Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter IX

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Chapter IX[edit]


For some time Goldsmith continued to write miscellaneously for reviews and other periodical publications, but without making any decided hit, to use a technical term. Indeed, as yet he appeared destitute of the strong excitement of literary ambition, and wrote only on the spur of necessity and at the urgent importunity of his bookseller. His indolent and truant disposition, ever averse from labor and delighting in holiday, had to be scourged up to its task; still it was this very truant disposition which threw an unconscious charm over everything he wrote; bringing with it honeyed thoughts and pictured images which had sprung up in his mind in the sunny hours of idleness: these effusions, dashed off on compulsion in the exigency of the moment, were published anonymously; so that they made no collective impression on the public, and reflected no fame on the name of their author.

In an essay published some time subsequently in the "Bee," Goldsmith adverts, in his own humorous way, to his impatience at the tardiness with which his desultory and unacknowledged essays crept into notice. "I was once induced," says he, "to show my indignation against the public by discontinuing my efforts to please; and was bravely resolved, like Raleigh, to vex them by burning my manuscripts in a passion. Upon reflection, however, I considered what set or body of people would be displeased at my rashness. The sun, after so sad an accident, might shine next morning as bright as usual; men might laugh and sing the next day, and transact business as before; and not a single creature feel any regret but myself. Instead of having Apollo in mourning or the Muses in a fit of the spleen; instead of having the learned world apostrophizing at my untimely decease; perhaps all Grub Street might laugh at my fate, and self-approving dignity be unable to shield me from ridicule."

Circumstances occurred about this time to give a new direction to Goldsmith's hopes and schemes. Having resumed for a brief period the superintendence of the Peckham school during a fit of illness of Dr. Milner, that gentleman, in requital for his timely services, promised to use his influence with a friend, an East India director, to procure him a medical appointment in India.

There was every reason to believe that the influence of Dr. Milner would be effectual; but how was Goldsmith to find the ways and means of fitting himself out for a voyage to the Indies? In this emergency he was driven to a more extended exercise of the pen than he had yet attempted. His skirmishing among books as a reviewer, and his disputatious ramble among the schools and universities and literati of the Continent, had filled his mind with facts and observations which he now set about digesting into a treatise of some magnitude, to be entitled "An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe." As the work grew on his hands his sanguine temper ran ahead of his labors. Feeling secure of success in England, he was anxious to forestall the piracy of the Irish press; for as yet, the Union not having taken place, the English law of copyright did not extend to the other side of the Irish Channel. He wrote, therefore, to his friends in Ireland, urging them to circulate his proposals for his contemplated work, and obtain subscriptions payable in advance; the money to be transmitted to a Mr. Bradley, an eminent bookseller in Dublin, who would give a receipt for it and be accountable for the delivery of the books. The letters written by him on this occasion are worthy of copious citation as being full of character and interest. One was to his relative and college intimate, Edward Wells, who had studied for the bar, but was now living at ease on his estate at Roscommon. "You have quitted," writes Goldsmith, "the plan of life which you once intended to pursue, and given up ambition for domestic tranquillity. I cannot avoid feeling some regret that one of my few friends has declined a pursuit in which he had every reason to expect success. I have often let my fancy loose when you were the subject, and have imagined you gracing the bench, or thundering at the bar: while I have taken no small pride to myself, and whispered to all that I could come near, that this was my cousin. Instead of this, it seems, you are merely contented to be a happy man; to be esteemed by your acquaintances; to cultivate your paternal acres; to take unmolested a nap under one of your own hawthorns or in Mrs. Wells' bedchamber, which, even a poet must confess, is rather the more comfortable place of the two. But, however your resolutions may be altered with regard to your situation in life, I persuade myself they are unalterable with respect to your friends in it. I cannot think the world has taken such entire possession of that heart (once so susceptible of friendship) as not to have left a corner there for a friend or two, but I flatter myself that even I have a place among the number. This I have a claim to from the similitude of our dispositions; or setting that aside, I can demand it as a right by the most equitable law of nature; I mean that of retaliation; for indeed you have more than your share in mine. I am a man of few professions; and yet at this very instant I cannot avoid the painful apprehension that my present professions (which speak not half my feelings) should be considered only as a pretext to cover a request, as I have a request to make. No, my dear Ned, I know you are too generous to think so, and you know me too proud to stoop to unnecessary insincerity--I have a request, it is true, to make; but as I know to whom I am a petitioner, I make it without diffidence or confusion. It is in short, this, I am going to publish a book in London," etc. The residue of the letter specifies the nature of the request, which was merely to aid in circulating his proposals and obtaining subscriptions. The letter of the poor author, however, was unattended to and unacknowledged by the prosperous Mr. Wells, of Roscommon, though in after years he was proud to claim relationship to Dr. Goldsmith, when he had risen to celebrity.

