The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Fourteen

Hogarth a Visitor at Islington — His Character — Street Studies — Sympathies Between Authors and Painters — Sir Joshua Reynolds — His Character — His Dinners — The Literary Club-Its Members — Johnson’s Revels with Lankey and Beau — Goldsmith at the Club

Among the intimates who used to visit the poet occasionally, in his retreat at Islington, was Hogarth the painter. Goldsmith had spoken well of him in his essays in the “Public Ledger,” and this formed the first link in their friendship. He was at this time upward of sixty years of age, and is described as a stout, active, bustling little man, in a sky-blue coat, satirical and dogmatic, yet full of real benevolence and the love of human nature. He was the moralist and philosopher of the pencil; like Goldsmith he had sounded the depths of vice and misery, without being polluted by them; and though his picturings had not the pervading amenity of those of the essayist, and dwelt more on the crimes and vices than the follies and humors of mankind, yet they were all calculated, in like manner, to fill the mind with instruction and precept, and to make the heart better.

Hogarth does not appear to have had much of the rural feeling with which Goldsmith was so amply endowed, and may not have accompanied him in his strolls about hedges and green lanes; but he was a fit companion with whom to explore the mazes of London, in which he was continually on the lookout for character and incident. One of Hogarth’s admirers speaks of having come upon him in Castle Street, engaged in one of his street studies, watching two boys who were quarreling; patting one on the back who flinched, and endeavoring to spirit him up to a fresh encounter. “At him again! D—— him, if I would take it of him! at him again!”

A frail memorial of this intimacy between the painter and the poet exists in a portrait in oil, called “Goldsmith’s Hostess.” It is supposed to have been painted by Hogarth in the course of his visits to Islington, and given by him to the poet as a means of paying his landlady. There are no friendships among men of talents more likely to be sincere than those between painters and poets. Possessed of the same qualities of mind, governed by the same principles of taste and natural laws of grace and beauty, but applying them to different yet mutually illustrative arts, they are constantly in sympathy and never in collision with each other.

A still more congenial intimacy of the kind was that contracted by Goldsmith with Mr. afterward Sir Joshua Reynolds. The latter was now about forty years of age, a few years older than the poet, whom he charmed by the blandness and benignity of his manners, and the nobleness and generosity of his disposition, as much as he did by the graces of his pencil and the magic of his coloring. They were men of kindred genius, excelling in corresponding qualities of their several arts, for style in writing is what color is in painting; both are innate endowments, and equally magical hi their effects. Certain graces and harmonies of both may be acquired by diligent study and imitation, but only in a limited degree; whereas by their natural possessors they are exercised spontaneously, almost unconsciously, and with ever-varying fascination. Reynolds soon understood and appreciated the merits of Goldsmith, and a sincere and lasting friendship ensued between them.

At Reynolds’ house Goldsmith mingled in a higher range of company than he had been accustomed to. The fame of this celebrated artist, and his amenity of manners, were gathering round him men of talents of all kinds, and the increasing affluence of his circumstances enabled him to give full indulgence to his hospitable disposition. Poor Goldsmith had not yet, like Dr. Johnson, acquired reputation enough to atone for his external defects and his want of the air of good society. Miss Reynolds used to inveigh against his personal appearance, which gave her the idea, she said, of a low mechanic, a journeyman tailor. One evening at a large supper party, being called upon to give as a toast the ugliest man she knew, she gave Dr. Goldsmith, upon which a lady who sat opposite, and whom she had never met before, shook hands with her across the table, and “hoped to become better acquainted.”

We have a graphic and amusing picture of Reynolds’ hospitable but motley establishment, in an account given by a Mr. Courtenay to Sir James Mackintosh; though it speaks of a time after Reynolds had received the honor of knighthood. “There was something singular,” said he, “in the style and economy of Sir Joshua’s table that contributed to pleasantry and good humor, a coarse, inelegant plenty, without any regard to order and arrangement. At five o’clock precisely, dinner was served, whether all the invited guests were arrived or not. Sir Joshua was never so fashionably ill-bred as to wait an hour perhaps for two or three persons of rank or title, and put the rest of the company out of humor by this invidious distinction. His invitations, however, did not regulate the number of his guests. Many dropped in uninvited. A table prepared for seven or eight was of ten compelled to contain fifteen or sixteen. There was a consequent deficiency of knives, forks, plates, and glasses. The attendance was in the same style, and those who were knowing in the ways of the house took care on sitting down to call instantly for beer, bread, or wine, that they might secure a supply before the first course was over. He was once prevailed on to furnish the table with decanters and glasses at dinner, to save time and prevent confusion. These gradually were demolished in the course of service, and were never replaced. These trifling embarrassments, however, only served to enhance the hilarity and singular pleasure of the entertainment. The wine, cookery and dishes were but little attended to; nor was the fish or venison ever talked of or recommended. Amid this convivial animated bustle among his guests, our host sat perfectly composed; always attentive to what was said, never minding what was ate or drank, but left every one at perfect liberty to scramble for himself.”

