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[THE history of men who have overleaped "poverty's unconquerable bar" is always interesting. It is most interesting when they are their own historians. William Gifford, a friendless orphan, a shoemaker's ill-used apprentice, who came to be looked up to by the learned and the great as a scholar and a critic, has told his own tale with a manly frankness that does the highest honour to his character. Perhaps this little piece of autobiography, which was prefixed to his translation of Juvenal in 1802, will be the most enduring thing he has written. He was a decided political partizan, and as the editor of the Quarterly Review,' was too apt to forget that there are higher and better things than the power of satirizing and defaming writers of opposite politics. Mr. Gifford was born in 1757; died in 1826.]

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I was not quite thirteen when this happened [the death of his widowed mother]; my little brother was hardly two; and we had not a relation nor a friend in the world. Every thing that was left was seized by a person of the name of Carlile, for money advanced to my mother. It may be supposed that I could not dispute the justice of his claims; and, as no one else interfered, he was suffered to do as he liked. My little brother was sent to the alms-house, whither his nurse followed him out of pure affection; and I was taken to the house of the person I have just mentioned, who was also my godfather. Respect for the opinion of the town (which, whether correct or not, was that he had amply repaid himself by the sale of my mother's effects) induced him to send me again to school, where I was more diligent than before, and more successful. I grew fond of arithmetic, and my master began to distinguish me; but these golden days were over in less than three months. Carlile sickened at the expense; and as the people were now indifferent to my fate he looked round for an opportunity of ridding himself of a useless charge. He had previously attempted to engage me in the drudgery of husbandry. I drove the plough for one day to gratify him; but I left it with the resolution to do so no more, and in despite of his threats and promises adhered to my determination. In this I was guided no less by necessity than will. During my father's life, in attempting to clamber up a table, I had fallen backwards, and drawn it after me; its edge fell upon my breast, and I never recovered the effects of the blow, of which I was made extremely sensible on any extraordinary exertion. Ploughing, therefore, was out of the question; and, as I have already said, I utterly refused to follow it.

As I could write and cypher, (as the phrase is,) Carlile next thought of sending me to Newfoundland to assist in a storehouse. For this purpose he negociated with a Mr. Holdsworthy of Dartmouth, who agreed to fit me out. I left Ashburton with little expectation of seeing it again, and indeed with little care, and rode with my godfather to the dwelling of Mr. Holdsworthy. On seeing me, this great man observed, with a look of pity and contempt, that I was "too small," and sent me away sufficiently mortified. I expected to be very ill received by my godfather, he said nothing. He did not, however, choose to take me back himself, but sent me in a passage-boat to Totness, from whence I was to walk home. On the passage the boat was driven by a midnight storm on the rocks, and I escaped almost by miracle, 1ST QUARTER.




My godfather had now humbler views for me, and I had little heart to resist any thing. He proposed to send me on board one of the Torbay fishing-boats; I ventured, however, to remonstrate against this, and the matter was compromised by my consenting to go on board a coaster. A coaster was speedily found for me at Brixham, and thither I went when little more than thirteen.

My master whose name was Full, though a gross and ignorant was not an illnatured man at least, not to me; and my mistress used me with unvarying kindness, moved perhaps by my weakness and tender years. In return I did what I could to requite her, and my good-will was not overlooked.

Our vessel was not very large, nor our crew very numerous. On ordinary occasions, such as short trips to Dartmouth, Plymouth, &c., it consisted only of my master, an apprentice nearly out of his time, and myself: when we had to go farther, to Portsmouth for example, an additional hand was hired for the voyage.

In this vessel (the Two Brothers) I continued nearly a twelvemonth; and here I got acquainted with nautical terms, and contracted a love for the sea, which a lapse of thirty years has but little diminished.

It will be easily conceived that my life was a life of hardship. I was not only a "ship-boy on the high and giddy mast," but also in the cabin, where every menial office fell to my lot; yet, if I was restless and discontented, I can safely say it was not so much on account of this, as of my being precluded from all possibility of reading; as my master did not possess, nor do I recollect seeing during the whole time of my abode with him, a single book of any description, except the 'Coasting Pilot.'

As my lot seemed to be cast, however, I was not negligent in seeking such information as promised to be useful; and I therefore frequented, at my leisure hours, such vessels as dropped into Torbay. On attempting to get on board one of these, which I did at midnight, I missed my footing, and fell into the sea. The floating away of the boat alarmed the man on deck, who came to the ship's side just in time to see me sink. He immediately threw out several ropes, one of which providentially (for I was unconscious of it) entangled itself about me, and I was drawn up to the surface, till a boat could be got round. The usual methods were taken to recover me, and I awoke in bed the next morning, remembering nothing but the horror I felt when I first found myself unable to call out for assistance.

This was not my only escape, but I forbear to speak of them. An escape of another kind was, now preparing for me, which deserves all my notice, as it was decisive of my future fate.

On Christmas Day (1770) I was surprised by a message from my godfather, saying that he had sent a man and horse to bring me to Ashburton, and desiring me to set out without delay. My master, as well as myself, supposed it was to spend the holidays there, and he therefore made no objection to my going. We were, however, both mistaken.

