Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XXXIX

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Chapter XXXIX[edit]


The return of Boswell to town to his task of noting down the conversations of Johnson enables us to glean from his journal some scanty notices of Goldsmith. It was now Holy Week, a time during which Johnson was particularly solemn in his manner and strict in his devotions. Boswell, who was the imitator of the great moralist in everything, assumed, of course, an extra devoutness on the present occasion. "He had an odd mock solemnity of tone and manner," said Miss Burney (afterward Madame D'Arblay), "which he had acquired from constantly thinking, and imitating Dr. Johnson." It would seem, that he undertook to deal out some secondhand homilies, à la Johnson, for the edification of Goldsmith during Holy Week. The poet, whatever might be his religious feeling, had no disposition to be schooled by so shallow an apostle. "Sir," said he in reply, "as I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the tailor, so I take my religion from the priest."

Boswell treasured up the reply in his memory or his memorandum book. A few days afterward, the 9th of April, he kept Good Friday with Dr. Johnson, in orthodox style; breakfasted with him on tea and crossbuns; went to church with him morning and evening; fasted in the interval, and read with him in the Greek Testament; then, in the piety of his heart, complained of the sore rebuff he had met with in the course of his religious exhortations to the poet, and lamented that the latter should indulge in "this loose way of talking." "Sir," replied Johnson, "Goldsmith knows nothing--he has made up his mind about nothing."

This reply seems to have gratified the lurking jealousy of Boswell, and he has recorded it in his journal. Johnson, however, with respect to Goldsmith, and indeed with respect to everybody else, blew hot as well as cold, according to the humor he was in. Boswell, who was astonished and piqued at the continually increasing celebrity of the poet, observed some time after to Johnson, in a tone of surprise, that Goldsmith had acquired more fame than all the officers of the last war who were not generals. "Why, sir," answered Johnson, his old feeling of good-will working uppermost, "you will find ten thousand fit to do what they did, before you find one to do what Goldsmith has done. You must consider that a thing is valued according to its rarity. A pebble that paves the street is in itself more useful than the diamond upon a lady's finger."

On the 13th of April we find Goldsmith and Johnson at the table of old General Oglethorpe, discussing the question of the degeneracy of the human race. Goldsmith asserts the fact, and attributes it to the influence of luxury. Johnson denies the fact; and observes that, even admitting it, luxury could not be the cause. It reached but a small proportion of the human race. Soldiers, on sixpence a day, could not indulge in luxuries; the poor and laboring classes, forming the great mass of mankind, were out of its sphere. Wherever it could reach them, it strengthened them and rendered them prolific. The conversation was not of particular force or point as reported by Boswell; the dinner party was a very small one, in which there was no provocation to intellectual display.

After dinner they took tea with the ladies, where we find poor Goldsmith happy and at home, singing Tony Lumpkin's song of the Three Jolly Pigeons, and another called the Humors of Ballamaguery, to a very pretty Irish tune. It was to have been introduced in She Stoops to Conquer, but was left out, as the actress who played the heroine could not sing.

It was in these genial moments that the sunshine of Goldsmith's nature would break out, and he would say and do a thousand whimsical and agreeable things that made him the life of the strictly social circle. Johnson, with whom conversation was everything, used to judge Goldsmith too much by his own colloquial standard, and undervalue him for being less provided than himself with acquired facts, the ammunition of the tongue and often the mere lumber of the memory; others, however, valued him for the native felicity of his thoughts, however carelessly expressed, and for certain good-fellow qualities, less calculated to dazzle than to endear. "It is amazing," said Johnson one day, after he himself had been talking like an oracle; "it is amazing how little Goldsmith knows; he seldom comes where he is not more ignorant than any one else." "Yet," replied Sir Joshua Reynolds, with affectionate promptness, "there is no man whose company is more liked."