Out of the casual but frequent meeting of men of talent at this hospitable board rose that association of wits, authors, scholars, and statesmen, renowned as the Literary Club. Reynolds was the first to propose a regular association of the kind, and was eagerly seconded by Johnson, who proposed as a model a club which he had formed many years previously in Ivy Lane, but which was now extinct. Like that club the number of members was limited to nine. They were to meet and sup together once a week, on Monday night, at the Turk’s Head on Gerard Street, Soho, and two members were to constitute a meeting. It took a regular form hi the year 1764, but did not receive its literary appellation until several years afterward.

The original members were Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Dr. Nugent, Bennet Langton, Topham Beauclerc, Chamier, Hawkins, and Goldsmith; and here a few words concerning some of the members may be acceptable. Burke was at that time about thirty-three years of age; he had mingled a little in politics, and been Under Secretary to Hamilton at Dublin, but was again a writer for the booksellers, and as yet but in the dawning of his fame. Dr. Nugent was his father-inlaw, a Roman Catholic, and a physician of talent and instruction. Mr. afterward Sir John Hawkins was admitted into this association from having been a member of Johnson’s Ivy Lane club. Originally an attorney, he had retired from the practice of the law, in consequence of a large fortune which fell to him in right of his wife, and was now a Middlesex magistrate. He was, moreover, a dabbler in literature and music, and was actually engaged on a history of music, which he subsequently published in five ponderous volumes. To him we are also indebted for a biography of Johnson, which appeared after the death of that eminent man. Hawkins was as mean and parsimonious as he was pompous and conceited. He forbore to partake of the suppers at the club, and begged therefore to be excused from paying his share of the reckoning. “And was he excused?” asked Dr. Burney of Johnson. “Oh, yes, for no man is angry at another for being inferior to himself. We all scorned him and admitted his plea. Yet I really believe him to be an honest man at bottom, though to be sure he is penurious, and he is mean, and it must be owned he has a tendency to savageness.” He did not remain above two or three years in the club; being in a manner elbowed out in consequence of his rudeness to Burke.

Mr. Anthony Chamier was secretary in the War Office, and a friend of Beauclerc, by whom he was proposed. We have left our mention of Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerc until the last, because we have most to say about them. They were doubtless induced to join the club through their devotion to Johnson, and the intimacy of these two very young and aristocratic young men with the stern and somewhat melancholy moralist is among the curiosities of literature.

Bennet Langton was of an ancient family, who held their ancestral estate of Langton in Lincolnshire, a great title to respect with Johnson. “Langton, sir,” he would say, “has a grant of free warrant from Henry the Second; and Cardinal Stephen Langton, in King John’s reign, was of this family.”

Langton was of a mild, contemplative, enthusiastic nature. When but eighteen years of age he was so delighted with reading Johnson’s Rambler that he came to London chiefly with a view to obtain an introduction to the author. Boswell gives us an account of his first interview, which took place in the morning. It is not often that the personal appearance of an author agrees with the preconceived ideas of his admirer. Langton, from perusing the writings of Johnson, expected to find him a decent, well dressed, in short a remarkably decorous philosopher. Instead of which, down from his bed chamber about noon, came, as newly risen, a large uncouth figure, with a little dark wig which scarcely covered his head, and his clothes hanging loose about him. But his conversation was so rich, so animated, and so forcible, and his religious and political notions so congenial with those in which Langton had been educated, that he conceived for him that veneration and attachment which he ever preserved.

Langton went to pursue his studies at Trinity College, Oxford, where Johnson saw much of him during a visit which he paid to the university. He found him in close intimacy with Topham Beauclerc, a youth two years older than himself, very gay and dissipated, and wondered what sympathies could draw two young men together of such opposite characters. On becoming acquainted with Beauclerc he found that, rake though he was, he possessed an ardent love of literature, an acute understanding, polished wit, innate gentility and high aristocratic breeding. He was, moreover, the only son of Lord Sidney Beauclerc and grandson of the Duke of St. Albans, and was thought in some particulars to have a resemblance to Charles the Second. These were high recommendations with Johnson, and when the youth testified a profound respect for him and an ardent admiration of his talents the conquest was complete, so that in a “short time,” says Boswell, “the moral pious Johnson and the gay dissipated Beauclerc were companions.”