Another of Goldsmith's letters was to Robert Bryanton, with whom he had long ceased to be in correspondence. "I believe," writes he, "that they who are drunk, or out of their wits, fancy everybody else in the same condition. Mine is a friendship that neither distance nor tune can efface, which is probably the reason that, for the soul of me, I can't avoid thinking yours of the same complexion; and yet I have many reasons for being of a contrary opinion, else why, in so long an absence, was I never made a partner in your concerns? To hear of your success would have given me the utmost pleasure; and a communication of your very disappointments would divide the uneasiness I too frequently feel for my own. Indeed, my dear Bob, you don't conceive how unkindly you have treated one whose circumstances afford him few prospects of pleasure, except those reflected from the happiness of his friends. However, since you have not let me hear from you, I have in some measure disappointed your neglect by frequently thinking of you. Every day or so I remember the calm anecdotes of your life, from the fireside to the easy-chair; recall the various adventures that first cemented our friendship; the school, the college, or the tavern; preside in fancy over your cards; and am displeased at your bad play when the rubber goes against you, though not with all that agony of soul as when I was once your partner. Is it not strange that two of such like affections should be so much separated, and so differently employed as we are? You seem placed at the center of fortune's wheel, and, let it revolve ever so fast, are insensible of the motion. I seem to have been tied to the circumference, and whirled disagreeably round, as if on a whirligig."

He then runs into a whimsical and extravagant tirade about his future prospects. The wonderful career of fame and fortune that awaits him, and after indulging in all kinds of humorous gasconades, concludes: "Let me, then, stop my fancy to take a view of my future self--and, as the boys say, light down to see myself on horseback. Well, now that I am down, where the d--l is I? Oh gods! gods! here in a garret, writing for bread, and expecting to be dunned for a milk score!"

He would, on this occasion, have doubtless written to his uncle Contarine, but that generous friend was sunk into a helpless, hopeless state from which death soon released him.

Cut off thus from the kind co-operation of his uncle, he addresses a letter to his daughter Jane, the companion of his schoolboy and happy days, now the wife of Mr. Lawder. The object was to secure her interest with her husband in promoting the circulation of his proposals. The letter is full of character.

