The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Ten

Oriental Appointment — And Disappointment — Examination at the College of Surgeons — How to Procure a Suit of Clothes — Fresh Disappointment — A Tale of Distress — The Suit of Clothes in Pawn — Punishment for Doing an Act of Charity — Gayeties of Green Arbor Court — Letter to His Brother — Life of Voltaire — Scroggin, an Attempt at Mock Heroic Poetry

While Goldsmith was yet laboring at his treatise, the promise made him by Dr. Milner was carried into effect, and he was actually appointed physician and surgeon to one of the factories on the coast of Coromandel. His imagination was immediately on fire with visions of Oriental wealth and magnificence. It is true the salary did not exceed one hundred pounds, but then, as appointed physician, he would have the exclusive practice of the place, amounting to one thousand pounds per annum; with advantages to be derived from trade, and from the high interest of money — twenty per cent; in a word, for once in his life, the road to fortune lay broad and straight before him.

Hitherto, in his correspondence with his friends, he had said nothing of his India scheme; but now he imparted to them his brilliant prospects, urging the importance of their circulating his proposals and obtaining him subscriptions and advances on his forthcoming work, to furnish funds for his outfit.

In the meantime he had to task that poor drudge, his muse, for present exigencies. Ten pounds were demanded for his appointment-warrant. Other expenses pressed hard upon him. Fortunately, though as yet unknown to fame, his literary capability was known to “the trade,” and the coinage of his brain passed current in Grub Street. Archibald Hamilton, proprietor of the “Critical Review,” the rival to that of Griffiths, readily made him a small advance on receiving three articles for his periodical. His purse thus slenderly replenished, Goldsmith paid for his warrant; wiped off the score of his milkmaid; abandoned his garret, and moved into a shabby first floor in a forlorn court near the Old Bailey; there to await the time for his migration to the magnificent coast of Coromandel.

Alas! poor Goldsmith! ever doomed to disappointment. Early in the gloomy month of November, that mouth of fog and despondency in London, he learned the shipwreck of his hope. The great Coromandel enterprise fell through; or rather the post promised to him was transferred to some other candidate. The cause of this disappointment it is now impossible to ascertain. The death of his quasi patron, Dr. Milner, which happened about this time, may have had some effect in producing it; or there may have been some heedlessness and blundering on his own part; or some obstacle arising from his insuperable indigence; whatever may have been the cause, he never mentioned it, which gives some ground to surmise that he himself was to blame. His friends learned with surprise that he had suddenly relinquished his appointment to India, about which he had raised such sanguine expectations: some accused him of fickleness and caprice; others supposed him unwilling to tear himself from the growing fascinations of the literary society of London.

In the meantime, cut down in his hopes and humiliated in his pride by the failure of his Coromandel scheme, he sought, without consulting his friends, to be examined at the College of Physicians for the humble situation of hospital mate. Even here poverty stood in his way. It was necessary to appear in a decent garb before the examining committee; but how was he to do so? He was literally out at elbows as well as out of cash. Here again the muse, so often jilted and neglected by him, came to his aid. In consideration of four articles furnished to the “Monthly Review,” Griffiths, his old taskmaster, was to become his security to the tailor for a suit of clothes. Goldsmith said he wanted them but for a single occasion, on which depended his appointment to a situation in the army; as soon as that temporary purpose was served they would either be returned or paid for. The books to be reviewed were accordingly lent to him; the muse was again set to her compulsory drudgery; the articles were scribbled off and sent to the bookseller, and the clothes came in due time from the tailor.

From the records of the College of Surgeons, it appears that Goldsmith underwent his examination at Surgeons’ Hall, on the 21st of December, 1758.

Either from a confusion of mind incident to sensitive and imaginative persons on such occasions, or from a real want of surgical science, which last is extremely probable, he failed in his examination, and was rejected as unqualified. The effect of such a rejection was to disqualify him for every branch of public service, though he might have claimed a re-examination, after the interval of a few months devoted to further study. Such a re-examination he never attempted, nor did he ever communicate his discomfiture to any of his friends.

On Christmas day, but four days after his rejection by the College of Surgeons, while he was suffering under the mortification of defeat and disappointment, and hard pressed for means of subsistence, he was surprised by the entrance into his room of the poor woman of whom he hired his wretched apartment, and to whom he owed some small arrears of rent. She had a piteous tale of distress, and was clamorous in her afflictions. Her husband had been arrested in the night for debt, and thrown into prison. This was too much for the quick feelings of Goldsmith; he was ready at any time to help the distressed, but in this instance he was himself in some measure a cause of the distress. What was to be done? He had no money, it is true; but there hung the new suit of clothes in which he had stood his unlucky examination at Surgeons’ Hall. Without giving himself time for reflection, he sent it off to the pawnbroker’s, and raised thereon a sufficient sum to pay off his own debt, and to release his landlord from prison.