Two or three days after the dinner at General Oglethorpe's, Goldsmith met Johnson again at the table of General Paoli, the hero of Corsica. Martinelli, of Florence, author of an Italian History of England, was among the guests; as was Boswell, to whom we are indebted for minutes of the conversation which took place. The question was debated whether Martinelli should continue his history down to that day. "To be sure he should," said Goldsmith. "No, sir;" cried Johnson, "it would give great offense. He would have to tell of almost all the living great what they did not wish told." Goldsmith.--"It may, perhaps, be necessary for a native to be more cautious; but a foreigner, who comes among us without prejudice, may be considered as holding the place of a judge, and may speak his mind freely." Johnson.--"Sir, a foreigner, when he sends a work from the press, ought to be on his guard against catching the error and mistaken enthusiasm of the people among whom he happens to be." Goldsmith.--"Sir, he wants only to sell his history, and to tell truth; one an honest, the other a laudable motive." Johnson.--"Sir, they are both laudable motives. It is laudable in a man to wish to live by his labors; but he should write so as he may live by them, not so as he may be knocked on the head. I would advise him to be at Calais before he publishes his history of the present age. A foreigner who attaches himself to a political party in this country is in the worst state that can be imagined; he is looked upon as a mere intermeddler. A native may do it from interest." Boswell.--"Or principle." Goldsmith.--"There are people who tell a hundred political lies every day, and are not hurt by it. Surely, then, one may tell truth with perfect safety." Johnson.--"Why, sir, in the first place, he who tells a hundred lies has disarmed the force of his lies. But, besides, a man had rather have a hundred lies told of him than one truth which he does not wish to be told." Goldsmith.--"For my part, I'd tell the truth, and shame the devil." Johnson.--"Yes, sir, but the devil will be angry. I wish to shame the devil as much as you do, but I should choose to be out of the reach of his claws." Goldsmith.--"His claws can do you no hurt where you have the shield of truth."

This last reply was one of Goldsmith's lucky hits, and closed the argument in his favor.

"We talked," writes Boswell, "of the king's coming to see Goldsmith's new play." "I wish he would," said Goldsmith, adding, however, with an affected indifference, "Not that it would do me the least good." "Well, then," cried Johnson, laughing, "let us say it would do him good. No, sir, this affectation will not pass; it is mighty idle. In such a state as ours, who would not wish to please the chief magistrate?"

"I do wish to please him," rejoined Goldsmith. "I remember a line in Dryden:

  "'And every poet is the monarch's friend,'

"it ought to be reversed." "Nay," said Johnson, "there are finer lines in Dryden on this subject:

 "'For colleges on bounteous kings depend,
   And never rebel was to arts a friend.'"

General Paoli observed that "successful rebels might be." "Happy rebellions," interjected Martinelli. "We have no such phrase," cried Goldsmith. "But have you not the thing?" asked Paoli. "Yes," replied Goldsmith, "all our happy revolutions. They have hurt our constitution, and will hurt it, till we mend it by another HAPPY REVOLUTION." This was a sturdy sally of Jacobitism that quite surprised Boswell, but must have been relished by Johnson.

General Paoli mentioned a passage in the play, which had been construed into a compliment to a lady of distinction, whose marriage with the Duke of Cumberland had excited the strong disapprobation of the king as a mesalliance. Boswell, to draw Goldsmith out, pretended to think the compliment unintentional. The poet smiled and hesitated. The general came to his relief. "Monsieur Goldsmith," said he, "est comme la mer, qui jette des perles et beaucoup d'autres belles choses, sans s'en appercevoir" (Mr. Goldsmith is like the sea, which casts forth pearls and many other beautiful things without perceiving it).

"Très-bien dit, et très-elegamment" (very well said, and very elegantly), exclaimed Goldsmith; delighted with so beautiful a compliment from such a quarter.

Johnson spoke disparagingly of the learning of a Mr. Harris, of Salisbury, and doubted his being a good Grecian. "He is what is much better," cried Goldsmith, with a prompt good-nature, "he is a worthy, humane man." "Nay, sir," rejoined the logical Johnson, "that is not to the purpose of our argument; that will prove that he can play upon the fiddle as well as Giardini, as that he is an eminent Grecian." Goldsmith found he had got into a scrape, and seized upon Giardini to help him out of it. "The greatest musical performers," said he, dexterously turning the conversation, "have but small emoluments; Giardini, I am told, does not get above seven hundred a year." "That is indeed but little for a man to get," observed Johnson, "who does best that which so many endeavor to do. There is nothing, I think, in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing on the fiddle. In all other things we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a hammer; not so well as a smith, but tolerably. A man will saw a piece of wood, and make a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a fiddle and fiddlestick, and he can do nothing."

This, upon the whole, though reported by the one-sided Boswell, is a tolerable specimen of the conversations of Goldsmith and Johnson; the farmer heedless, often illogical, always on the kind-hearted side of the question, and prone to redeem himself by lucky hits; the latter closely argumentative, studiously sententious, often profound, and sometimes laboriously prosaic.