Since I had lived at Brixham I had broken off all connection with Ashburton. I had no relation there but my poor brother, who was yet too young for any kind of correspondence; and the conduct of my godfather towards me did not entitle him to any portion of my gratitude or kind remembrance. I lived, therefore, in a sort of sullen independence on all I had formerly known, and thought without regret of being abandoned by every one to my fate. But I had not been overlooked. The women of Brixham, who travelled to Ashburton twice a week with fish, and who had known my parents, did not see me, without kind concern, running about the beach in a ragged jacket and trowsers. They mentioned this to the people of Ashburton, and never without commiserating my change of condition. This tale, often repeated.

awakened at length the pity of their auditors, and, as the next step, their resentment against the man who had brought me to such a state of wretchedness. In a large town this would have had but little effect; but in a place like Ashburton, where every report speedily becomes the common property of all the inhabitants, it raised a murmur which my godfather found himself either unable or unwilling to encounter; he therefore determined to recall me, which he could easily do, as I wanted some months of fourteen and was not yet bound.

All this I learned on my arrival; and my heart, which had been cruelly shut up, now opened to kinder sentiments and fairer views.

After the holidays, I returned to my darling pursuit, arithmetic: my progress was now so rapid, that in a few months I was at the head of the school, and qualified to assist my master (Mr. E. Furlong) on any extraordinary emergency. As he usually gave me a trifle on those occasions, it raised a thought in me, that, by engaging with him as a regular assistant, and undertaking the instruction of a few evening scholars, I might, with a little additional aid, be enabled to support myself. God knows my ideas of support at this time were of no very extravagant nature. I had, besides another object in view. Mr. Hugh Smerdon (my first master) was now grown old and infirm; it seemed unlikely that he should hold out above three or four years; and I fondly flattered myself that, notwithstanding my youth, I might possibly be appointed to succeed him. I was in my fifteenth year when I built these castles; a storm, however, was collecting, which unexpectedly burst upon me and swept them all away.

On mentioning my little plan to Carlile he treated it with the utmost contempt, and told me, in his turn, that as I had learned enough, and more than enough, at school, he must be considered as having fairly discharged his duty (so, indeed, he had); he added, that he had been negociating with his cousin, a shoemaker of some respectability, who had liberally agreed to take me without a fee as an apprentice. I was so shocked at this intelligence that I did not remonstrate, but went in sullenness and silence to my new master, to whom I was soon after bound till I should attain the age of twenty-one.

The family consisted of four journeymen, two sons about my own age, and an apprentice somewhat older. In these there was nothing remarkable; but my master was the strangest creature. He was a Presbyterian, whose reading was entirely confined to the small tracts published on the Exeter controversy. As these (at least his portion of them) were all on one side, he entertained no doubt of their infallibility, and, being noisy and disputatious, was sure to silence his opponents; and became, in consequence of it, intolerably arrogant and conceited. He was not, however, indebted solely to his knowledge of the subject for his triumph; he was possessed of 'Fenning's Dictionary,' and he made a most singular use of it. His custom was to fix on any word in common use, and then to get by heart the synonym or periphrasis by which it was explained in the book; this he constantly substituted for the simple term, and, as his opponents were commonly ignorant of his meaning, his victory was complete.

With such a man I was not likely to add much to my stock of knowledge, small as it was; and, indeed, nothing could well be smaller. At this period I had read nothing but a black-letter romance, called 'Parismus and Parimenus,' and a few loose magazines which my mother had brought from South Molton. With the Bible, indeed, I was well acquainted; it was the favourite study of my grandmother, and reading it frequently with her had impressed it strongly on my mind: these, then, with the 'Imitation of Thomas à Kempis,' which I used to read to my mother on her death-bed, constituted the whole of my literary acquisitions.

As I hated my new profession with a perfect hatred, I made no progress in it

and was consequently little regarded in the family, of which I sank by degrees into the common drudge: this did not much disquiet me, for my spirits were now humbled. I did not, however, quite resign my hope of one day succeeding to Mr. Hugh Smerdon, and therefore secretly prosecuted my favourite study at every interval of leisure.

These intervals were not very frequent; and, when the use I made of them was found out, they were rendered still less so. I could not guess the motives for this at first; but at length I discovered that my master destined his youngest son for the situation to which I aspired.

I possessed at this time but one book in the world: it was a treatise on algebra, given me by a young woman, who had found it in a lodging-house. I considered it as a treasure; but it was a treasure locked up; for it supposed the reader to be well acquainted with simple equation, and I knew nothing of the matter. My master's son had purchased 'Fenning's Introduction:' this was precisely what I wanted; but he carefully concealed it from me, and I was indebted to chance alone for stumbling upon his hiding-place. I sat up for the greatest part of several nights successively, and, before he suspected that his treatise was discovered, had completely mastered it. I could now enter upon my own; and that carried me pretty far into the science.