Under the same pressure of penury and despondency, he borrowed from a neighbor a pittance to relieve his immediate wants, leaving as a security the books which he had recently reviewed. In the midst of these straits and harassments, he received a letter from Griffiths, demanding in peremptory terms the return of the clothes and books, or immediate payment for the same. It appears that he had discovered the identical suit at the pawnbroker’s. The reply of Goldsmith is not known; it was out of his power to furnish either the clothes or the money; but he probably offered once more to make the muse stand his bail. His reply only increased the ire of the wealthy man of trade, and drew from him another letter still more harsh than the first, using the epithets of knave and sharper, and containing threats of prosecution and a prison.

The following letter from poor Goldsmith gives the most touching picture of an inconsiderate but sensitive man, harassed by care, stung by humiliations, and driven almost to despondency.

“Sir — I know of no misery but a jail to which my own imprudences and your letter seem to point. I have seen it inevitable these three or four weeks, and, by heavens! request it as a favor — as a favor that may prevent something more fatal. I have been some years struggling with a wretched being — with all that contempt that indigence brings with it — with all those passions which make contempt insupportable. What, then, has a jail that is formidable. I shall at least have the society of wretches, and such is to me true society. I tell you, again and again, that I am neither able nor willing to pay you a farthing, but I will be punctual to any appointment you or the tailor shall make: thus far, at least, I do not act the sharper, since, unable to pay my own debts one way, I would generally give some security another. No, sir; had I been a sharper — had I been possessed of less good-nature and native generosity, I might surely now have been in better circumstances.

“I am guilty, I own, of meannesses which poverty unavoidably brings with it: my reflections are filled with repentance for my imprudence, but not with any remorse for being a villain; that may be a character you unjustly charge me with. Your books, I can assure you, are neither pawned nor sold, but in the custody of a friend, from whom my necessities obliged me to borrow some money: whatever becomes of my person, you shall have them in a month. It is very possible both the reports you have heard and your own suggestions may have brought you false information with, respect to my character; it is very possible that the man whom you now regard with detestation may inwardly burn with grateful resentment. It is very possible that, upon a second perusal of the letter I sent you, you may see the workings of a mind strongly agitated with gratitude and jealousy. If such circumstances should appear, at least spare invective till my book with Mr. Dodsley shall be published, and then, perhaps, you may see the bright side of a mind, when my professions shall not appear the dictates of necessity, but of choice.

“You seem to think Dr. Milner knew me not. Perhaps so; but he was a man I shall ever honor; but I have friendships only with the dead! I ask pardon for taking up so much time; nor shall I add to it by any other professions than that I am, sir, your humble servant,

“OLIVER GOLDSMITH.

“P.S. — I shall expect impatiently the result of your resolutions.”

The dispute between the poet and the publisher was afterward imperfectly adjusted, and it would appear that the clothes were paid for by a short compilation advertised by Griffiths in the course of the following month; but the parties were never really friends afterward, and the writings of Goldsmith were harshly and unjustly treated in the “Monthly Review.”

We have given the preceding anecdote in detail, as furnishing one of the many instances in which Goldsmith’s prompt and benevolent impulses outran all prudent forecast, and involved him in difficulties and disgraces which a more selfish man would have avoided. The pawning of the clothes, charged upon him as a crime by the grinding bookseller, and apparently admitted by him as one of “the meannesses which poverty unavoidably brings with it,” resulted, as we have shown, from a tenderness of heart and generosity of hand in which another man would have gloried; but these were such natural elements with him that he was unconscious of their merit. It is a pity that wealth does not oftener bring such “meannesses” in its train.

And now let us be indulged in a few particulars about these lodgings in which Goldsmith was guilty of this thoughtless act of benevolence. They were in a very shabby house, No. 12, Green Arbor Court, between the Old Bailey and Fleet Market. An old woman was still living in 1820 who was a relative of the identical landlady whom Goldsmith relieved by the money received from the pawnbroker. She was a child about seven years of age at the time that the poet rented his apartment of her relative, and used frequently to be at the house in Green Arbor Court. She was drawn there, in a great measure, by the good-humored kindness of Goldsmith, who was always exceedingly fond of the society of children. He used to assemble those of the family in his room, give them cakes and sweetmeats, and set them dancing to the sound of his flute. He was very friendly to those around him, and cultivated a kind of intimacy with a watchmaker in the court, who possessed much native wit and humor. He passed most of the day, however, in his room, and only went out in the evenings. His days were no doubt devoted to the drudgery of the pen, and it would appear that he occasionally found the booksellers urgent taskmasters. On one occasion a visitor was shown up to his room, and immediately their voices were heard in high altercation, and the key was turned within the lock. The landlady, at first, was disposed to go to the assistance of her lodger; but a calm succeeding, she forbore to interfere.

