Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XIII

Chapter XIIIEdit


Notwithstanding his growing success, Goldsmith continued to consider literature a mere makeshift, and his Vagrant imagination teemed with schemes and plans of a grand but indefinite nature. One was for visiting the East and exploring the interior of Asia. He had, as has been before observed, a vague notion that valuable discoveries were to be made there, and many useful inventions in the arts brought back to the stock of European knowledge. "Thus, in Siberian Tartary," observes he in one of his writings, "the natives extract a strong spirit from milk, which is a secret probably unknown to the chemists of Europe. In the most savage parts of India they are possessed of the secret of dying vegetable substances scarlet, and that of refining lead into a metal which, for hardness and color, is little inferior to silver."

Goldsmith adds a description of the kind of person suited to such an enterprise, in which he evidently had himself in view.

"He should be a man of philosophical turn, one apt to deduce consequences of general utility from particular occurrences; neither swollen with pride, nor hardened by prejudice; neither wedded to one particular system, nor instructed only in one particular science; neither wholly a botanist, nor quite an antiquarian; his mind should be tinctured with miscellaneous knowledge, and his manners humanized by an intercourse with men. He should be in some measure an enthusiast to the design; fond of traveling, from a rapid imagination and an innate love of change; furnished with a body capable of sustaining every fatigue, and a heart not easily terrified at danger."

In 1761, when Lord Bute became prime minister on the accession of George the Third, Goldsmith drew up a memorial on the subject, suggesting the advantages to be derived from a mission to those countries solely for useful and scientific purposes; and, the better to insure success, he preceded his application to the government by an ingenious essay to the same effect in the "Public Ledger."

His memorial and his essay were fruitless, his project most probably being deemed the dream of a visionary. Still it continued to haunt his mind, and he would often talk of making an expedition to Aleppo some time or other, when his means were greater, to inquire into the arts peculiar to the East, and to bring home such as might be valuable. Johnson, who knew how little poor Goldsmith was fitted by scientific lore for this favorite scheme of his fancy, scoffed at the project when it was mentioned to him. "Of all men," said he, "Goldsmith is the most unfit to go out upon such an inquiry, for he is utterly ignorant of such arts as we already possess, and, consequently, could not know what would be accessions to our present stock of mechanical knowledge. Sir, he would bring home a grinding barrow, which you see in every street in London, and think that he had furnished a wonderful improvement."

His connection with Newbery the bookseller now led him into a variety of temporary jobs, such as a pamphlet on the Cock-lane Ghost, a Life of Beau Nash, the famous Master of Ceremonies at Bath, etc.; one of the best things for his fame, however, was the remodeling and republication of his Chinese Letters under the title of The Citizen of the World, a work which has long since taken its merited stand among the classics of the English language. "Few works," it has been observed by one of his biographers, "exhibit a nicer perception, or more delicate delineation of life and manners. Wit, humor, and sentiment pervade every page; the vices and follies of the day are touched with the most playful and diverting satire; and English characteristics, in endless variety, are hit off with the pencil of a master."

In seeking materials for his varied views of life, he often mingled in strange scenes and got involved in whimsical situations. In the summer of 1762 he was one of the thousands who went to see the Cherokee chiefs, whom he mentions in one of his writings. The Indians made their appearance in grand costume, hideously painted and besmeared. In the course of the visit Goldsmith made one of the chiefs a present, who, in the ecstasy of his gratitude, gave him an embrace that left his face well bedaubed with oil and red ocher.

Toward the close of 1762 he removed to "merry Islington," then a country village, though now swallowed up in omnivorous London. He went there for the benefit of country air, his health being injured by literary application and confinement, and to be near his chief employer, Mr. Newbery, who resided in the Canonbury House. In this neighborhood he used to take his solitary rambles, sometimes extending his walks to the gardens of the White Conduit House, so famous among the essayists of the last century. While strolling one day in these gardens, he met three females of the family of a respectable tradesman to whom he was under some obligation. With his prompt disposition to oblige, he conducted them about the garden, treated them to tea, and ran up a bill in the most open-handed manner imaginable; it was only when he came to pay that he found himself in one of his old dilemmas--he had not the wherewithal in his pocket. A scene of perplexity now took place between him and the waiter, in the midst of which came up some of his acquaintances, in whose eyes he wished to stand particularly well. This completed his mortification. There was no concealing the awkwardness of his position. The sneers of the waiter revealed it. His acquaintances amused themselves for some tune at his expense, professing their inability to relieve him. When, however, they had enjoyed their banter, the waiter was paid, and poor Goldsmith enabled to convoy off the ladies with flying colors.

Among the various productions thrown off by him for the booksellers during this growing period of his reputation was a small work in two volumes, entitled The History of England, in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son. It was digested from Hume, Rapin, Carte, and Kennet. These authors he would read in the morning; make a few notes; ramble with a friend into the country about the skirts of "merry Islington"; return to a temperate dinner and cheerful evening; and, before going to bed, write off what had arranged itself in his head from the studies of the morning. In this way he took a more general view of the subject, and wrote in a more free and fluent style than if he had been mousing at the time among authorities. The work, like many others written by him in the earlier part of his literary career, was anonymous. Some attributed it to Lord Chesterfield, others to Lord Orrery, and others to Lord Lyttelton. The latter seemed pleased to be the putative father, and never disowned the bantling thus laid at his door; and well might he have been proud to be considered capable of producing what has been well pronounced "the most finished and elegant summary of English history in the same compass that has been or is likely to be written."

