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NOTICES OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS
WILLIAM CLIFTON was the son of a wealthy mechanic of Philadelphia, and was born in that city in 1772.
From infancy his health was feeble and precarious, and like most weakly children, particularly those who have a constitutional tendency to consumption, he displayed a premature vivacity and quickness of mind. His parents were of the stricter order of quakers, and he was brought up in the manners and principles of that sect. He was not educated with a view to any particular profession, but from very early youth discovered a strong attachment to elegant literature, and an ardent curiosity for every kind of liberal knowledge. At the age of nineteen, the rupture of a blood-vessel rendered his constitution so exceedingly infirm, as in a very great degree to disqualify him from mixing in the turmoil of the world, and altogether to debar him from any of the regular pursuits of business, or of professional life. From that period he continued to reside in his father's family, assiduously employed, though with frequent interruptions from disease and debility, in literary studies and the general cultivation of his mind. Endowed by nature with quick sensibility and a lively fancy, and left without direction or control to follow the bent of his own genius, he soon became entirely devoted to the pursuits of imagination and taste; and the study and occasional imitation of the great masters of poetry and eloquence, were for several years his “ life's employment and his leisure's charm."
As he advanced to manhood, he gradually relinquished the quaker dress and manners, and applied himself with much success to the acquirement of many of those politer arts and accomplishments which are carefully excluded from the simple and primitive system of education of the society of Friends. He is said to have particularly excelled in music and drawing. He was also much attached to the sports of the field, and was peculiarly accomplished in all the arts of the sportsınan.
Mr. Clifton mixed little in general society, but confined himself chiefly to a small circle of literary friends. In that period of violent political animosity which succecded Mr. Jay's treaty with Great Britain, he, with most of his friends, zealously supported the measures of the administration. The gross and vulgar ignorance of some local demagogues excited at once his contempt and indig. nation, and in several newspaper and other fugitive publications, both in prose and verse, he lavished much brilliant and sprightly satire upon some of the vilest and most obscure instruments of party violence. The subjects were unworthy of his powers; he should have disdained to “drop his sword on wretched kerns."
Sometimes, however, his talents were directed towards objects of more general and permanent interest. In an unfinished poem, entitled “The Chimeriad," he seems to have surveyed the topics of political controversy in a more philosophical as well as more poetical point of view, and so far as he had advanced in it, had avoided all gross personal invective and allusion.
When Mr. Gifford's “Baviad and Maviad” was reprinted in this country, Mr. Clifton introduced the American edition with a poetical epistle to the author, in which much of elegant eulogy, poetical thought, and correct sentiment is conveyed in forcible language, and splendid and highly finished versification. These, however, were but the early blossoms of genius, beautiful and fragrant indeed, but of little real value, except from the promise which they afforded of the rich fruits of riper age.
His mind now seemed rapidly maturing, his command of versification and of language had become more extensive, and his friends looked to him with well grounded confidence for some larger work, which might elevate the literary character of the nation, and prove the truth of his own assertion, that
beneath our shifting skiès,
But in the midst of all these hopes and expectations, those consumptive complaints with which he had long been threatened, assumed a more determinate form. After struggling for a short time with the disease, he died in December, 1799, in the twentyseventh year of his age.
His poems, which are, as has been already intimated, chiefly occasional, were collected and published in one small volume, 12mo, New-York, 1800. A very small edition was printed; the form was inelegant and uninviting; the subjects are generally of local or temporary interest; the period at which it was published was not very auspicious to literature, and from these and other causes, the book is now scarcely known among the readers of poetry. Although the volume, considered as a whole, is undoubtedly rather of high promise than of great performance, yet it contains, I think, many passages of singular beauty, and fully proves, that the mind of the author was rapidly advancing “ to further ends more excellent." In the poems written in the earlier part of his short literary life, particularly a local satire entitled “ The Group,” he appears to have formed his taste altogether upon the political and controversial poetry of Dryden, and displays much of his vigour, and too often not a little of his coarseness. Either from impatience of the labour of critical revision, or from his imperfect command of the diction and mechanical part of poetical composition, his thoughts are often expressed in a manner crowded and indistinct, so that the reader is frequently puzzled by a sort of enigmatical obscurity. In his efforts at compression he often contents himself with elliptical phrases, which leave the sense in doubt. In struggling to attain energy, he is betrayed sometimes into strained, and sometimes into gross expressions.
From these causes he is frequently, as has been observed of some of the old English poets, “hard of conceit and harsh of style.” But all these are the natural faults of a young poet who VOL.UI. Nene Series.