Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XLI

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Chapter XLI[edit]


A few days after the serio-comic scene of the elevation of Boswell into the Literary Club, we find that indefatigable Biographer giving particulars of a dinner at the Dillys', booksellers, in the Poultry, at which he met Goldsmith and Johnson, with several other literary characters. His anecdotes of the conversation, of course, go to glorify Dr. Johnson; for, as he observes in his biography, "His conversation alone, or what led to it, or was interwoven with it, is the business of this work." Still on the present, as on other occasions, he gives unintentional and perhaps unavoidable gleams of Goldsmith's good sense, which show that the latter only wanted a less prejudiced and more impartial reporter to put down the charge of colloquial incapacity so unjustly fixed upon him. The conversation turned upon the natural history of birds, a beautiful subject, on which the poet, from his recent studies, his habits of observation, and his natural tastes, must have talked with instruction and feeling; yet, though we have much of what Johnson said, we have only a casual remark or two of Goldsmith. One was on the migration of swallows, which he pronounced partial; "the stronger ones," said he, "migrate, the others do not."

Johnson denied to the brute creation the faculty of reason. "Birds," said he, "build by instinct; they never improve; they build their first nest as well as any one they ever build." "Yet we see," observed Goldsmith, "if you take away a bird's nest with the eggs in it, she will make a slighter nest and lay again." "Sir," replied Johnson, "that is because at first she has full time, and makes her nest deliberately. In the case you mention, she is pressed to lay, and must, therefore, make her nest quickly, and consequently it will be slight." "The nidification of birds," rejoined Goldsmith, "is what is least known in natural history, though one of the most curious things in it." While conversation was going on in this placid, agreeable and instructive manner, the eternal meddler and busybody Boswell, must intrude, to put it in a brawl. The Dillys were dissenters; two of their guests were dissenting clergymen; another, Mr. Toplady, was a clergyman of the established church. Johnson, himself, was a zealous, uncompromising churchman. None but a marplot like Boswell would have thought, on such an occasion, and in such company, to broach the subject of religious toleration; but, as has been well observed, "it was his perverse inclination to introduce subjects that he hoped would produce difference and debate." In the present instance he gamed his point. An animated dispute immediately arose in which, according to Boswell's report, Johnson monopolized the greater part of the conversation; not always treating the dissenting clergymen with the greatest courtesy, and even once wounding the feelings of the mild and amiable Bennet Langton by his harshness.

Goldsmith mingled a little in the dispute and with some advantage, but was cut short by flat contradictions when most in the right. He sat for a time silent but impatient under such overbearing dogmatism, though Boswell, with his usual misinterpretation, attributes his "restless agitation" to a wish to get in and shine. "Finding himself excluded," continued Boswell, "he had taken his hat to go away, but remained for a time with it in his hand, like a gamester, who, at the end of a long night, lingers for a little while to see if he can have a favorable opportunity to finish with success." Once he was beginning to speak when he was overpowered by the loud voice of Johnson, who was at the opposite end of the table, and did not perceive his attempt; whereupon he threw down, as it were, his hat and his argument, and, darting an angry glance at Johnson, exclaimed in a bitter tone, "Take it."

Just then one of the disputants was beginning to speak, when Johnson uttering some sound, as if about to interrupt him, Goldsmith, according to Boswell, seized the opportunity to vent his own envy and spleen under pretext of supporting another person. "Sir," said he to Johnson, "the gentleman has heard you patiently for an hour; pray allow us now to hear him." It was a reproof in the lexicographer's own style, and he may have felt that he merited it; but he was not accustomed to be reproved. "Sir," said he sternly, "I was not interrupting the gentleman; I was only giving him a signal of my attention. Sir, you are impertinent." Goldsmith made no reply, but after some time went away, having another engagement.

That evening, as Boswell was on the way with Johnson and Langton to the club, he seized the occasion to make some disparaging remarks on Goldsmith, which he thought would just then be acceptable to the great lexicographer. "It was a pity," he said, "that Goldsmith would, on every occasion, endeavor to shine, by which he so often exposed himself." Langton contrasted him with Addison, who, content with the fame of his writings, acknowledged himself unfit for conversation; and on being taxed by a lady with silence in company, replied, "Madam, I have but ninepence in ready money, but I can draw for a thousand pounds." To this Boswell rejoined that Goldsmith had a great deal of gold in his cabinet, but was always taking out his purse. "Yes, sir," chuckled Johnson, "and that so often an empty purse."