Late in the evening the door was unlocked; a supper ordered by the visitor from a neighboring tavern, and Goldsmith and his intrusive guest finished the evening in great good-humor. It was probably his old taskmaster Griffiths, whose press might have been wailing, and who found no other mode of getting a stipulated task from Goldsmith than by locking him in, and staying by him until it was finished.

But we have a more particular account of these lodgings in Green Arbor Court from the Rev. Thomas Percy, afterward Bishop of Dromore, and celebrated for his relics of ancient poetry, his beautiful ballads, and other works. During an occasional visit to London, he was introduced to Goldsmith by Grainger, and ever after continued one of his most steadfast and valued friends. The following is his description of the poet’s squalid apartment: “I called on Goldsmith at his lodgings in March, 1759, and found him writing his ‘Inquiry’ in a miserable, dirty-looking room, in which there was but one chair; and when, from civility, he resigned it to me, he himself was obliged to sit in the window. While we were conversing together some one tapped gently at the door, and, being desired to come in, a poor, ragged little girl, of a very becoming demeanor, entered the room, and, dropping a courtesy, said, ‘My mamma sends her compliments and begs the favor of you to lend her a chamber-pot full of coals.’”

“We are reminded in this anecdote of Goldsmith’s picture of the lodgings of Beau Tibbs, and of the peep into the secrets of a makeshift establishment given to a visitor by the blundering old Scotch woman.

“By this time we were arrived as high as the stairs would permit us to ascend, till we came to what he was facetiously pleased to call the first floor down the chimney; and, knocking at the door, a voice from within demanded ‘Who’s there?’ My conductor answered that it was him. But this not satisfying the querist, the voice again repeated the demand, to which he answered louder than before; and now the door was opened by an old woman with cautious reluctance.

“When we got in he welcomed me to his house with great ceremony; and, turning to the old woman, asked where was her lady. ‘Good troth,’ replied she, in a peculiar dialect, ‘she’s washing your twa shirts at the next door, because they have taken an oath against lending the tub any longer.’ ‘My two shirts,’ cried he, in a tone that faltered with confusion; ‘what does the idiot mean?’ ‘I ken what I mean weel enough,’ replied the other; ‘she’s washing your twa shirts at the next door, because —’ ‘Fire and fury! no more of thy stupid explanations,’ cried he; ‘go and inform her we have company. Were that Scotch hag to be forever in my family, she would never learn politeness, nor forget that absurd poisonous accent of hers, or testify the smallest specimen of breeding or high life; and yet it is very surprising, too, as I had her from a Parliament man, a friend of mine from the Highlands, one of the politest men in the world; but that’s a secret.’”*

* Citizen of the World, Letter iv.

Let us linger a little in Green Arbor Court, a place consecrated by the genius and the poverty of Goldsmith, but recently obliterated in the course of modern improvements. The writer of this memoir visited it not many years since on a literary pilgrimage, and may be excused for repeating a description of it which he has heretofore inserted in another publication. “It then existed in its pristine state, and was a small square of tall and miserable houses, the very intestines of which seemed turned inside out, to judge from the old garments and frippery that fluttered from every window. It appeared to be a region of washerwomen, and lines were stretched about the little square, on which clothes were dangling to dry.

“Just as we entered the square, a scuffle took place between two viragoes about a disputed right to a washtub, and immediately the whole community was in a hubbub. Heads in mob caps popped out of every window, and such a clamor of tongues ensued that I was fain to stop my ears. Every Amazon took part with one or other of the disputants, and brandished her arms, dripping with soapsuds, and fired away from her window as from the embrasure of a fortress; while the screams of children nestled and cradled in every procreant chamber of this hive, waking with the noise, set up their shrill pipes to swell the general concert.”*

* Tales of a Traveler.

While in these forlorn quarters, suffering under extreme depression of spirits, caused by his failure at Surgeons’ Hall, the disappointment of his hopes, and his harsh collisions with Griffiths, Goldsmith wrote the following letter to his brother Henry, some parts of which are most touchingly mournful.