They had an argument a few days later at Mr. Thrale's table, on the subject of suicide. "Do you think, sir," said Boswell, "that all who commit suicide are mad?" "Sir," replied Johnson, "they are not often universally disordered in their intellects, but one passion presses so upon them that they yield to it, and commit suicide, as a passionate man will stab another. I have often thought," added he, "that after a man has taken the resolution to kill himself, it is not courage in him to do anything, however desperate, because he has nothing to fear." "I don't see that," observed Goldsmith. "Nay, but, my dear sir," rejoined Johnson, "why should you not see what every one else does?" "It is," replied Goldsmith, "for fear of something that he has resolved to kill himself; and will not that timid disposition restrain him?" "It does not signify," pursued Johnson, "that the fear of something made him resolve; it is upon the state of his mind, after the resolution is taken, that I argue. Suppose a man, either from fear, or pride, or conscience, or whatever motive, has resolved to kill himself; when once the resolution is taken he has nothing to fear. He may then go and take the King of Prussia by the nose at the head of his army. He cannot fear the rack who is determined to kill himself." Boswell reports no more of the discussion, though Goldsmith might have continued it with advantage; for the very timid disposition, which, through fear of something, was impelling the man to commit suicide, might restrain him from an act involving the punishment of the rack, more terrible to him than death itself.

It is to be regretted in all these reports by Boswell we have scarcely anything but the remarks of Johnson; it is only by accident that he now and then gives us the observations of others, when they are necessary to explain or set off those of his hero. "When in that presence," says Miss Burney, "he was unobservant, if not contemptuous of every one else. In truth, when he met with Dr. Johnson, he commonly forbore even answering anything that was said, or attending to anything that went forward, lest he should miss the smallest sound from that voice, to which he paid such exclusive, though merited, homage. But the moment that voice burst forth, the attention which it excited on Mr. Boswell amounted almost to pain. His eyes goggled with eagerness; he leaned his ear almost on the shoulder of the doctor; and his mouth dropped open to catch every syllable that might be uttered; nay, he seemed not only to dread losing a word, but to be anxious not to miss a breathing; as if hoping from it latently, or mystically, some information."

On one occasion the doctor detected Boswell, or Bozzy, as he called him, eavesdropping behind his chair, as he was conversing with Miss Burney at Mr. Thrale's table. "What are you doing there, sir?" cried he, turning round angrily, and clapping his hand upon his knee. "Go to the table, sir."

Boswell obeyed with an air of affright and submission, which raised a smile on every face. Scarce had he taken his seat, however, at a distance, than, impatient to get again at the side of Johnson, he rose and was running off in quest of something to show him, when the doctor roared after him authoritatively, "What are you thinking of, sir? Why do you get up before the cloth is removed? Come back to your place, sir"--and the obsequious spaniel did as he was commanded. "Running about in the middle of meals!" muttered the doctor, pursing his mouth at the same time to restrain his rising risibility.

Boswell got another rebuff from Johnson, which would have demolished any other man. He had been teasing him with many direct questions, such as What did you do, sir? What did you say, sir? until the great philologist became perfectly enraged. "I will not be put to the question!" roared he. "Don't you consider, sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with what and why; What is this? What is that? Why is a cow's tail long? Why is a fox's tail bushy?" "Why, sir," replied pil-garlick, "you are so good that I venture to trouble you," "Sir," replied Johnson, "my being so good is no reason why you should be so ill." "You have but two topics, sir," exclaimed he on another occasion, "yourself and me, and I am sick of both."

Boswell's inveterate disposition to toad was a sore cause of mortification to his father, the old laird of Auchinleck (or Affleck). He had been annoyed by his extravagant devotion to Paoli, but then he was something of a military hero; but this tagging at the heels of Dr. Johnson, whom he considered a kind of pedagogue, set his Scotch blood in a ferment. "There's nae hope for Jamie, mon," said he to a friend; "Jamie is gaen clean gyte. What do you think, mon? He's done wi' Paoli; he's off wi' the land-louping scoundrel of a Corsican; and whose tail do you think he has pinn'd himself to now, mon? A dominie mon; an auld dominie: he keeped a schule, and cau'd it an acaadamy."

We shall show in the next chapter that Jamie's devotion to the dominie did not go unrewarded.