Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XIX

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Chapter XIX[edit]


Though Goldsmith's pride and ambition led him to mingle occasionally with high society, and to engage in the colloquial conflicts of the learned circle, in both of which he was ill at ease and conscious of being undervalued, yet he had some social resorts in which he indemnified himself for their restraints by indulging his humor without control. One of them was a shilling whist club, which held its meetings at the Devil Tavern, near Temple Bar, a place rendered classic, we are told, by a club held there in old times, to which "rare Ben Jonson" had furnished the rules. The company was of a familiar, unceremonious kind, delighting in that very questionable wit which consists in playing off practical jokes upon each other. Of one of these Goldsmith was made the butt. Coming to the club one night in a hackney coach, he gave the coachman by mistake a guinea instead of a shilling, which he set down as a dead loss, for there was no likelihood, he said, that a fellow of this class would have the honesty to return the money. On the next club evening he was told a person at the street door wished to speak with him. He went forth, but soon returned with a radiant countenance. To his surprise and delight the coachman had actually brought back the guinea. While he launched forth in praise of this unlooked-for piece of honesty, he declared it ought not to go unrewarded. Collecting a small sum from the club, and no doubt increasing it largely from his own purse, he dismissed the Jehu with many encomiums on his good conduct. He was still chanting his praises when one of the club requested a sight of the guinea thus honestly returned. To Goldsmith's confusion it proved to be a counterfeit. The universal burst of laughter which succeeded, and the jokes by which he was assailed on every side, showed him that the whole was a hoax, and the pretended coachman as much a counterfeit as the guinea. He was so disconcerted, it is said, that he soon beat a retreat for the evening.

Another of those free and easy clubs met on Wednesday evenings at the Globe Tavern in Fleet Street. It was somewhat in the style of the Three Jolly Pigeons; songs, jokes, dramatic imitations, burlesque parodies and broad sallies of humor, formed a contrast to the sententious morality, pedantic casuistry, and polished sarcasm of the learned circle. Here is a huge "tun of man," by the name of Gordon, use to delight Goldsmith by singing the jovial song of Nottingham Ale, and looking like a butt of it. Here, too, a wealthy pig butcher, charmed, no doubt, by the mild philanthropy of The Traveler, aspired to be on the most sociable footing with the author, and here was Tom King, the comedian, recently risen to consequence by his performance of Lord Ogleby in the new comedy of the Clandestine Marriage.

A member of more note was one Hugh Kelly, a second-rate author, who, as he became a kind of competitor of Goldsmith's, deserves particular mention. He was an Irishman, about twenty-eight years of age, originally apprenticed to a staymaker in Dublin; then writer to a London attorney; then a Grub Street hack, scribbling for magazines and newspapers. Of late he had set up for theatrical censor and satirist, and, in a paper called Thespis, in emulation of Churchill's Rosciad, had harassed many of the poor actors without mercy, and often without wit; but had lavished his incense on Garrick, who, in consequence, took him into favor. He was the author of several works of superficial merit, but which had sufficient vogue to inflate his vanity. This, however, must have been mortified on his first introduction to Johnson; after sitting a short time he got up to take leave, expressing a fear that a longer visit might be troublesome. "Not in the least, sir," said the surly moralist, "I had forgotten you were in the room." Johnson used to speak of him as a man who had written more than he had read.

A prime wag of this club was one of Goldsmith's poor countrymen and hangers-on, by the name of Glover. He had originally been educated for the medical profession, but had taken in early life to the stage, though apparently without much success. While performing at Cork, he undertook, partly in jest, to restore life to the body of a malefactor, who had just been executed. To the astonishment of every one, himself among the number, he succeeded. The miracle took wind. He abandoned the stage, resumed the wig and cane, and considered his fortune as secure. Unluckily, there were not many dead people to be restored to life in Ireland; his practice did not equal his expectation, so he came to London, where he continued to dabble indifferently, and rather unprofitably, in physic and literature.

He was a great frequenter of the Globe and Devil taverns, where he used to amuse the company by his talent at story-telling and his powers of mimicry, giving capital imitations of Garrick, Foote, Coleman, Sterne, and other public characters of the day. He seldom happened to have money enough to pay his reckoning, but was always sure to find some ready purse among those who had been amused by his humors. Goldsmith, of course, was one of the readiest. It was through him that Glover was admitted to the Wednesday Club, of which his theatrical imitations became the delight. Glover, however, was a little anxious for the dignity of his patron, which appeared to him to suffer from the overfamiliarity of some of the members of the club. He was especially shocked by the free and easy tone in which Goldsmith was addressed by the pig butcher: "Come, Noll," would he say, as he pledged him, "here's my service to you, old boy."

Glover whispered to Goldsmith that he "should not allow such liberties." "Let him alone," was the reply, "you'll see how civilly I'll let him down." After a time, he called out, with marked ceremony and politeness, "Mr. B., I have the honor of drinking your good health." Alas! dignity was not poor Goldsmith's forte: he could keep no one at a distance. "Thank'ee, thank'ee, Noll," nodded the pig-butcher, scarce taking the pipe out of his mouth. "I don't see the effect of your reproof," whispered Glover. "I give it up," replied Goldsmith, with a good-humored shrug, "I ought to have known before now there is no putting a pig in the right way."

Johnson used to be severe upon Goldsmith for mingling in these motley circles, observing that, having been originally poor, he had contracted a love for low company. Goldsmith, however, was guided not by a taste for what was low, but for what was comic and characteristic. It was the feeling of the artist; the feeling which furnished out some of his best scenes in familiar life; the feeling with which "rare Ben Jonson" sought those very haunts and circles in days of yore, to study "Every Man in His Humor."

It was not always, however, that the humor of these associates was to his taste: as they became boisterous in their merriment he was apt to become depressed. "The company of fools," says he, in one of his essays, "may at first make us smile; but at last never fails of making us melancholy." "Often he would become moody," says Glover, "and would leave the party abruptly to go home and brood over his misfortune."

It is possible, however, that he went home for quite a different purpose; to commit to paper some scene or passage suggested for his comedy of The Good-Natured Man. The elaboration of humor is often a most serious task; and we have never witnessed a more perfect picture of mental misery than was once presented to us by a popular dramatic writer--still, we hope, living--whom we found in the agonies of producing a farce which subsequently set the theaters in a roar.