The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twelve

New Lodgings — Visits of Ceremony — Hangers-On — Pilkington and the White Mouse — Introduction to Dr. Johnson — Davies and His Bookshop — Pretty Mrs. Davies — Foote and His Projects — Criticism of the Cudgel

In his new lodgings in Wine–Office Court, Goldsmith began to receive visits of ceremony and to entertain his literary friends. Among the latter he now numbered several names of note, such as Guthrie, Murphy, Christopher Smart, and Bickerstaff. He had also a numerous class of hangers-on, the small-fry of literature; who, knowing his almost utter incapacity to refuse a pecuniary request, were apt, now that he was considered flush, to levy continual taxes upon his purse.

Among others, one Pilkington, an old college acquaintance, but now a shifting adventurer, duped him in the most ludicrous manner. He called on him with a face full of perplexity. A lady of the first rank having an extraordinary fancy for curious animals, for which she was willing to give enormous sums, he had procured a couple of white mice to be forwarded to her from India. They were actually on board of a ship in the river. Her grace had been apprised of their arrival, and was all impatience to see them. Unfortunately, he had no cage to put them in, nor clothes to appear in before a lady of her rank. Two guineas would be sufficient for his purpose, but where were two guineas to be procured!

The simple heart of Goldsmith was touched; but, alas! he had but half a guinea in his pocket. It was unfortunate, but after a pause his friend suggested, with some hesitation, “that money might be raised upon his watch; it would but be the loan of a few hours.” So said, so done; the watch was delivered to the worthy Mr. Pilkington to be pledged at a neighboring pawnbroker’s, but nothing further was ever seen of him, the watch, or the white mice. The next that Goldsmith heard of the poor shifting scapegrace, he was on his deathbed, starving with want, upon which, forgetting or forgiving the trick he had played upon him, he sent him a guinea. Indeed, he used often to relate with great humor the foregoing anecdote of his credulity, and was ultimately in some degree indemnified by its suggesting to him the amusing little story of Prince Bonbennin and the White House in the Citizen of the World.

In this year Goldsmith became personally acquainted with Dr. Johnson, toward whom he was drawn by strong sympathies, though their natures were widely different. Both had struggled from early life with poverty, but had struggled in different ways. Goldsmith, buoyant, heedless, sanguine, tolerant of evils and easily pleased, had shifted along by any temporary expedient; cast down at every turn, but rising again with indomitable good-humor, and still carried forward by his talent at hoping. Johnson, melancholy, and hypochondriacal, and prone to apprehend the worst, yet sternly resolute to battle with and conquer it, had made his way doggedly and gloomily, but with a noble principle of self-reliance and a disregard of foreign aid. Both had been irregular at college, Goldsmith, as we have shown, from the levity of his nature and his social and convivial habits; Johnson, from his acerbity and gloom. When, in after life, the latter heard himself spoken of as gay and frolicsome at college, because he had joined in some riotous excesses there, “Ah, sir!” replied he, “I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit. So I disregarded all power and all authority.”

Goldsmith’s poverty was never accompanied by bitterness; but neither was it accompanied by the guardian pride which kept Johnson from falling into the degrading shifts of poverty. Goldsmith had an unfortunate facility at borrowing, and helping himself along by the contributions of his friends; no doubt trusting, in his hopeful way, of one day making retribution. Johnson never hoped, and therefore never borrowed. In his sternest trials he proudly bore the ills he could not master. In his youth, when some unknown friend, seeing his shoes completely worn out, left a new pair at his chamber door, he disdained to accept the boon, and threw them away.

Though like Goldsmith an immethodical student, he had imbibed deeper draughts of knowledge, and made himself a riper scholar. While Goldsmith’s happy constitution and genial humors carried him abroad into sunshine and enjoyment, Johnson’s physical infirmities and mental gloom drove him upon himself; to the resources of reading and meditation; threw a deeper though darker enthusiasm into his mind, and stored a retentive memory with all kinds of knowledge.

After several years of youth passed in the country as usher, teacher, and an occasional writer for the press, Johnson, when twenty-eight years of age, came up to London with a half-written tragedy in his pocket; and David Garrick, late his pupil, and several years his junior, as a companion, both poor and penniless, both, like Goldsmith, seeking their fortune in the metropolis. “We rode and tied,” said Garrick sportively in after years of prosperity, when he spoke of their humble wayfaring. “I came to London,” said Johnson, “with twopence halfpenny in my pocket.” “Eh, what’s that you say?” cried Garrick, “with twopence halfpenny in your pocket?” “Why, yes; I came with twopence halfpenny in my pocket, and thou, Davy, with but three halfpence in thine.” Nor was there much exaggeration in the picture; for so poor were they in purse and credit that after their arrival they had, with difficulty, raised five pounds, by giving their joint note to a bookseller in the Strand.

