Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XI

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Chapter XI[edit]


Toward the end of March, 1759, the treatise on which Goldsmith had laid so much stress, on which he at one time had calculated to defray the expenses of his outfit to India, and to which he had adverted in his correspondence with Griffiths, made its appearance. It was published by the Dodsleys, and entitled An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe.

In the present day, when the whole field of contemporary literature is so widely surveyed and amply discussed, and when the current productions of every country are constantly collated and ably criticised, a treatise like that of Goldsmith would be considered as extremely limited and unsatisfactory; but at that time it possessed novelty in its views and wideness in its scope, and being indued with the peculiar charm of style inseparable from the author, it commanded public attention and a profitable sale. As it was the most important production that had yet come from Goldsmith's pen, he was anxious to have the credit of it; yet it appeared without his name on the title-page. The authorship, however, was well known throughout the world of letters, and the author had now grown into sufficient literary importance to become an object of hostility to the underlings of the press. One of the most virulent attacks upon him was in a criticism on this treatise, and appeared in the "Monthly Review," to which he himself had been recently a contributor. It slandered him as a man while it decried him as an author, and accused him, by innuendo, of "laboring under the infamy of having, by the vilest and meanest actions, forfeited all pretensions to honor and honesty," and of practicing "those acts which bring the sharper to the cart's tail or the pillory."

It will be remembered that the "Review" was owned by Griffiths the bookseller, with whom Goldsmith had recently had a misunderstanding. The criticism, therefore, was no doubt dictated by the lingerings of resentment; and the imputations upon Goldsmith's character for honor and honesty, and the vile and mean actions hinted at, could only allude to the unfortunate pawning of the clothes. All this, too, was after Griffiths had received the affecting letter from Goldsmith, drawing a picture of his poverty and perplexities, and after the latter had made him a literary compensation. Griffiths, in fact, was sensible of the falsehood and extravagance of the attack, and tried to exonerate himself by declaring that the criticism was written by a person in his employ; but we see no difference in atrocity between him who wields the knife and him who hires the cut-throat. It may be well, however, in passing, to bestow our mite of notoriety upon the miscreant who launched the slander. He deserves it for a long course of dastardly and venomous attacks, not merely upon Goldsmith, but upon most of the successful authors of the day. His name was Kenrick. He was originally a mechanic, but, possessing some degree of talent and industry, applied himself to literature as a profession. This he pursued for many years, and tried his hand in every department of prose and poetry; he wrote plays and satires, philosophical tracts, critical dissertations, and works on philology; nothing from his pen ever rose to first-rate excellence, or gained him a popular name, though he received from some university the degree of Doctor of Laws. Dr. Johnson characterized his literary career in one short sentence. "Sir, he is one of the many who have made themselves public without making themselves known."

Soured by his own want of success, jealous of the success of others, his natural irritability of temper increased by habits of intemperance, he at length abandoned himself to the practice of reviewing, and became one of the Ishmaelites of the press. In this his malignant bitterness soon gave him a notoriety which his talents had never been able to attain. We shall dismiss him for the present with the following sketch of him by the hand of one of his contemporaries:

  "Dreaming of genius which he never had,
  Half wit, half fool, half critic, and half mad;
  Seizing, like Shirley, on the poet's lyre,
  With all his rage, but not one spark of fire;
  Eager for slaughter, and resolved to tear
  From other's brows that wreath he most not wear
  Next Kenrick came: all furious and replete
  With brandy, malice, pertness, and conceit;
  Unskill'd in classic lore, through envy blind
  To all that's beauteous, learned, or refined;
  For faults alone behold the savage prowl,
  With reason's offal glut his ravening soul;
  Pleased with his prey, its inmost blood he drinks,
  And mumbles, paws, and turns it--till it stinks."

The British press about this time was extravagantly fruitful of periodical publications. That "oldest inhabitant," the "Gentleman's Magazine," almost coeval with St. John's gate which graced its title-page, had long been elbowed by magazines and reviews of all kinds; Johnson's Rambler had introduced the fashion of periodical essays, which he had followed up in his Adventurer and Idler. Imitations had sprung up on every side, under every variety of name; until British literature was entirely overrun by a weedy and transient efflorescence. Many of these rival periodicals choked each other almost at the outset, and few of them have escaped oblivion.

Goldsmith wrote for some of the most successful, such as the "Bee," the "Busy-Body," and the "Lady's Magazine." His essays, though characterized by his delightful style, his pure, benevolent morality, and his mellow, unobtrusive humor, did not produce equal effect at first with more garish writings of infinitely less value; they did not "strike," as it is termed; but they had that rare and enduring merit which rises in estimation on every perusal. They gradually stole upon the heart of the public, were copied into numerous contemporary publications, and now they are garnered up among the choice productions of British literature.

