Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XLII

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Chapter XLII[edit]


The works which Goldsmith had still in hand being already paid for, and the money gone, some new scheme must be devised to provide for the past and the future--for impending debts which threatened to crush him, and expenses which were continually increasing. He now projected a work of greater compass than any he had yet undertaken; a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences on a comprehensive scale, which was to occupy a number of volumes. For this he received promises of assistance from several powerful hands. Johnson was to contribute an article on ethics; Burke, an abstract of his Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, an essay on the Berkleyan system of philosophy, and others on political science; Sir Joshua Reynolds, an essay on painting; and Garrick, while he undertook on his own part to furnish an essay on acting, engaged Dr. Burney to contribute an article on music. Here was a great array of talent positively engaged, while other writers of eminence were to be sought for the various departments of science. Goldsmith was to edit the whole. An undertaking of this kind, while it did not incessantly task and exhaust his inventive powers by original composition, would give agreeable and profitable exercise to his taste and judgment in selecting, compiling, and arranging, and he calculated to diffuse over the whole the acknowledged graces of his style.

He drew up a prospectus of the plan, which is said by Bishop Percy, who saw it, to have been written with uncommon ability, and to have had that perspicuity and elegance for which his writings are remarkable. This paper, unfortunately, is no longer in existence.

Goldsmith's expectations, always sanguine respecting any new plan, were raised to an extraordinary height by the present project; and well they might be, when we consider the powerful coadjutors already pledged. They were doomed, however, to complete disappointment. Davies, the bibliopole of Russell Street, lets us into the secret of this failure. "The booksellers," said he, "notwithstanding they had a very good opinion of his abilities, yet were startled at the bulk, importance, and expense of so great an undertaking, the fate of which was to depend upon the industry of a man with whose indolence of temper and method of procrastination they had long been acquainted."

Goldsmith certainly gave reason for some such distrust by the heedlessness with which he conducted his literary undertakings. Those unfinished, but paid for, would be suspended to make way for some job that was to provide for present necessities. Those thus hastily taken up would be as hastily executed, and the whole, however pressing, would be shoved aside and left "at loose ends," on some sudden call to social enjoyment or recreation.

Cradock tells us that on one occasion, when Goldsmith was hard at work on his Natural History, he sent to Dr. Percy and himself, entreating them to finish some pages of his work which lay upon his table, and for which the press was urgent, he being detained by other engagements at Windsor. They met by appointment at his chambers in the Temple, where they found everything in disorder, and costly books lying scattered about on the tables and on the floor; many of the books on natural history which he had recently consulted lay open among uncorrected proof-sheets. The subject in hand, and from which he had suddenly broken off, related to birds. "Do you know anything about birds?" asked Dr. Percy, smiling. "Not an atom," replied Cradock; "do you?" "Not I! I scarcely know a goose from a swan: however, let us try what we can do." They set to work and completed their friendly task. Goldsmith, however, when he came to revise it, made such alterations that they could neither of them recognize their own share. The engagement at Windsor, which had thus caused Goldsmith to break off suddenly from his multifarious engagements, was a party of pleasure with some literary ladies. Another anecdote was current, illustrative of the carelessness with which he executed works requiring accuracy and research. On the 22d of June he had received payment in advance for a Grecian History in two volumes, though only one was finished. As he was pushing on doggedly at the second volume, Gibbon, the historian, called in. "You are the man of all others I wish to see," cried the poet, glad to be saved the trouble of reference to his books. "What was the name of that Indian king who gave Alexander the Great so much trouble?" "Montezuma," replied Gibbon, sportively. The heedless author was about committing the name to paper without reflection, when Gibbon pretended to recollect himself, and gave the true name, Porus.

This story, very probably, was a sportive exaggeration; but it was a multiplicity of anecdotes like this and the preceding one, some true and some false, which had impaired the confidence of booksellers in Goldsmith, as a man to be relied on for a task requiring wide and accurate research, and close and long-continued application. The project of the Universal Dictionary, therefore, met with no encouragement, and fell through.

The failure of this scheme, on which he had built such spacious hopes, sank deep into Goldsmith's heart. He was still further grieved and mortified by the failure of an effort made by some of his friends to obtain for him a pension from government. There had been a talk of the disposition of the ministry to extend the bounty of the crown to distinguished literary men in pecuniary difficulty, without regard to their political creed: when the merits and claims of Goldsmith, however, were laid before them, they met no favor. The sin of sturdy independence lay at his door. He had refused to become a ministerial hack when offered a carte blanche by Parson, Scott, the cabinet emissary. The wondering parson had left him his poverty and "his garrets" and there the ministry were disposed to suffer him to remain.

In the meantime Dr. Beattie comes out with his Essay On Truth, and all the orthodox world are thrown into a paroxysm of contagious ecstasy. He is cried up as the great champion of Christianity against the attacks of modern philosophers and infidels; he is feted and flattered in every way. He receives at Oxford the honorary degree of doctor of civil law, at the same time with Sir Joshua Reynolds. The king sends for him, praises his Essay, and gives him a pension of two hundred pounds.

Goldsmith feels more acutely the denial of a pension to himself when one has thus been given unsolicited to a man he might without vanity consider so much his inferior. He was not one to conceal his feelings. "Here's such a stir," said he one day at Thrale's table, "about a fellow that has written one book, and I have written so many!"

"Ah, doctor!" exclaimed Johnson, in one of his caustic moods, "there go two and forty sixpences, you know, to one guinea." This is one of the cuts at poor Goldsmith in which Johnson went contrary to head and heart in his love for saying what is called a "good thing." No one knew better than himself the comparative superiority of the writings of Goldsmith; but the jingle of the sixpences and the guinea was not to be resisted.

"Everybody," exclaimed Mrs. Thrale, "loves Dr. Beattie, but Goldsmith, who says he cannot bear the sight of so much applause as they all bestow upon him. Did he not tell us so himself no one would believe he was so exceedingly ill-natured."

He told them so himself because he was too open and unreserved to disguise his feelings, and because he really considered the praise lavished on Beattie extravagant, as in fact it was. It was all, of course, set down to sheer envy and uncharitableness. To add to his annoyance, he found his friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, joining in the universal adulation. He had painted a full-length portrait of Beattie decked in the doctor's robes in which he had figured at Oxford, with the Essay on Truth under his arm and the angel of truth at his side, while Voltaire figured as one of the demons of infidelity, sophistry, and falsehood, driven into utter darkness.

Goldsmith had known Voltaire in early life; he had been his admirer and his biographer; he grieved to find him receiving such an insult from the classic pencil of his friend. "It is unworthy of you," said he to Sir Joshua, "to debase so high a genius as Voltaire before so mean a writer as Beattie. Beattie and his book will be forgotten in ten years, while Voltaire's fame will last forever. Take care it does not perpetuate this picture to the shame of such a man as you." This noble and high-minded rebuke is the only instance on record of any reproachful words between the poet and the painter; and we are happy to find that it did not destroy the harmony of their intercourse.