"If you should ask," he begins, "why, in an interval of so many years, you never heard from me, permit me, madam, to ask the same question. I have the best excuse in recrimination. I wrote to Kilmore from Leyden in Holland, from Louvain in Flanders, and Rouen in France, but received no answer. To what could I attribute this silence but to displeasure or forgetfulness? Whether I was right in my conjecture I do not pretend to determine; but this I must ingenuously own that I have a thousand times in my turn endeavored to forget them, whom I could not but look upon as forgetting me. I have attempted to blot their names from my memory, and, I confess it, spent whole days in efforts to tear their image from my heart. Could I have succeeded, you had not now been troubled with this renewal of a discontinued correspondence; but, as every effort the restless make to procure sleep serves but to keep them waking, all my attempts contributed to impress what I would forget deeper on my imagination. But this subject I would willingly turn from, and yet, 'for the soul of me,' I can't till I have said all. I was, madam, when I discontinued writing to Kilmore, in such circumstances that all my endeavors to continue your regards might be attributed to wrong motives. My letters might be looked upon as the petitions of a beggar, and not the offerings of a friend; while all my professions, instead of being considered as the result of disinterested esteem, might be ascribed to venal insincerity. I believe, indeed, you had too much generosity to place them in such a light, but I could not bear even the shadow of such a suspicion. The most delicate friendships are always most sensible of the slightest invasion, and the strongest jealousy is ever attendant on the warmest regard. I could not--I own I could not--continue a correspondence in which every acknowledgment for past favors might be considered as an indirect request for future ones; and where it might be thought I gave my heart from a motive of gratitude alone, when I was conscious of having bestowed it on much more disinterested principles. It is true, this conduct might have been simple enough; but yourself must confess it was in character. Those who know me at all, know that I have always been actuated by different principles from the rest of mankind: and while none regarded the interest of his friend more, no man on earth regarded his own less. I have often affected bluntness to avoid the imputation of flattery; have frequently seemed to overlook those merits too obvious to escape notice, and pretended disregard to those instances of good nature and good sense, which I could not fail tacitly to applaud; and all this lest I should be ranked among the grinning tribe, who say 'very true' to all that is said; who fill a vacant chair at a tea-table; whose narrow souls never moved in a wider circle than the circumference of a guinea; and who had rather be reckoning the money in your pocket than the virtue in your breast. All this, I say, I have done, and a thousand other very silly, though very disinterested, things in my time, and for all which no soul cares a farthing about me.... Is it to be wondered that he should once in his life forget you, who has been all his life forgetting himself? However, it is probable you may one of these days see me turned into a perfect hunks, and as dark and intricate as a mouse-hole. I have already given my landlady orders for an entire reform in the state of my finances. I declaim against hot suppers, drink less sugar in my tea, and check my grate with brickbats. Instead of hanging my room with pictures, I intend to adorn it with maxims of frugality. Those will make pretty furniture enough, and won't be a bit too expensive; for I will draw them all out with my own hands, and my landlady's daughter shall frame them with the parings of my black waistcoat. Each maxim is to be inscribed on a sheet of clean paper, and wrote with my best pen; of which the following will serve as a specimen. Look sharp: Mind the main chance: Money is money now: If you have a thousand pounds you can put your hands by your sides, and say you are worth a thousand pounds every day of the year: Take a farthing from a hundred and it will be a hundred no longer. Thus, which way soever I turn my eyes, they are sure to meet one of those friendly monitors; and as we are told of an actor who hung his room round with looking-glass to correct the defects of his person, my apartment shall be furnished in a peculiar manner, to correct the errors of my mind. Faith! madam, I heartily wish to be rich, if it were only for this reason, to say without a blush how much I esteem you. But, alas! I have many a fatigue to encounter before that happy times comes, when your poor old simple friend may again give a loose to the luxuriance of his nature; sitting by Kilmore fireside, recount the various adventures of a hard-fought life; laugh over the follies of the day; join his flute to your harpsichord; and forget that ever he starved in those streets where Butler and Otway starved before him. And now I mention those great names--my uncle! he is no more that soul of fire as when I once knew him. Newton and Swift grew dim with age as well as he. But what shall I say? His mind was too active an inhabitant not to disorder the feeble mansion of its abode: for the richest jewels soonest wear their settings. Yet who but the fool would lament his condition! He now forgets the calamities of life. Perhaps indulgent Heaven has given him a foretaste of that tranquillity here, which he so well deserves hereafter. But I must come to business; for business, as one of my maxims tells me, must be minded or lost. I am going to publish in London a book entitled 'The Present State of Taste and Literature in Europe.' The booksellers in Ireland republish every performance there without making the author any consideration. I would, in this respect, disappoint their avarice and have all the profits of my labor to myself. I must therefore request Mr. Lawder to circulate among his friends and acquaintances a hundred of my proposals which I have given the bookseller, Mr. Bradley, in Dame Street, directions to send to him. If, in pursuance of such circulation, he should receive any subscriptions, I entreat, when collected, they may be sent to Mr. Bradley, as aforesaid, who will give a receipt, and be accountable for the work, or a return of the subscription. If this request (which, if it be complied with, will in some measure be an encouragement to a man of learning) should be disagreeable or troublesome, I would not press it; for I would be the last man on earth to have my labors go a-begging; but if I know Mr. Lawder (and sure I ought to know him), he will accept the employment with pleasure. All I can say--if he writes a book, I will get him two hundred subscribers, and those of the best wits in Europe. Whether this request is complied with or not, I shall not be uneasy; but there is one petition I must make to him and to you, which I solicit with the warmest ardor, and in which I cannot bear a refusal. I mean, dear madam, that I may be allowed to subscribe myself, your ever affectionate and obliged kinsman, OLIVER GOLDSMITH. Now see how I blot and blunder, when I am asking a favor."