Many, many years had Johnson gone on obscurely in London, “fighting his way by his literature and his wit”; enduring all the hardships and miseries of a Grub Street writer; so destitute at one time that he and Savage the poet had walked all night about St. James’s Square, both too poor to pay for a night’s lodging, yet both full of poetry and patriotism, and determined to stand by their country; so shabby in dress at another time, that when he dined at Cave’s, his bookseller, when there was prosperous company, he could not make his appearance at table, but had his dinner handed to him behind a screen.

Yet through all the long and dreary struggle, often diseased in mind as well as in body, he had been resolutely self-dependent, and proudly self-respectful; he had fulfilled his college vow, he had “fought his way by his literature and his wit.” His Rambler and Idler had made him the great moralist of the age, and his Dictionary and History of the English Language, that stupendous monument of individual labor, had excited the admiration of the learned world. He was now at the head of intellectual society; and had become as distinguished by his conversational as his literary powers. He had become as much an autocrat in his sphere as his fellow-wayfarer and adventurer Garrick had become of the stage, and had been humorously dubbed by Smollett, “The Great Cham of Literature.”

Such was Dr. Johnson, when on the 31st of May, 1761, he was to make his appearance as a guest at a literary supper given by Goldsmith, to a numerous party at his new lodgings in Wine–Office Court. It was the opening of their acquaintance. Johnson had felt and acknowledged the merit of Goldsmith as an author, and been pleased by the honorable mention made of himself in the “Bee” and the Chinese Letters. Dr. Percy called upon Johnson to take him to Goldsmith’s lodgings; he found Johnson arrayed with unusual care in a new suit of clothes, a new hat, and a well-powdered wig; and could not but notice his uncommon spruceness. “Why, sir,” replied Johnson, “I hear that Goldsmith, who is a very great sloven, justifies his disregard of cleanliness and decency by quoting my practice, and I am desirous this night to show him a better example.”

The acquaintance thus commenced ripened into intimacy in the course of frequent meetings at the shop of Davies, the bookseller, in Russell Street, Covent Garden. As this was one of the great literary gossiping places of the day, especially to the circle over which Johnson presided, it is worthy of some specification. Mr. Thomas Davies, noted in after times as the biographer of Garrick, had originally been on the stage, and though a small man had enacted tyrannical tragedy, with a pomp and magniloquence beyond his size, if we may trust the description given of him by Churchill in the Rosciad:

“Statesman all over — in plots famous grown,

He mouths a sentence as ours mouth a bone.”

This unlucky sentence is said to have crippled him in the midst of his tragic career, and ultimately to have driven him from the stage. He carried into the bookselling craft somewhat of the grandiose manner of the stage, and was prone to be mouthy and magniloquent.

Churchill had intimated, that while on the stage he was more noted for his pretty wife than his good acting:

“With him came mighty Davies; on my life,

That fellow has a very pretty wife.”

“Pretty Mrs. Davies,” continued to be the loadstar of his fortunes. Her tea-table became almost as much a literary lounge as her husband’s shop. She found favor in the eyes of the Ursa Major of literature by her winning ways, as she poured out for him cups without stint of his favorite beverage. Indeed it is suggested that she was one leading cause of his habitual resort to this literary haunt. Others were drawn thither for the sake of Johnson’s conversation, and thus it became a resort of many of the notorieties of the day. Here might occasionally be seen Bennet Langton, George Stevens, Dr. Percy, celebrated for his ancient ballads, and sometimes Warburton in prelatic state. Garrick resorted to it for a time, but soon grew shy and suspicious, declaring that most of the authors who frequented Mr. Davies’ shop went merely to abuse him.

Foote, the Aristophanes of the day, was a frequent visitor; his broad face beaming with fun and waggery, and his satirical eye ever on the lookout for characters and incidents for his farces. He was struck with the odd habits and appearance of Johnson and Goldsmith, now so often brought together in Davies’ shop. He was about to put on the stage a farce called The Orators, intended as a hit at the Robin Hood debating club, and resolved to show up the two doctors in it for the entertainment of the town.

“What is the common price of an oak stick, sir?” said Johnson to Davies. “Sixpence,” was the reply. “Why, then, sir, give me leave to send your servant to purchase a shilling one. I’ll have a double quantity; for I am told Foote means to take me off, as he calls it, and I am determined the fellow shall not do it with impunity.”

Foote had no disposition to undergo the criticism of the cudgel wielded by such potent hands, so the farce of The Orators appeared without the caricatures of the lexicographer and the essayist.

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