Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
William Cliffton (1772–1799)
WILLIAM CLIFFTON was the son of a quaker of Philadelphia, and was born in 1772. He is said to have manifested in his early years an uncommon vivacity and quickness of mind, and soon distinguished himself for his attachment to elegant literature, and strong thirst for every kind of liberal knowledge. His health, which was precarious from infancy, received so severe a shock by the rupture of a blood vessel at the age of nineteen, as to disqualify him for all kinds of active business. His feeble condition having from the beginning held out nothing favorable for his future prospects in life as regards the common occupations of the world, he was not educated with a view to any particular profession. The circumstances of his father, who was a wealthy man, enabled him to devote the intervals of his time, which debility and disease allowed, to study. He mingled little in society, and was led by no control or advice in the course of his literary pursuits, trusting to his own sound judgment and correct taste. Under this guidance the great masters of poetry and eloquence were studied and imitated, with all the zeal and assiduity which his physical infirmities gave opportunity for exerting.  1
  By his parents, who were among the straitest of their sect, he was brought up in a rigid adherence to the quaker manners and principles. These, however, although not altogether incompatible with a taste for polite letters, as recent examples have shown, yet were found quite unsuitable to the character and partialities of the young devotee of the muses. In the latter part of his life, therefore, he threw off the quaker dress and manners, and applied himself to those elegant pursuits which are excluded by the society of friends from their severe and simple system of education. He died in December 1799, at the age of twenty-seven. His earliest performances were various satirical effusions in prose and verse, upon the subjects of political debate at the period of Jay’s treaty with Great Britain. Upon the publication in this country of Gifford’s Baviad and Mæviad, he wrote a poetical epistle to the author, which was prefixed to the work as an introduction. This performance, although of no great length, is executed throughout with much taste and poetical feeling.  2
  The greater part, however, of Cliffton’s poetry is of a description that will find little acceptance with readers of the present time. The politics of the hour afforded the principal theme for his satirical talent, and most of his pages are filled with vituperations of the French revolutionists, and the party enemies of the writer. These outpourings of spleen and sarcasm were relished in their day, but we prefer recommending to our readers the few compositions which he left behind him of a different character.  3

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