In his Inquiry into the State of Polite Learning, Goldsmith had given offense to David Garrick, at that time the autocrat of the Drama, and was doomed to experience its effect. A clamor had been raised against Garrick for exercising a despotism over the stage, and bringing forward nothing but old plays to the exclusion of original productions. Walpole joined in this charge. "Garrick," said he, "is treating the town as it deserves and likes to be treated; with scenes, fireworks, and his own writings. A good new play I never expect to see more; nor have seen since the Provoked Husband, which came out when I was at school." Goldsmith, who was extremely fond of the theater, and felt the evils of this system, inveighed in his treatise against the wrongs experienced by authors at the hands of managers. "Our poet's performance," said he, "must undergo a process truly chemical before it is presented to the public. It must be tried in the manager's fire; strained through a licenser, suffer from repeated corrections, till it may be a mere caput mortuum when it arrives before the public." Again. "Getting a play on even in three or four years is a privilege reserved only for the happy few who have the arts of courting the manager as well as the muse; who have adulation to please his vanity, powerful patrons to support their merit, or money to indemnify disappointment. Our Saxon ancestors had but one name for a wit and a witch. I will not dispute the propriety of uniting those characters then; but the man who under present discouragements ventures to write for the stage, whatever claim he may have to the appellation of a wit, at least has no right to be called a conjurer." But a passage which perhaps touched more sensibly than all the rest on the sensibilities of Garrick was the following.

"I have no particular spleen against the fellow who sweeps the stage with the besom, or the hero who brushes it with his train. It were a matter of indifference to me whether our heroines are in keeping, or our candle snuffers burn their fingers, did not such make a great part of public care and polite conversation. Our actors assume all that state off the stage which they do on it; and, to use an expression borrowed from the green room, every one is up in his part. I am sorry to say it, they seem to forget their real characters."

These strictures were considered by Garrick as intended for himself, and they were rankling in his mind when Goldsmith waited upon him and solicited his vote for the vacant secretaryship of the Society of Arts, of which the manager was a member. Garrick, puffed up by his dramatic renown and his intimacy with the great, and knowing Goldsmith only by his budding reputation, may not have considered him of sufficient importance to be conciliated. In reply to his solicitations, he observed that he could hardly expect his friendly exertions after the unprovoked attack he had made upon his management. Goldsmith replied that he had indulged in no personalities, and had only spoken what he believed to be the truth. He made no further apology nor application; failed to get the appointment, and considered Garrick his enemy. In the second edition of his treatise he expunged or modified the passages which had given the manager offense; but though the author and actor became intimate in after years, this false step at the outset of their intercourse was never forgotten.

About this time Goldsmith engaged with Dr. Smollett, who was about to launch the "British Magazine." Smollett was a complete schemer and speculator in literature, and intent upon enterprises that had money rather than reputation in view. Goldsmith has a good-humored hit at this propensity in one of his papers in the "Bee," in which he represents Johnson, Hume, and others taking seats in the stagecoach bound for Fame, while Smollett prefers that destined for Riches.

Another prominent employer of Goldsmith was Mr. John Newbery, who engaged him to contribute occasional essays to a newspaper entitled the "Public Ledger," which made its first appearance on the 12th of January, 1760. His most valuable and characteristic contributions to this paper were his Chinese Letters, subsequently modified into the Citizen of the World. These lucubrations attracted general attention; they were reprinted in the various periodical publications of the day, and met with great applause. The name of the author, however, was as yet but little known.

Being now in easier circumstances, and in the receipt of frequent sums from the booksellers, Goldsmith, about the middle of 1760, emerged from his dismal abode in Green Arbor Court, and took respectable apartments in Wine-Office Court, Fleet Street.

Still he continued to look back with considerate benevolence to the poor hostess, whose necessities he had relieved by pawning his gala coat, for we are told that "he often supplied her with food from his own table, and visited her frequently with the sole purpose to be kind to her."

He now became a member of a debating club, called the Robin Hood, which used to meet near Temple Bar, and in which Burke, while yet a Temple student, had first tried his powers. Goldsmith spoke here occasionally, and is recorded in the Robin Hood archives as "a candid disputant, with a clear head and an honest heart, though coming but seldom to the society." His relish was for clubs of a more social, jovial nature, and he was never fond of argument. An amusing anecdote is told of his first introduction to the club by Samuel Derrick, an Irish acquaintance of some humor. On entering, Goldsmith was struck with the self-important appearance of the chairman ensconced in a large gilt chair. "This," said he, "must be the Lord Chancellor at least." "No, no," replied Derrick, "he's only master of the rolls."--The chairman was a baker.