“DEAR SIR— Your punctuality in answering a man whose trade is writing is more than I had reason to expect; and yet you see me generally fill a whole sheet, which is all the recompense I can make for being so frequently troublesome. The behavior of Mr. Wells and Mr. Lawder is a little extraordinary. However, their answering neither you nor me is a sufficient indication of their disliking the employment which I assigned them. As their conduct is different from what I had expected, so I have made an alteration in mine. I shall, the beginning of next month, send over two hundred and fifty books,* which are all that I fancy can be well sold among you, and I would have you make some distinction in the persons who have subscribed. The money, which will amount to sixty pounds, may be left with Mr. Bradley as soon as possible. I am not certain but I shall quickly have occasion for it.

“I have met with no disappointment with respect to my East India voyage, nor are my resolutions altered; though, at the same time, I must confess, it gives me some pain to think I am almost beginning the world at the age of thirty-one. Though I never had a day’s sickness since I saw you, yet I am not that strong, active man you once knew me. You scarcely can conceive how much eight years of disappointment, anguish, and study have worn me down. If I remember right you are seven or eight years older than me, yet I dare venture to say, that, if a stranger saw Us both, he would pay me the honors of seniority. Imagine to yourself a pale, melancholy visage, with two great wrinkles between the eyebrows, with an eye disgustingly severe, and a big wig; and you may have a perfect picture of my present appearance. On the other hand, I conceive you as perfectly sleek and healthy, passing many a happy day among your own children or those who knew you a child.

“Since I knew what it was to be a man, this is a pleasure I have not known. I have passed my days among a parcel of cool, designing beings, and have contracted all their suspicious manner in my own behavior. I should actually be as unfit for the society of my friends at home, as I detest that which I am obliged to partake of here. I can now neither partake of the pleasure of a revel, nor contribute to raise its jollity. I can neither laugh nor drink; have contracted a hesitating, disagreeable manner of speaking, and a visage that looks ill-nature itself; in short, I have thought myself into a settled melancholy, and an utter disgust of all that life brings with it. Whence this romantic turn that all our family are possessed with? Whence this love for every place and every country but that in which we reside — for every occupation but our own? this desire of fortune, and yet this eagerness to dissipate? I perceive, my dear sir, that I am at intervals for indulging this splenetic manner, and following my own taste, regardless of yours.

“The reasons you have given me for breeding up your son a scholar are judicious and convincing; I should, however, be glad to know for what particular profession he is designed If he be assiduous and divested of strong passions (for passions in youth always lead to pleasure), he may do very well in your college; for it must be owned that the industrious poor have good encouragement there, perhaps better than in any other in Europe. But if he has ambition, strong passions, and an exquisite sensibility of contempt, do not send him there, unless you have no other trade for him but your own. It is impossible to conceive how much may be done by proper education at home. A boy, for instance, who understands perfectly well Latin, French, arithmetic, and the principles of the civil law, and can write a fine hand, has an education that may qualify him for any undertaking; and these parts of learning should be carefully inculcated, let him be designed for whatever calling he will.

“Above all things, let him never touch a romance or novel; these paint beauty in colors more charming than nature, and describe happiness that man never tastes. How delusive, how destructive, are those pictures of consummate bliss! They teach the youthful mind to sigh after beauty and happiness that never existed; to despise the little good which fortune has mixed in our cup, by expecting more than she ever gave; and, in general, take the word of a man who has seen the world, and who has studied human nature more by experience than precept; take my word for it, I say, that books teach us very little of the world. The greatest merit in a state of poverty would only serve to make the possessor ridiculous — may distress, but cannot relieve him. Frugality, and even avarice, in the lower orders’ of mankind, are true ambition. These afford the only ladder for the poor to rise to preferment. Teach then, my dear sir, to your son, thrift and economy. Let his poor wandering uncle’s example be placed before his eyes. I had learned from books to be disinterested and generous before I was taught from experience the necessity of being prudent. I had contracted the habits and notions of a philosopher, while I was exposing myself to the approaches of insidious cunning; and often by being, even with my narrow finances, charitable to excess, I forgot the rules of justice, and placed myself in the very situation of the wretch who thanked me for my bounty. When I am in the remotest part of the world, tell him this, and perhaps he may improve from my example. But I find myself again falling into my gloomy habits of thinking.