The intimacy begun in college chambers was continued when the youth came to town during the vacations. The uncouth, unwieldy moralist was flattered at finding himself an object of idolatry to two high-born, high-bred, aristocratic young men, and throwing gravity aside, was ready to join in their vagaries and play the part of a “young man upon town.” Such at least is the picture given of him by Boswell on one occasion when Beauclerc and Langton having supped together at a tavern determined to give Johnson a rouse at three o’clock in the morning. They accordingly rapped violently at the door of his chambers in the Temple. The indignant sage sallied forth in his shirt, poker in hand, and a little black wig on the top of his head, instead of helmet; prepared to wreak vengeance on the assailants of his castle; but when his two young friends, Lankey and Beau, as he used to call them, presented themselves, summoning him forth to a morning ramble, his whole manner changed. “What, is it you, ye dogs?” cried he. “Faith, I’ll have a frisk with you!”

So said so done. They sallied forth together into Covent Garden; figured among the green grocers and fruit women, just come in from the country with their hampers; repaired to a neighboring tavern, where Johnson brewed a bowl of bishop, a favorite beverage with him, grew merry over his cups, and anathematized sleep in two lines from Lord Lansdowne’s drinking song:

“Short, very short, be then thy reign,

For I’m in haste to laugh and drink again.”

They then took boat again, rowed to Billingsgate, and Johnson and Beauclerc determined, like “mad wags,” to “keep it up” for the rest of the day. Langton, however, the most sober-minded of the three, pleaded an engagement to breakfast with some young ladies; whereupon the great moralist reproached him with “leaving his social friends to go and sit with a set of wretched unideal girls.”

This madcap freak of the great lexicographer made a sensation, as may well be supposed, among his intimates. “I heard of your frolic t’other night,” said Garrick to him; “you’ll be in the ‘Chronicle.’” He uttered worse forebodings to others. “I shall have my old friend to bail out of the round-house,” said he. Johnson, however, valued himself upon having thus enacted a chapter in the Rake’s Progress, and crowed over Garrick on the occasion. “He durst not do such a thing!” chuckled he, “his wife would not let him!”

When these two young men entered the club, Langton was about twenty-two, and Beauclerc about twenty-four years of age, and both were launched on London life. Langton, however, was still the mild, enthusiastic scholar, steeped to the lips in Greek, with fine conversational powers and an invaluable talent for listening. He was upward of six feet high, and very spare. “Oh! that we could sketch him,” exclaims Miss Hawkins, in her Memoirs, “with his mild countenance, his elegant features, and his sweet smile, sitting with one leg twisted round the other, as if fearing to occupy more space than was equitable; his person inclining forward, as if wanting strength to support his weight, and his arms crossed over his bosom, or his hands locked together on his knee.” Beauclerc, on such occasions, sportively compared him to a stork in Raphael’s Cartoons, standing on one leg. Beauclerc was more “a man upon town,” a lounger in St. James’s Street, an associate with George Selwyn, with Walpole, and other aristocratic wits; a man of fashion at court; a casual frequenter of the gaming-table; yet, with all this, he alternated in the easiest and happiest manner the scholar and the man of letters; lounged into the club with the most perfect self-possession, bringing with him the careless grace and polished wit of high-bred society, but making himself cordially at home among his learned fellow members.

The gay yet lettered rake maintained his sway over Johnson, who was fascinated by that air of the world, that ineffable tone of good society in which he felt himself deficient, especially as the possessor of it always paid homage to his superior talent. “Beauclerc,” he would say, using a quotation from Pope, “has a love of folly, but a scorn of fools; everything he does shows the one, and everything he says the other.” Beauclerc delighted in rallying the stern moralist of whom others stood in awe, and no one, according to Boswell, could take equal liberty with him with impunity. Johnson, it is well known, was often shabby and negligent in his dress, and not overcleanly in his person. On receiving a pension from the crown, his friends vied with each other in respectful congratulations. Beauclerc simply scanned his person with a whimsical glance, and hoped that, like Falstaff, “he’d in future purge and live cleanly like a gentleman.” Johnson took the hint with unexpected good humor, and profited by it.

Still Beauclerc’s satirical vein, which darted shafts on every side, was not always tolerated by Johnson. ‘“Sir,” said he on one occasion, “you never open your mouth but with intention to give pain; and you have often given me pain, not from the power of what you have said, but from seeing your intention.”

When it was at first proposed to enroll Goldsmith among the members of this association, there seems to have been some demur; at least so says the pompous Hawkins. “As he wrote for the booksellers, we of the club looked on him as a mere literary drudge, equal to the task of compiling and translating, but little capable of original and still less of poetical composition.”

Even for some time after his admission, he continued to be regarded in a dubious light by some of the members. Johnson and Reynolds, of course, were well aware of his merits, nor was Burke a stranger to them; but to the others he was as yet a sealed book, and the outside was not prepossessing. His ungainly person and awkward manners were against him with men accustomed to the graces of society, and he was not sufficiently at home to give play to his humor and to that bonhomie which won the hearts of all who knew him. He felt strange and out of place in this new sphere; he felt at times the cool satirical eye of the courtly Beauclerc scanning him, and the more he attempted to appear at his ease the more awkward he became.

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