The reputation of Goldsmith, it will be perceived, grew slowly; he was known and estimated by a few; but he had not those brilliant though fallacious qualities which flash upon the public and excite loud but transient applause. His works were more read than cited; and the charm of style, for which he was especially noted, was more apt to be felt than talked about. He used often to repine, in a half-humorous, half-querulous manner, at his tardiness in gaining the laurels which he felt to be his due. "The public," he would exclaim, "will never do me justice; whenever I write anything they make a point to know nothing about it."

About the beginning of 1763 he became acquainted with Boswell, whose literary gossipings were destined to have a deleterious effect upon his reputation. Boswell was at that time a young man, light, buoyant, pushing, and presumptuous. He had a morbid passion for mingling in the society of men noted for wit and learning, and had just arrived from Scotland, bent upon making his way into the literary circles of the metropolis. An intimacy with Dr. Johnson, the great literary luminary of the day, was the crowning object of his aspiring and somewhat ludicrous ambition. He expected to meet him, at a dinner to which he was invited at Davies the bookseller's, but was disappointed. Goldsmith was present, but he was not as yet sufficiently renowned to excite the reverence of Boswell. "At this time," says he in his notes, "I think he had published nothing with his name, though it was pretty generally understood that one Dr. Goldsmith was the author of [[An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe]], and of The Citizen of the World, a series of letters supposed to be written from London by a Chinese."

A conversation took place at table between Goldsmith and Mr. Robert Dodsley, compiler of the well-known collection of modern poetry, as to the merits of the current poetry of the day. Goldsmith declared there was none of superior merit. Dodsley cited his own collection in proof of the contrary. "It is true," said he, "we can boast of no palaces nowadays, like Dryden's Ode to St. Cecilia's Day, but we have villages composed of very pretty houses." Goldsmith, however, maintained that there was nothing above mediocrity, an opinion in which Johnson, to whom it was repeated, concurred, and with reason, for the era was one of the dead levels of British poetry.

Boswell has made no note of this conversation; he was a Unitarian in his literary devotion, and disposed to worship none but Johnson. Little Davies endeavored to console him for his disappointment, and to stay the stomach of his curiosity, by giving him imitations of the great lexicographer; mouthing his words, rolling his head, and assuming as ponderous a manner as his petty person would permit. Boswell was shortly afterward made happy by an introduction to Johnson, of whom he became the obsequious satellite. From him he likewise imbibed a more favorable opinion of Goldsmith's merits, though he was fain to consider them derived in a great measure from his Magnus Apollo. "He had sagacity enough," says he, "to cultivate assiduously the acquaintance of Johnson, and his faculties were gradually enlarged by the contemplation of such a model. To me and many others it appeared that he studiously copied the manner of Johnson, though, indeed, upon a smaller scale." So on another occasion he calls him "one of the brightest ornaments of the Johnsonian school." "His respectful attachment to Johnson," adds he, "was then at its height; for big own literary reputation had not yet distinguished him so much as to excite a vain desire of competition with his great master."

What beautiful instances does the garrulous Boswell give of the goodness of heart of Johnson, and the passing homage to it by Goldsmith. They were speaking of a Mr. Levett, long an inmate of Johnson's house and a dependent on his bounty; but who, Boswell thought, must be an irksome charge upon him. "He is poor and honest," said Goldsmith, "which is recommendation enough to Johnson."

Boswell mentioned another person of a very bad character, and wondered at Johnson's kindness to him. "He is now become miserable," said Goldsmith, "and that insures the protection of Johnson." Encomiums like these speak almost as much for the heart of him who praises as of him who is praised.

Subsequently, when Boswell had become more intense in his literary idolatry, he affected to undervalue Goldsmith, and a lurking hostility to him is discernible throughout his writings, which some have attributed to a silly spirit of jealousy of the superior esteem evinced for the poet by Dr. Johnson. We have a gleam of this in his account of the first evening he spent in company with those two eminent authors at their famous resort, the Mitre Tavern, in Fleet Street. This took place on the 1st of July, 1763. The trio supped together, and passed some time in literary conversation. On quitting the tavern, Johnson, who had now been sociably acquainted with Goldsmith for two years, and knew his merits, took him with him to drink tea with his blind pensioner, Miss Williams, a high privilege among his intimates and admirers. To Boswell, a recent acquaintance whose intrusive sycophancy had not yet made its way into his confidential intimacy, he gave no invitation. Boswell felt it with all the jealousy of a little mind. "Dr. Goldsmith," says he, in his memoirs, "being a privileged man, went with him, strutting away, and calling to me with an air of superiority, like that of an esoteric over an esoteric disciple of a sage of antiquity, 'I go to Miss Williams.' I confess I then envied him this mighty privilege, of which he seemed to be so proud; but it was not long before I obtained the same mark of distinction."

Obtained! but how? not like Goldsmith, by the force of unpretending but congenial merit, but by a course of the most pushing, contriving, and spaniel-like subserviency. Really, the ambition of the man to illustrate his mental insignificance, by continually placing himself in juxtaposition with the great lexicographer, has something in it perfectly ludicrous. Never, since the days of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, has there been presented to the world a more whimsically contrasted pair of associates than Johnson and Boswell.

"Who is this Scotch cur at Johnson's heels?" asked some one when Boswell had worked his way into incessant companionship. "He is not a cur," replied Goldsmith, "you are too severe; he is only a bur. Tom Davies flung him at Johnson in sport, and he has the faculty of sticking."