Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography/Chapter XXXVIII

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Chapter XXXVIII[edit]


The triumphant success of She Stoops to Conquer brought forth, of course, those carpings and cavilings of underling scribblers which are the thorns and briers in the path of successful authors.

Goldsmith, though easily nettled by attacks of the kind, was at present too well satisfied with the reception of his comedy to heed them; but the following anonymous letter, which appeared in a public paper, was not to be taken with equal equanimity:



"Vous vous noyez par vanité.

"SIR--The happy knack which you have learned of puffing your own compositions, provokes me to come forth. You have not been the editor of newspapers and magazines not to discover the trick of literary humbug; but the gauze is so thin that the very foolish part of the world see through it, and discover the doctor's monkey face and cloven foot. Your poetic vanity is as unpardonable as your personal. Would man believe it, and will woman bear it, to be told that for hours the great Goldsmith will stand surveying his grotesque orang-outang's figure in a pier-glass? Was but the lovely H--k as much enamored, you would not sigh, my gentle swain, in vain. But your vanity is preposterous. How will this same bard of Bedlam ring the changes in the praise of Goldy! But what has he to be either proud or vain of? The Traveler is a flimsy poem, built upon false principles--principles diametrically opposite to liberty. What is The Good-Natured Man but a poor, water-gruel dramatic dose? What is The Deserted Village but a pretty poem of easy numbers, without fancy, dignity, genius, or fire? And, pray, what may be the last speaking pantomime, so praised by the doctor himself, but an incoherent piece of stuff, the figure of a woman with a fish's tail, without plot, incident, or intrigue? We are made to laugh at stale, dull jokes, wherein we mistake pleasantry for wit, and grimace for humor; wherein every scene is unnatural and inconsistent with the rules, the laws of nature and of the drama; viz., two gentlemen come to a man of fortune's house, eat, drink, etc., and take it for an inn. The one is intended as a lover for the daughter; he talks with her for some hours; and, when he sees her again in a different dress, he treats her as a bar-girl, and swears she squinted. He abuses the master of the house, and threatens to kick him out of his own doors. The squire, whom we are told is to be a fool, proves to be the most sensible being of the piece; and he makes out a whole act by bidding his mother lie close behind a bush, persuading her that his father, her own husband, is a highwayman, and that he has come to cut their throats; and, to give his cousin an opportunity to go off, he drives his mother over hedges, ditches, and through ponds. There is not, sweet, sucking Johnson, a natural stroke in the whole play but the young fellow's giving the stolen jewels to the mother, supposing her to be the landlady. That Mr. Colman did no justice to this piece, I honestly allow; that he told all his friends it would be damned, I positively aver; and, from such ungenerous insinuations, without a dramatic merit, it rose to public notice, and it is now the ton to go and see it, though I never saw a person that either liked it or approved it, any more than the absurd plot of Home's tragedy of Alonzo. Mr. Goldsmith, correct your arrogance, reduce your vanity, and endeavor to believe, as a man, you are of the plainest sort; and as an author, but a mortal piece of mediocrity.

  "Brise le miroir infidèle
  Qui vous cache la vérité.


It would be difficult to devise a letter more calculated to wound the peculiar sensibilities of Goldsmith. The attacks upon him as an author, though annoying enough, he could have tolerated; but then the allusion to his "grotesque" person, to his studious attempts to adorn it; and, above all, to his being an unsuccessful admirer of the lovely H--k (the Jessamy Bride), struck rudely upon the most sensitive part of his highly sensitive nature. The paragraph, it was said, was first pointed out to him by an officious friend, an Irishman, who told him he was bound in honor to resent it; but he needed no such prompting. He was in a high state of excitement and indignation, and accompanied by his friend, who is said to have been a Captain Higgins, of the marines, he repaired to Paternoster Row, to the shop of Evans, the publisher, whom he supposed to be the editor of the paper. Evans was summoned by his shopman from an adjoining room. Goldsmith announced his name. "I have called," added he, "in consequence of a scurrilous attack made upon me, and an unwarrantable liberty taken with the name of a young lady. As for myself, I care little; but her name must not be sported with."