By the time Johnson arrived at the club, however, his angry feelings had subsided, and his native generosity and sense of justice had got the uppermost. He found Goldsmith in company with Burke, Garrick, and other members, but sitting silent and apart, "brooding," as Boswell says, "over the reprimand he had received." Johnson's good heart yearned toward him; and knowing his placable nature, "I'll make Goldsmith forgive me," whispered he; then, with a loud voice, "Dr. Goldsmith," said he, "something passed to-day where you and I dined--I ask your pardon." The ire of the poet was extinguished in an instant, and his grateful affection for the magnanimous though sometimes overbearing moralist rushed to his heart. "It must be much from you, sir," said he, "that I take ill!" "And so," adds Boswell, "the difference was over, and they were on as easy terms as ever, and Goldsmith rattled away as usual." We do not think these stories tell to the poet's disadvantage, even though related by Boswell.

Goldsmith, with all his modesty, could not be ignorant of his proper merit; and must have felt annoyed at times at being undervalued and elbowed aside by light-minded or dull men, in their blind and exclusive homage to the literary autocrat. It was a fine reproof he gave to Boswell on one occasion, for talking of Johnson as entitled to the honor of exclusive superiority. "Sir, you are for making a monarchy what should be a republic." On another occasion, when he was conversing in company with great vivacity, and apparently to the satisfaction of those around him, an honest Swiss, who sat near, one George Michael Moser, keeper of the Royal Academy, perceiving Dr. Johnson rolling himself as if about to speak, exclaimed, "Stay, stay! Toctor Shonson is going to say something." "And are you sure, sir," replied Goldsmith, sharply, "that you can comprehend what he says?"

This clever rebuke, which gives the main zest to the anecdote, is omitted by Boswell, who probably did not perceive the point of it.

He relates another anecdote of the kind, on the authority of Johnson himself. The latter and Goldsmith were one evening in company with the Rev. George Graham, a master of Eton, who, notwithstanding the sobriety of his cloth, had got intoxicated "to about the pitch of looking at one man and talking to another." "Doctor," cried he in an ecstasy of devotion and good-will, but goggling by mistake upon Goldsmith, "I should be glad to see you at Eton." "I shall be glad to wait upon you," replied Goldsmith. "No, no!" cried the other eagerly, "'tis not you I mean, Doctor Minor, 'tis Doctor Major there." "You may easily conceive," said Johnson in relating the anecdote, "what effect this had upon Goldsmith, who was irascible as a hornet." The only comment, however, which he is said to have made, partakes more of quaint and dry humor than bitterness: "That Graham," said he, "is enough to make one commit suicide." What more could be said to express the intolerable nuisance of a consummate bore?

We have now given the last scenes between Goldsmith and Johnson which stand recorded by Boswell. The latter called on the poet a few days after the dinner at Dillys', to take leave of him prior to departing for Scotland; yet, even in this last interview, he contrives to get up a charge of "jealousy and envy." Goldsmith, he would fain persuade us, is very angry that Johnson is going to travel with him in Scotland; and endeavors to persuade him that he will be a dead weight "to lug along through the Highlands and Hebrides." Any one else, knowing the character and habits of Johnson, would have thought the same; and no one but Boswell would have supposed his office of bear-leader to the ursa major a thing to be envied. [Footnote: One of Peter Pindar's (Dr. Wolcot) most amusing jeux d'esprit is his congratulatory epistle to Boswell on his tour, of which we subjoin a few lines.

 "O Boswell, Bozzy, Bruce, whate'er thy name,
  Thou mighty shark for anecdote and fame;
  Thou jackal, leading lion Johnson forth,
  To eat M'Pherson 'midst his native north;
  To frighten grave professors with his roar,
  And shake the Hebrides from shore to shore.
       * * * * *
 "Bless'd be thy labors, most adventurous Bozzy,
  Bold rival of Sir John and Dame Piozzi;
  Heavens! with what laurels shall thy head be crown'd!
  A grove, a forest, shall thy ears surround!
  Yes! whilst the Rambler shall a comet blaze,
  And gild a world of darkness with his rays,
  Thee, too, that world with wonderment shall hail,
  A lively, bouncing cracker at his tail!"]