Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XXX

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Chapter XXX[edit]

DEATH OF GOLDSMITH'S MOTHER--BIOGRAPHY OF PARNELL--AGREEMENT WITH DAVIES FOR THE HISTORY OF ROME--LIFE OP BOLINGBROKE--THE HAUNCH OF VENISON


On his return to England, Goldsmith received the melancholy tidings of the death of his mother. Notwithstanding the fame as an author to which he had attained, she seems to have been disappointed in her early expectations from him. Like others of his family, she had been more vexed by his early follies than pleased by his proofs of genius; and in subsequent years, when he had risen to fame and to intercourse with the great, had been annoyed at the ignorance of the world and want of management, which prevented him from pushing his fortune. He had always, however, been an affectionate son, and in the latter years of her life, when she had become blind, contributed from his precarious resources to prevent her from feeling want.

He now resumed the labors of the pen, which his recent excursion to Paris rendered doubly necessary. We should have mentioned a Life of Parnell, published by him shortly after the Deserted Village. It was, as usual, a piece of job work, hastily got up for pocket-money. Johnson spoke slightingly of it, and the author, himself, thought proper to apologize for its meagerness; yet, in so doing, used a simile which for beauty of imagery and felicity of language is enough of itself to stamp a value upon the essay.

"Such," says he, "is the very unpoetical detail of the life of a poet. Some dates and some few facts, scarcely more interesting than those that make the ornaments of a country tombstone, are all that remain of one whose labors now begin to excite universal curiosity. A poet, while living, is seldom an object sufficiently great to attract much attention; his real merits are known but to a few, and these are generally sparing in their praises. When his fame is increased by time, it is then too late to investigate the peculiarities of his disposition; the dews of morning are past, and we vainly try to continue the chase by the meridian splendor."

He now entered into an agreement with Davies to prepare an abridgment, in one volume duodecimo, of his History of Rome; but first to write a work for which there was a more immediate demand. Davies was about to republish Lord Bolingbroke's Dissertation on Parties, which he conceived would be exceedingly applicable to the affairs of the day, and make a probable hit during the existing state of violent political excitement; to give it still greater effect and currency he engaged Goldsmith to introduce it with a prefatory life of Lord Bolingbroke.

About this time Goldsmith's friend and countryman, Lord Clare, was in great affliction, caused by the death of his only son, Colonel Nugent, and stood in need of the sympathies of a kind-hearted friend. At his request, therefore, Goldsmith paid him a visit at his noble seat of Gosford, taking his tasks with him. Davies was in a worry lest Gosford Park should prove a Capua to the poet, and the time be lost. "Dr. Goldsmith," writes he to a friend, "has gone with Lord Clare into the country, and I am plagued to get the proofs from him of the Life of Lord Bolingbroke." The proofs, however, were furnished in time for the publication of the work in December. The Biography, though written during a time of political turmoil, and introducing a work intended to be thrown into the arena of politics, maintained that freedom from party prejudice observable in all the writings of Goldsmith. It was a selection of facts drawn from many unreadable sources, and arranged into a clear, flowing narrative, illustrative of the career and character of one who, as he intimates, "seemed formed by nature to take delight in struggling with opposition; whose most agreeable hours were passed in storms of his own creating; whose life was spent in a continual conflict of politics, and as if that was too short for the combat, has left his memory as a subject of lasting contention." The sum received by the author for this memoir is supposed, from circumstances, to have been forty pounds.

Goldsmith did not find the residence among the great unattended with mortifications. He had now become accustomed to be regarded in London as a literary lion, and was annoyed at what he considered a slight on the part of Lord Camden. He complained of it on his return to town at a party of his friends. "I met him," said he, "at Lord Clare's house in the country; and he took no more notice of me than if I had been an ordinary man." "The company," says Boswell, "laughed heartily at this piece of 'diverting simplicity.'" And foremost among the laughters was doubtless the rattle-pated Boswell. Johnson, however, stepped forward, as usual, to defend the poet, whom he would allow no one to assail but himself; perhaps in the present instance he thought the dignity of literature itself involved in the question. "Nay, gentlemen," roared he, "Dr. Goldsmith is in the right. A nobleman ought to have made up to such a man as Goldsmith, and I think it is much against Lord Camden that he neglected him."

After Goldsmith's return to town he received from Lord Clare a present of game, which he has celebrated and perpetuated in his amusing verses entitled the Haunch of Venison. Some of the lines pleasantly set forth the embarrassment caused by the appearance of such an aristocratic delicacy in the humble kitchen of a poet, accustomed to look up to mutton as a treat:

 "Thanks, my lord, for your venison; for finer or fatter
  Never rang'd in a forest, or smok'd in a platter:
  The haunch was a picture for painters to study,
  The fat was so white, and the lean was so ruddy;
  Though my stomach was sharp, I could scarce help regretting,
  To spoil such a delicate picture by eating:
  I had thought in my chambers to place it in view,
  To be shown to my friends as a piece of virtu;
  As in some Irish houses where things are so-so,
  One gammon of bacon hangs up for a show;
  But, for eating a rasher, of what they take pride in,
  They'd as soon think of eating the pan it was fry'd in.

       * * * * * * *

 "But hang it--to poets, who seldom can eat,
  Your very good mutton's a very good treat;
  Such dainties to them, their health it might hurt;
  It's like sending them ruffles, when wanting a shirt."

We have an amusing anecdote of one of Goldsmith's blunders which took place on a subsequent visit to Lord Clare's, when that nobleman was residing in Bath.

Lord Clare and the Duke of Northumberland had houses next to each other, of similar architecture. Returning home one morning from an early walk, Goldsmith, in one of his frequent fits of absence, mistook the house, and walked up into the duke's dining-room, where he and the duchess were about to sit down to breakfast. Goldsmith, still supposing himself in the house of Lord Clare, and that they were visitors, made them an easy salutation, being acquainted with, them, and threw himself on a sofa in the lounging manner of a man perfectly at home. The duke and duchess soon perceived his mistake, and, while they smiled internally, endeavored, with the considerateness of well-bred people, to prevent any awkward embarrassment. They accordingly chatted sociably with him about matters in Bath, until, breakfast being served, they invited him to partake. The truth at once flashed upon poor heedless Goldsmith; he started up from the free-and-easy position, made a confused apology for his blunder, and would have retired perfectly disconcerted, had not the duke and duchess treated the whole as a lucky occurrence to throw him in their way, and exacted a promise from him to dine with them.

This may be hung up as a companion-piece to his blunder on his first visit to Northumberland House.