Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter IV

Chapter IVEdit


A new consultation was held among Goldsmith's friends as to his future course, and it was determined he should try the law. His uncle Contarine agreed to advance the necessary funds, and actually furnished him with fifty pounds, with which he set off for London, to enter on his studies at the Temple. Unfortunately, he fell in company at Dublin with a Roscommon acquaintance, one whose wits had been sharpened about town, who beguiled him into a gambling-house, and soon left him as penniless as when he bestrode the redoubtable Fiddle-back.

He was so ashamed of this fresh instance of gross heedlessness and imprudence that he remained some time in Dublin without communicating to his friends his destitute condition. They heard of it, however, and he was invited back to the country, and indulgently forgiven by his generous uncle, but less readily by his mother, who was mortified and disheartened at seeing all her early hopes of him so repeatedly blighted. His brother Henry, too, began to lose patience at these successive failures, resulting from thoughtless indiscretion; and a quarrel took place, which for some time interrupted their usually affectionate intercourse.

The only home where poor erring Goldsmith still received a welcome was the parsonage of his affectionate, forgiving uncle. Here he used to talk of literature with the good, simple-hearted man, and delight him and his daughter with his verses. Jane, his early playmate, was now the woman grown; their intercourse was of a more intellectual kind than formerly; they discoursed of poetry and music; she played on the harpsichord, and he accompanied her with his flute. The music may not have been very artistic, as he never performed but by ear; it had probably as much merit as the poetry, which, if we may judge by the following specimen, was as yet but juvenile:



    With submission at your shrine,
    Comes a heart your Valentine;
    From the side where once it grew,
    See it panting flies to you.
    Take it, fair one, to your breast,
    Soothe the fluttering thing to rest;
    Let the gentle, spotless toy,
    Be your sweetest, greatest joy;
    Every night when wrapp'd in sleep,
    Next your heart the conquest keep.
    Or if dreams your fancy move,
    Hear it whisper me and love;
    Then in pity to the swain,
    Who must heartless else remain,
    Soft as gentle dewy show'rs,
    Slow descend on April flow'rs;
    Soft as gentle riv'lets glide,
    Steal unnoticed to my side;
    If the gem you have to spare,
    Take your own and place it there.

If this valentine was intended for the fair Jane, and expressive of a tender sentiment indulged by the stripling poet, it was unavailing, as not long afterward she was married to a Mr. Lawder. We trust, however, it was but a poetical passion of that transient kind which grows up in idleness and exhales itself in rhyme. While Oliver was thus piping and poetizing at the parsonage, his uncle Contarine received a visit from Dean Goldsmith of Cloyne; a kind of magnate in the wide but improvident family connection, throughout which his word was law and almost gospel. This august dignitary was pleased to discover signs of talent in Oliver, and suggested that as he had attempted divinity and law without success, he should now try physic. The advice came from too important a source to be disregarded, and it was determined to send him to Edinburgh to commence his studies. The Dean having given the advice, added to it, we trust, his blessing, but no money; that was furnished from the scantier purses of Goldsmith's brother, his sister (Mrs. Hodson), and his ever-ready uncle, Contarine.

It was in the autumn of 1752 that Goldsmith arrived in Edinburgh. His outset in that city came near adding to the list of his indiscretions and disasters. Having taken lodgings at haphazard, he left his trunk there, containing all his worldly effects, and sallied forth to see the town. After sauntering about the streets until a late hour, he thought of returning home, when, to his confusion, he found he had not acquainted himself with the name either of his landlady or of the street in which she lived. Fortunately, in the height of his whimsical perplexity, he met the cawdy or porter who had carried his trunk, and who now served him as a guide.

He did not remain long in the lodgings in which he had put up. The hostess was too adroit at that hocus-pocus of the table which often is practiced in cheap boarding-houses. No one could conjure a single joint through a greater variety of forms. A loin of mutton, according to Goldsmith's account, would serve him and two fellow-students a whole week. "A brandered chop was served up one day, a fried steak another, collops with onion sauce a third, and so on until the fleshy parts were quite consumed, when finally a dish of broth was manufactured from the bones on the seventh day, and the landlady rested from her labors." Goldsmith had a good-humored mode of taking things, and for a short time amused himself with the shifts and expedients of his landlady, which struck him in a ludicrous manner; he soon, however, fell in with fellow-students from his own country, whom he joined at more eligible quarters.