Evans professed utter ignorance of the matter, and said he would speak to the editor. He stooped to examine a file of the paper, in search of the offensive article; whereupon Goldsmith's friend gave him a signal, that now was a favorable moment for the exercise of his cane. The hint was taken as quick as given, and the cane was vigorously applied to the back of the stooping publisher. The latter rallied in an instant, and, being a stout, high-blooded Welshman, returned the blows with interest. A lamp hanging overhead was broken, and sent down a shower of oil upon the combatants; but the battle raged with unceasing fury. The shopman ran off for a constable; but Dr. Kenrick, who happened to be in the adjacent room, sallied forth, interfered between the combatants, and put an end to the affray. He conducted Goldsmith to a coach, in exceedingly battered and tattered plight, and accompanied him home, soothing him with much mock commiseration, though he was generally suspected, and on good grounds, to be the author of the libel.

Evans immediately instituted a suit against Goldsmith for an assault, but was ultimately prevailed upon to compromise the matter, the poet contributing fifty pounds to the Welsh charity.

Newspapers made themselves, as may well be supposed, exceedingly merry with the combat. Some censured him severely for invading the sanctity of a man's own house; others accused him of having, in his former capacity of editor of a magazine, been guilty of the very offenses that he now resented in others. This drew from him the following vindication:

"To the Public.

"Lest it should be supposed that I have been willing to correct in others an abuse of which I have been guilty myself, I beg leave to declare, that, in all my life, I never wrote or dictated a single paragraph, letter, or essay in a newspaper, except a few moral essays under the character of a Chinese, about ten years ago, in the 'Ledger,' and a letter, to which I signed my name in the 'St. James' Chronicle.' If the liberty of the press, therefore, has been abused, I have had no hand in it.

"I have always considered the press as the protector of our freedom, as a watchful guardian, capable of uniting the weak against the encroachments of power. What concerns the public most properly admits of a public discussion. But, of late, the press has turned from defending public interest to making inroads upon private life; from combating the strong to overwhelming the feeble. No condition is now too obscure for its abuse, and the protector has become the tyrant of the people. In this manner the freedom of the press is beginning to sow the seeds of its own dissolution; the great must oppose it from principle, and the weak from fear; till at last every rank of mankind shall be found to give up its benefits, content with security from insults.

"How to put a stop to this licentiousness, by which all are indiscriminately abused, and by which vice consequently escapes in the general censure, I am unable to tell; all I could wish is that, as the law gives us no protection against the injury, so it should give calumniators no shelter after having provoked correction. The insults which we receive before the public, by being more open, are the more distressing; by treating them with silent contempt we do not pay a sufficient deference to the opinion of the world. By recurring to legal redress we too often expose the weakness of the law, which only serves to increase our mortification by failing to relieve us. In short, every man should singly consider himself as the guardian of the liberty of the press, and, as far as his influence can extend, should endeavor to prevent its licentiousness becoming at last the grave of its freedom.


Boswell, who had just arrived in town, met with this article in a newspaper which he found at Dr. Johnson's. The doctor was from home at the time, and Bozzy and Mrs. Williams, in a critical conference over the letter, determined from the style that it must have been written by the lexicographer himself. The latter on his return soon undeceived them. "Sir," said he to Boswell, "Goldsmith would no more have asked me to have wrote such a thing as that for him than he would have asked me to feed him with a spoon, or do anything else that denoted his imbecility. Sir, had he shown it to any one friend, he would not have been allowed to publish it. He has, indeed, done it very well; but it is a foolish thing well done. I suppose he has been so much elated with the success of his new comedy that he has thought everything that concerned him must be of importance to the public."