Gay Allis Rose Clifford (1943-1998) was a poet and a literary theorist whose most influential piece, Transformations of Allegory, has been cited by over a hundred subsequent works and is still a major work today in the field of allegory in literature. Gay Clifford left her mark not only in the world of literature, but among her many fields of interest, and was a great inspiration to those who knew her.
After studying English and earning a graduate degree at Oxford, she lectured in Medieval literature at the University of Warwick and University College London in the late sixties. She was one of the only two women lecturers in the English department at the time, the other being Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch. Germaine Greer wrote that “Gay Clifford the well-read, the thorough, the hard-working, the reliable, the punctilious, tore herself to pieces trying to say something truer than fact. Her monument was less than half-hewn when she was forced to abandon it, but it is more picturesque, more moving, grander, more sublime perhaps for that”.
According to Lou Hart, who was a student of Gay’s at Warsick Unoversity, Gay was famous for her intellect, beauty and wit, and for the exclusive dinner parties she threw for colleagues and students alike. She loved to talk about all kinds literature, often quoting lines from memory.
“I remember as a slightly gauche student of 19 seeing tbis very beautiful woman with long black hair and an amazing technicolor coat draped around her shoulders descending past the ranked tiers of students to give a lecture. She was a fierce intellect & the youngest lecturer of any University in England.”
“She really tried hard to help female students through a ceilling that was more adamantine than glass” ~Lou Hart
Gay did not start writing poetry until she was 35. Her poetry, mostly free verse, was imbued with her love and passion for language and deep knowledge and understanding of literature and poetry from the ancient greeks to the Romance era. In 1979, Clifford won the Greenwich Festival poetry prize. Her work was published and celebrated not only in England but across the Atlantic, and appeared in many magazines such as the London Review of Books.
Fighting through a stormy life full of personal and relationship troubles and terrible diseases including Crohn’s, Gay still stayed passionate about her work, writing, and other hobbies (she also had a love for cats and baroque music). Even though her parents were told she would have irreparable brain damage after a brain haemorrhage, with their support she still fought and relearned to speak.
In Gay Clifford’s memory, the University College London presents the Gay Clifford Award for Outstanding Women Students available to female Master’s degree students in the Arts and Humanities or Social and Historical Sciences.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.