He now attended medical lectures, and attached himself to an association of students called the Medical Society. He set out, as usual, with the best intentions, but, as usual, soon fell into idle, convivial, thoughtless habits. Edinburgh was indeed a place of sore trial for one of his temperament. Convivial meetings were all the vogue, and the tavern was the universal rallying-place of good-fellowship. And then Goldsmith's intimacies lay chiefly among the Irish students, who were always ready for a wild freak and frolic. Among them he was a prime favorite and somewhat of a leader, from his exuberance of spirits, his vein of humor, and his talent at singing an Irish song and telling an Irish story.

His usual carelessness in money matters attended him. Though his supplies from home were scanty and irregular, he never could bring himself into habits of prudence and economy; often he was stripped of all his present finances at play; often he lavished them away in fits of unguarded charity or generosity. Sometimes among his boon companions he assumed a ludicrous swagger in money matters, which no one afterward was more ready than himself to laugh at. At a convivial meeting with a number of his fellow-students, he suddenly proposed to draw lots with any one present which of the two should treat the whole party to the play. The moment the proposition had bolted from his lips his heart was in his throat. "To my great though secret joy," said he, "they all declined the challenge. Had it been accepted, and had I proved the loser, a part of my wardrobe must have been pledged in order to raise the money."

At another of these meetings there was an earnest dispute on the question of ghosts, some being firm believers in the possibility of departed spirits returning to visit their friends and familiar haunts. One of the disputants set sail the next day for London, but the vessel put back through the stress of weather. His return was unknown except to one of the believers in ghosts, who concerted with him a trick to be played off on the opposite party. In the evening, at a meeting of the students, the discussion was renewed; and one of the most strenuous opposers of ghosts was asked whether he considered himself proof against ocular demonstration? He persisted in his scoffing. Some solemn process of conjuration was performed, and the comrade supposed to be on his way to London made his appearance. The effect was fatal. The unbeliever fainted at the sight, and ultimately went mad. We have no account of what share Goldsmith took in this transaction, at which he was present.

The following letter to his friend Bryanton contains some of Goldsmith's impressions concerning Scotland and its inhabitants, and gives indications of that humor which characterized some of his later writings.

"Robert Bryanton, at Ballymahon, Ireland.

"EDINBURGH, September 26, 1753.

"MY DEAR BOB--How many good excuses (and you know I was ever good at an excuse) might I call up to vindicate my past shameful silence. I might tell how I wrote a long letter on my first coming hither, and seem vastly angry at my not receiving an answer; I might allege that business (with business you know I was always pestered) had never given me time to finger a pen. But I suppress those and twenty more as plausible, and as easily invented, since they might be attended with a slight inconvenience of being known to be lies. Let me then speak truth. An hereditary indolence (I have it from the mother's side) has hitherto prevented my writing to you, and still prevents my writing at least twenty-five letters more, due to my friends in Ireland. No turn-spit-dog gets up into his wheel with more reluctance than I sit down to write; yet no dog ever loved the roast meat he turns better than I do him I now address.

"Yet what shall I say now I am entered? Shall I tire you with a description of this unfruitful country; where I must lead you over their hills all brown with heath, or their valleys scarcely able to feed a rabbit? Man alone seems to be the only creature who has arrived to the natural size in this poor soil. Every part of the country presents the same dismal landscape. No grove, nor brook, lend their music to cheer the stranger, or make the inhabitants forget their poverty. Yet with all these disadvantages to call him down to humility, a Scotchman is one of the proudest things alive. The poor have pride ever ready to relieve them. If mankind should happen to despise them, they are masters of their own admiration, and that they can plentifully bestow upon themselves.

"From their pride and poverty, as I take it, results one advantage this country enjoys--namely, the gentlemen here are much better bred than among us. No such character here as our fox-hunters; and they have expressed great surprise when I informed them that some men in Ireland of one thousand pounds a year spend their whole lives in running after a hare, and drinking to be drunk. Truly if such a being, equipped in his hunting dress, came among a circle of Scotch gentry, they would behold him with the same astonishment that a countryman does King George on horseback.

