Ministers, and the tools of Kings and Ministers, he not only had the audacity to pour forth divers sounds in the indignant ears of the aforesaid Gifford (see below)—but,—O damnable and never-to-be-forgotten offence!—he even refused to comply with the earnest and repeated request of the above-mentioned Murray, to bray in the Quarterly “on his own terms;”—a refusal which appears to have excited the animosity of all the inky animals, who feed at the table and growl and bite in the service of the aforesaid John.

Of Ass the Third, Wm Hazlitt—we know not whether he too may not have given unpardonable offence by refusing to labour for Gifford and Co.; but this we do know, that there is quite enough in his animated Letter to that courtly Editor, to account for all the gall “which is much,” as Sly says, that is now constantly poured out upon his admirable writings, without looking for the other causes of hatred on the part of such opponents, which are so easily to be found in his consistent, earnest, and able exertions in behalf of oppressed humanity. But while Mr. Gifford persists in his endeavours to depreciate the literary powers of Mr. Hazlitt, it would be as well if he did not suffer his fear and envy and hatred of him to overcome his discretion so far, as to induce him to repeat his malignant insinuations respecting that gentleman’s private habits. “We have in another place” says Mr. G. “intreated Mr. Hazlitt to stick to his pipe and his pot.” Now who would not suppose from this, that Mr. Hazlitt was a mere pot-companion,—a smoker and a sot? Yet he has not a single friend who does not know that he is neither the one nor the other—that, in fact, he never did smoke, and that he has been for years a drinker of water only.—If, as the Poet says, white hairs ill become a fool and jester, how much more unseemly do they appear upon the head of a falsifier and a slanderer?

From “the Feast of the Poets.” 1814.
A hem was then heard, consequential and snapping,
And a sour little gentleman walk’d with a rap in.
He bow’d, look’d about him, seem’d cold, and sat down,
And said, “I’m surpris’d that you’ll visit this town:—
To be sure, there are two or three of us who know you,
But as for the rest, they are all much below you.
So stupid in gen’ral the natives are grown,
They really prefer Scotch Reviews to their own;
So that what with their taste, their reformers, and stuff,
They have sicken’d myself and my friends long enough.”
“Yourself and your friends,” cried the God, in high glee,
“And pray, my frank visitor, who may you be?”
“Who be!” cried the other, “why really—this tone—
William Gifford’s a name, I think, pretty well known.”
“Oh—now I remember,” said Phœbus—“ah, true—
My thanks to that name are undoubtedly due:
The rod that got rid of the Cruscas and Lauras,—
That plague of the butterflies,—sav’d me the horrors;
The Juvenal too stops a gap in one’s shelf,
At least, in what Dryden has not done himself;
And there’s something, which even distaste must respect,
In the self-taught example that conquer’d neglect.
But not to insist on the recommendations
Of modesty, wit, and a small stock of patience,
My visit, just now, is to poets alone,
And not to small critics, however well known.”
So saying, he rang, to leave nothing in doubt;
And the sour little gentleman bless’d himself out.
* Mr. Gifford is a man of strong natural sense, with such acquired talents as are apt to impress us with double respect, when their history is connected with early difficulties and an humble origin. The manner in which he has related those difficulties
in the interesting little memoir prefixed to his Juvenal, is calculated to give his readers a regard for him as well as respect; and, upon the whole, there is no living author, perhaps, who might have enjoyed a more unmingled reputation, of the middle species, than Mr. Gifford. But a vile, peevish temper, the more inexcusable in its indulgence, because he appears to have had early warning of its effects, breaks out in every page of his criticism, and only renders his affected grinning the more obnoxious. There is no generosity in his satire: the merest folly he treats not only with ridicule but resentment; and even a mistake, upon a point which he understands better than some unlucky commentator, is something upon which he thinks himself entitled to be indignant and retributive. I pass over the nauseous Epistle to Peter Pindar, and even the notes to his Baviad and Mæviad, where, though less vulgar in his language, he has a great deal of the pert cant and snip-snap which he deprecates, and wastes a ludicrous quantity of triumph over every poor creature that comes athwart him; but he cannot repress this spirit even upon better men, as may be seen where he differs with his brother commentators on Juvenal; and every decent mind, I believe, has been disgusted with his tiresome, peevish, and useless insults over his precursors in the explanation of Massinger. Had Mr. Gifford, for his own mistakes only, been treated with the roughness which he as shown towards others, he would have had enough to bear; but to visit on him the full return of his temper, would be a severity as humiliating to a proper satirist, as intolerable to himself.
Our author does not appear to have carried this enthusiastic impatience of his against all the circles of life with which his talents have successively made him acquainted. Like his remorseless but at the same time discriminating brother critics, the Suppressors of Vice, his indignation appears to have made a seasonable stop in approaching the Higher Orders; and thus, from a wrathful, personal satirist of vice and folly, he has softened and settled himself into an Editor of old Dramatists and of Government Reviews, who is only wrathful in speaking of the objectors to Princely Vices, and only personal upon dead men and respectable ladies. Let a man have made a mistake upon an old poet fifty years back, and he shall be properly denounced: let Mrs. Barbauld, to whom the rising generation are so much indebted, publish but a political opinion in verse, differing from the Rulers that are and the opinions that ought to be, and she shall be brought forward with all her poetical sins on her head:—nay, let a married lady give us but an account of her voyage to India in following her husband, and she shall have gone there to get one:—but speak not of “the imputed weaknesses of the Great.” Princes might formerly have kept mistresses; they might also have discarded them; and these discarded mistresses, if they sinned in rhyme, might be denounced accordingly, even to their rheumatism and their crutches;—but no such things are done now, either by Princes or the favourites of Princes:—speak not of “the imputed weaknesses of the Great:”—there were vices at Court formerly,—vices in Juvenal's time,—vices even in our own time, when bad poets were going and ladies fell lame; but now—talk of no such thing; every Prince lives with his wife as he ought to do, keeps the most virtuous company as he always did, and is hailed of course wherever he goes with shouts of a cordial popularity:—the vices that might reverse such a character are only “imputed” to him:—to use a pithy and favourable mode of quotation, “there is no such thing!”
With regard to Mr. Gifford's poetical claims, which I had nearly forgotten, he seems to have thought very justly, that the Juvenal required something better than the usual monotonous versification; but in aiming at vigour and variety, he has fallen into no versification at all, and become lame and prosaical. The only approach that he ever made to the poetical character, was in some pleasing and even pathetic lines in the notes to the Mæviad, beginning,
"I wish I was where Anna lies;"
but such lines coming in such a place, in the very thick of petty resentments and vulgar personalities, contradict the better taste that is in them, and give the reader perhaps as distasteful an idea of the author, at the time of life when he inserted them, as any one passage of his writings.