This was not done without difficulty. I had not a farthing on earth, nor a friend to give me one: pen, ink, and paper, therefore (in despite of the flippant remark of Lord Orford), were, for the most part, as completely out of my reach as a crown and sceptre. There was, indeed, a resource; but the utmost caution and secrecy were necessary in applying to it. I beat out pieces of leather as smooth as possible, and wrought my problems on them with a blunted awl; for the rest, my memory was tenacious, and I could multiply and divide by it to a great extent.

Hitherto I had not so much as dreamed of poetry—indeed, I scarcely knew it by name; and, whatever may be said of the force of nature, I certainly never “lisped in numbers." I recollect the occasion of my first attempt: it is, like all the rest of my non-adventures, of so unimportant a nature, that I should blush to call the attention of the idlest reader to it, but for the reason alleged in the introductory paragraph. A person, whose name escapes me, had undertaken to paint a sign for an ale-house; it was to have been a lion, but the unfortunate artist produced a dog. On this awkward affair one of my acquaintance wrote a copy of what we called verse: I liked it; but fancied I could compose something more to the purpose: I made the experiment, and, by the unanimous suffrage of my shop-mates, was allowed to have succeeded. Notwithstanding this encouragement, I thought no more of verse till another occurrence, as trifling as the former, furnished me with a fresh subject and thus I went on till I had got together about a dozen of them. Certainly, nothing on earth was ever so deplorable; such as they were, however, they were talked of in my little circle, and I was sometimes invited to repeat them even out of it. I never committed a line to paper, for two reasons; first, because I had no paper; and secondly—perhaps I might be excused from going farther—but in truth I was afraid, as my master had already threatened me, for inadvertently hitching the name of one of his customers into a rhyme.


The repetitions of which I speak were always attended with applause, and sometimes with favours more substantial: little collections were now and then made, and I have received sixpence in an evening. To one who had long lived in the absolute want of money, such a resource seemed a Petavian mine: I furnished myself by degrees with paper, &c., and, what was of more importance, with books of geometry, and of the higher branches of algebra, which I cautiously concealed. Poetry, even at this time, was no amusement of mine: it was subservient to other purposes;

and I only had recourse to it when I wanted money for my mathematical pursuits. But the clouds were gathering fast: my master's anger was raised to a terrible pitch by my indifference to his concerns, and still more by the reports which were daily brought to him of my presumptuous attempts at versification. I was required to give up my papers, and when I refused, my garret was searched, and my little hoard of books discovered and removed, and all future repetitions prohibited in the strictest manner.

This was a very severe stroke, and I felt it most sensibly: it was followed by another, severer still-a stroke which crushed the hopes I had so long and so fondly cherished, and resigned me at once to despair. Mr. Hugh Smerdon, on succeeding whom I had calculated, died, and was succeeded by a person not much older than myself, and certainly not so well qualified for the situation.

I look back on that part of my life which immediately followed this event with little satisfaction; it was a period of gloom and savage unsociability: by degrees I sunk into a kind of corporeal torpor; or, if roused into activity by the spirit of youth, wasted the exertion in splenetic and vexatious tricks, which alienated the few acquaintances which compassion had yet left me. So I crept on in silent discontent, unfriended and unpitied, indignant at the present, careless of the future, an object at once of apprehension and dislike.

From this state of abjectness I was raised by a young woman of my own class. She was a neighbour; and whenever I took my solitary walk, with my 'Wolfius' in my pocket, she usually came to the door, and by a smile, or a short question put in the friendliest manner, endeavoured to solicit my attention. My heart had been long shut to kindness, but the sentiment was not dead in me: it revived at the first encouraging word; and the gratitude I felt for it was the first pleasing sensation which I had ventured to entertain for many dreary months.

Together with gratitude, hope, and other passions still more enlivening, took place of that uncomfortable gloominess which so lately possessed me: I returned to my companions, and by every winning art in my power strove to make them forget my former repulsive ways. In this I was not unsuccessful; I recovered their good-will, and by degrees grew to be somewhat of a favourite.

My master still murmured, for the business of the shop went on no better than before I comforted myself, however, with the reflection that my apprenticeship was drawing to a conclusion, when I determined to renounce the employment for ever, and to open a private school.

In this humble and obscure state, poor beyond the common lot, yet flattering my ambition with day-dreams which perhaps would never have been realized, I was found in the 20th year of my age by Mr. William Cookesley, a name never to be pronounced by me without veneration. The lamentable doggerel which I have already mentioned, and which had passed from mouth to mouth among people of my own degree, had by some accident or other reached his ear, and given him a curiosity to inquire after the author.


It was my good fortune to interest his benevolence. My little history was not untinctured with melancholy, and I laid it fairly before him his first care was to console; his second, which he cherished to the last moment of his existence, was to relieve and support me.

Mr. Cookesley was not rich: his eminence in his profession, which was that of a surgeon, procured him, indeed, much employment; but in a country town men of science are not the most liberally rewarded: he had, besides, a very numerous family, which left him little for the purposes of general benevolence: that little, however, was cheerfully bestowed, and his activity and zeal were always at hand to support the deficiencies of his fortune.

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