“My mother, I am informed, is almost blind; even though I had the utmost inclination to return home, under such circumstances I could not, for to behold her in distress without a capacity of relieving her from it would add much to my splenetic habit. Your last letter was much too short; it should have answered some queries I had made in my former. Just sit down as I do, and write forward until you have filled all your paper. It requires no thought, at least from the ease with which my own sentiments rise when they are addressed to you. For, believe me, my head has no share in all I write; my heart dictates the whole. Pray give my love to Bob Bryanton, and entreat him from me not to drink. My dear sir, give me some account about poor Jenny.† Yet her husband loves her; if so, she cannot be unhappy.

“I know not whether I should tell you — yet why should I conceal these trifles, or, indeed, anything from you? There is a book of mine will be published in a few days; the life of a very extraordinary man; no less than the great Voltaire. You know already by the title that it is no more than a catchpenny. However, I spent but four weeks on the whole performance, for which I received twenty pounds. When published, I shall take some method of conveying it to you, unless you may think it dear of the postage, which may amount to four or five shillings. However, I fear you will not find an equivalent of amusement.

“Your last letter, I repeat it, was too short; you should have given me your opinion of the design of the heroi-comical poem‡ which I sent you. You remember I intended to introduce the hero of the poem as lying in a paltry alehouse. You may take the following specimen of the manner, which. I flatter myself is quite original. The room in which he lies may be described somewhat in this way:

“‘The window, patched with paper, lent a ray

That feebly show’d the state in which he lay;

The sanded floor that grits beneath the tread,

The humid wall with paltry pictures spread;

The game of goose was there exposed to view,

And the twelve rules the royal martyr drew;

The Seasons, framed with listing, found a place.

And Prussia’s monarch show’d his lampblack face.

The morn was cold: he views with keen desire

A rusty grate unconscious of a fire;

An unpaid reckoning on the frieze was scored,

And five crack’d teacups dress’d the chimney board.’

“And now imagine, after his soliloquy, the landlord to make his appearance in order to dun him for the reckoning:

“‘Not with that face, so servile and so gay,

That welcomes every stranger that can pay:

With sulky eye he smoked the patient man,

Then pull’d his breeches tight, and thus began,’ etc.

“All this is taken, you see, from nature. It is a good remark of Montaigne’s, that the wisest men often hare friends with whom they do not care how much they play the fool. Take my present follies as instances of my regard. Poetry is a much easier and more agreeable species of composition than prose; and could a man live by it, it were not unpleasant employment to be a poet. I am resolved to leave no space, though I should fill it up only by telling you, what you very well know already, I mean that I am your most affectionate friend and brother,

“OLIVER GOLDSMITH.”

* The Inquiry into Polite Literature. His previous remarks apply to the subscription.

† His sister, Mrs. Johnston; her marriage, like that of Mrs. Hodson, was private, but in pecuniary matters much less fortunate.

‡ The projected poem, of which the above were specimens, appears never to have been completed.

The Life of Voltaire, alluded to in the latter part of the preceding letter, was the literary job undertaken to satisfy the demands of Griffiths. It was to hare preceded a translation of the Henriade, by Ned Purdon, Goldsmith’s old schoolmate, now a Grub Street writer, who starved rather than lived by the exercise of his pen, and often tasked Goldsmith’s scanty means to relieve his hunger. His miserable career was summed up by our poet in the following lines written some years after the tune we are treating of, on hearing that he had suddenly dropped dead in Smithfield:

“Here lies poor Ned Purdon, from misery freed,

Who long was a bookseller’s hack;

He led such a damnable life in this world,

I don’t think he’ll wish to come back.”

The memoir and translation, though advertised to form a volume, were not published together; but appeared separately in a magazine.

As to the heroi-comical poem, also, cited in the foregoing letter, it appears to have perished in embryo. Had it been brought to maturity we should have had further traits of autobiography, the room already described was probably his own squalid quarters in Green Arbor Court; and in a subsequent morsel of the poem we have the poet himself, under the euphonious name of Scroggin:

“Where the Red Lion peering o’er the way,

Invites each passing stranger that can pay;

Where Calvert’s butt and Parson’s black champagne

Regale the drabs and bloods of Drury Lane:

There, in a lonely room, from bailiffs snug,

The muse found Scroggin stretch’d beneath a rug;

A nightcap deck’d his brows instead of bay,

A cap by night, a stocking all the day!”

It is to be regretted that this poetical conception was not carried out; like the author’s other writings, it might have abounded with pictures of life and touches of nature drawn from his own observation and experience, and mellowed by his own humane and tolerant spirit; and might have been a worthy companion or rather contrast to his Traveler and Deserted Village, and have remained in the language a first-rate specimen of the mock-heroic.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38