"The men here have generally high cheek bones, and are lean and swarthy, fond of action, dancing in particular. Now that I have mentioned dancing, let me say something of their balls, which are very frequent here. When a stranger enters the dancing-hall, he sees one end of the room taken up by the ladies, who sit dismally in a group by themselves; in the other end stand their pensive partners that are to be; but no more intercourse between the sexes than there is between two countries at war. The ladies indeed may ogle, and the gentlemen sigh; but an embargo is laid on any closer commerce. At length, to interrupt hostilities, the lady directress, or intendant, or what you will, pitches upon a lady and gentleman to walk a minuet; which they perform with a formality that approaches to despondence. After five or six couple have thus walked the gantlet, all stand up to country dances; each gentleman furnished with a partner from the aforesaid lady directress; so they dance much, say nothing, and thus concludes our assembly. I told a Scotch gentleman that such profound silence resembled the ancient procession of the Roman matrons in honor of Ceres; and the Scotch gentleman told me (and, faith, I believe he was right) that I was a very great pedant for my pains.

"Now I am come to the ladies; and to show that I love Scotland, and everything that belongs to so charming a country, I insist on it, and will give him leave to break my head that denies it--that the Scotch ladies are ten thousand times finer and handsomer than the Irish. To be sure, now, I see your sisters Betty and Peggy vastly surprised at my partiality--but tell them flatly, I don't value them--or their fine skins, or eyes, or good sense, or----, a potato;--for I say, and will maintain it; and as a convincing proof (I am in a great passion) of what I assert, the Scotch ladies say it themselves. But to be less serious; where will you find a language so prettily become a pretty mouth as the broad Scotch? And the women here speak it in its highest purity; for instance, teach one of your young ladies at home to pronounce the 'Whoar wull I gong?' with a becoming widening of mouth, and I'll lay my life they'll wound every hearer.

"We have no such character here as a coquette, but alas! how many envious prudes! Some days ago I walked into my Lord Kilcoubry's (don't be surprised, my lord is but a glover), [Footnote: William Maclellan, who claimed the title, and whose son succeeded in establishing the claim in 1773. The father is said to have voted at the election of the sixteen Peers for Scotland, and to have sold gloves in the lobby at this and other public assemblages.] when the Duchess of Hamilton (that fair who sacrificed her beauty to her ambition, and her inward peace to a title and gilt equipage) passed by in her chariot; her battered husband, or more properly the guardian of her charms, sat by her side. Straight envy began, in the shape of no less than three ladies who sat with me, to find faults in her faultless form.--'For my part,' says the first, 'I think what I always thought, that the duchess has too much of the red in her complexion.' 'Madam, I am of your opinion,' says the second; 'I think her face has a palish cast too much on the delicate order.' 'And let me tell you,' added the third lady, whose mouth was puckered up to the size of an issue, 'that the duchess has fine lips, but she wants a mouth.'--At this every lady drew up her mouth as if going to pronounce the letter P.

"But how ill, my Bob, does it become me to ridicule women with whom I have scarcely any correspondence! There are, 'tis certain, handsome women here; and 'tis certain they have handsome men to keep them company. An ugly and poor man is society only for himself, and such society the world lets me enjoy in great abundance. Fortune has given you circumstances, and nature a person to look charming in the eyes of the fair. Nor do I envy my dear Bob such blessings, while I may sit down and laugh at the world and at myself--the most ridiculous object in it. But you see I am grown downright splenetic, and perhaps the fit may continue till I receive an answer to this. I know you cannot send me much news from Ballymahon, but such as it is, send it all; everything you send will be agreeable to me.

"Has George Conway put up a sign yet; or John Binley left off drinking drams; or Tom Allen got a new wig? But I leave you to your own choice what to write. While I live, know you have a true friend in yours, etc., etc.


"P.S.--Give my sincere respects (not compliments, do you mind) to your agreeable family, and give my service to my mother, if you see her; for, as you express it in Ireland, I have a sneaking kindness for her still. Direct to me, ----, Student in Physic, in Edinburgh."

Nothing worthy of preservation appeared from his pen during his residence in Edinburgh; and indeed his poetical powers, highly as they had been estimated by his friends, had not as yet produced anything of superior merit. He made on one occasion a month's excursion to the Highlands. "I set out the first day on foot," says he, in a letter to his uncle Contarine, "but an ill-natured corn I have on my toe has for the future prevented that cheap mode of traveling; so the second day I hired a horse about the size of a ram, and he walked away (trot he could not) as pensive as his master."

During his residence in Scotland his convivial talents gained him at one time attentions in a high quarter, which, however, he had the good sense to appreciate correctly. "I have spent," says he, in one of his letters, "more than a fortnight every second day at the Duke of Hamilton's; but it seems they like me more as a jester than as a companion, so I disdained so servile an employment as unworthy my calling as a physician." Here we again find the origin of another passage in his autobiography, under the character of the "Man in Black," wherein that worthy figures as a flatterer to a great man. "At first," says he, "I was surprised that the situation of a flatterer at a great man's table could be thought disagreeable; there was no great trouble in listening attentively when his lordship spoke, and laughing when he looked round for applause. This, even good manners might have obliged me to perform. I found, however, too soon, his lordship was a greater dunce than myself, and from that moment flattery was at an end. I now rather aimed at setting him right, than at receiving his absurdities with submission: to flatter those we do not know is an easy task; but to flatter our intimate acquaintances, all whose foibles are strongly in our eyes, is drudgery insupportable. Every time I now opened my lips in praise, my falsehood went to my conscience; his lordship soon perceived me to be very unfit for his service: I was therefore discharged; my patron at the same time being graciously pleased to observe that he believed I was tolerably good-natured, and had not the least harm in me."

After spending two winters at Edinburgh, Goldsmith prepared to finish his medical studies on the Continent, for which his uncle Contarine agreed to furnish the funds. "I intend," said he, in a letter to his uncle, "to visit Paris, where the great Farheim, Petit, and Du Hammel de Monceau instruct their pupils in all the branches of medicine. They speak French, and consequently I shall have much the advantage of most of my countrymen, as I am perfectly acquainted with that language, and few who leave Ireland are so. I shall spend the spring and summer in Paris, and the beginning of next winter go to Leyden. The great Albinus is still alive there, and 'twill be proper to go, though only to have it said that we have studied in so famous a university.

"As I shall not have another opportunity of receiving money from your bounty till my return to Ireland, so I have drawn for the last sum that I hope I shall ever trouble you for; 'tis £20. And now, dear sir, let me here acknowledge the humility of the station in which you found me; let me tell how I was despised by most, and hateful to myself. Poverty, hopeless poverty, was my lot, and Melancholy was beginning to make me her own. When you--but I stop here, to inquire how your health goes on? How does my cousin Jenny, and has she recovered her late complaint? How does my poor Jack Goldsmith? I fear his disorder is of such a nature as he won't easily recover. I wish, my dear sir, you would make me happy by another letter before I go abroad, for there I shall hardly hear from you.... Give my--how shall I express it? Give my earnest love to Mr. and Mrs. Lawder."

Mrs. Lawder was Jane, his early playmate--the object of his valentine--his first poetical inspiration. She had been for some time married.

Medical instruction, it will be perceived, was the ostensible motive for this visit to the Continent, but the real one, in all probability, was his long-cherished desire to see foreign parts. This, however, he would not acknowledge even to himself, but sought to reconcile his roving propensities with some grand moral purpose. "I esteem the traveler who instructs the heart," says he, in one of his subsequent writings, "but despise him who only indulges the imagination. A man who leaves home to mend himself and others is a philosopher; but he who goes from country to country, guided by the blind impulse of curiosity, is only a vagabond." He, of course, was to travel as a philosopher, and in truth his outfits for a continental tour were in character. "I shall carry just £33 to France," said he, "with good store of clothes, shirts, etc., and that with economy will suffice." He forgot to make mention of his flute, which it will be found had occasionally to come in play when economy could not replenish his purse, nor philosophy find him a supper. Thus slenderly provided with money, prudence, or experience, and almost as slightly guarded against "hard knocks" as the hero of La Mancha, whose head-piece was half iron, half pasteboard, he made his final sally forth upon the world; hoping all things; believing all things; little anticipating the checkered ills in store for him; little thinking when he penned his valedictory letter to his good uncle Contarine that he was never to see him more; never to return after all his wandering to the friend of his infancy; never to revisit his early and fondly-remembered haunts at "sweet Lissoy" and Ballymahon.