The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Fifteen

Johnson a Monitor to Goldsmith — Finds Him in Distress with His Landlady — Relieved by the Vicar of Wakefield — The Oratorio — Poem of the Traveler — The Poet and His Dog — Success of the Poem — Astonishment of the Club — Observations on the Poem

Johnson had now become one of Goldsmith’s best friends and advisers. He knew all the weak points of his character, but he knew also his merits; and while he would rebuke him like a child, and rail at his errors and follies, he would suffer no one else to undervalue him. Goldsmith knew the soundness of his judgment and his practical benevolence, and often sought his counsel and aid amid the difficulties into which his heedlessness was continually plunging him.

“I received one morning,” says Johnson, “a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion: I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return; and, having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him go ill.”

The novel in question was the Vicar of Wakefield; the bookseller to whom Johnson sold it was Francis Newbery, nephew to John. Strange as it may seem, this captivating work, which has obtained and preserved an almost unrivaled popularity in various languages, was so little appreciated by the bookseller that he kept it by him for nearly two years unpublished!

Goldsmith had, as yet, produced nothing of moment in poetry. Among his literary jobs, it is true, was an oratorio entitled The Captivity, founded on the bondage of the Israelites in Babylon. It was one of those unhappy offsprings of the muse ushered into existence amid the distortions of music. Most of the oratorio has passed into oblivion; but the following song from it will never die:

“The wretch condemned from life to part,

Still, still on hope relies,

And every pang that rends the heart

Bids expectation rise.

“Hope, like the glimmering taper’s light,

Illumes and cheers our way;

And still, as darker grows the night,

Emits a brighter ray.”

Goldsmith distrusted his qualifications to succeed in poetry, and doubted the disposition of the public mind in regard to it. “I fear,” said he, “I have come too late into the world; Pope and other poets have taken up the places in the temple of Fame; and as few at any period can possess poetical reputation, a man of genius can now hardly acquire it.” Again, on another occasion, he observes: “Of all kinds of ambition, as things are now circumstanced, perhaps that which pursues poetical fame is the wildest. What from the increased refinement of the tunes, from the diversity of judgment produced by opposing systems of criticism, and from the more prevalent divisions of opinion influenced by party, the strongest and happiest efforts can expect to please but in a very narrow circle.”

At this very time he had by him his poem of The Traveler. The plan of it, as has already been observed, was conceived many years before, during his travels in Switzerland, and a sketch of it sent from that country to his brother Henry in Ireland. The original outline is said to have embraced a wider scope; but it was probably contracted through diffidence, in the process of finishing the parts. It had laid by him for several years in a crude state, and it was with extreme hesitation and after much revision that he at length submitted it to Dr. Johnson. The frank and warm approbation of the latter encouraged him to finish it for the press; and Dr. Johnson himself contributed a few lines toward the conclusion.

We hear much about “poetic inspiration,” and the “poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling”; but Sir Joshua Reynolds gives an anecdote of Goldsmith while engaged upon his poem, calculated to cure our notions about the ardor of composition. Calling upon the poet one day, he opened the door without ceremony, and found him in the double occupation of turning a couplet and teaching a pet dog to sit upon his haunches. At one time he would glance his eye at his desk, and at another shake his finger at the dog to make him retain his position. The last lines on the page were still wet; they form a part of the description of Italy:

“By sports like these are all their cares beguiled,

The sports of children satisfy the child.”

Goldsmith, with his usual good-humor, joined in the laugh caused by his whimsical employment, and acknowledged that his boyish sport with the dog suggested the stanza The poem was published on the 19th of December, 1764, in a quarto form, by Newbery, and was the first of his works to which Goldsmith prefixed his name. As a testimony of cherished and well-merited affection, he dedicated it to his brother Henry. There is an amusing affectation of indifference as to its fate expressed in the dedication. “What reception a poem may find,” says he, “which has neither abuse, party, nor blank verse to support it, I cannot tell, nor am I solicitous to know.” The truth is, no one was more emulous and anxious for poetic fame; and never was he more anxious than in the present instance, for it was his grand stake. Dr. Johnson aided the launching of the poem by a favorable notice in the “Critical Review”; other periodical works came out in its favor. Some of the author’s friends complained that it did not command instant and wide popularity; that it was a poem to win, not to strike; it went on rapidly increasing in favor; in three months a second edition was issued; shortly afterward a third; then a fourth; and, before the year was out, the author was pronounced the best poet of his time.

The appearance of The Traveler at once altered Goldsmith’s intellectual standing in the estimation of society; but its effect upon the club, if we may judge from the account given by Hawkins, was most ludicrous. They were lost in astonishment that a “newspaper essayist” and “bookseller’s, drudge” should have written such a poem. On the evening of its announcement to them Goldsmith had gone away early, after “rattling away as usual,” and they knew not how to reconcile his heedless garrulity with the serene beauty, the easy grace, the sound good sense, and the occasional elevation of his poetry. They could scarcely believe that such magic numbers had flowed from a man to whom in general, says Johnson, “it was with difficulty they could give a hearing.” “Well”, exclaimed Chamier, “I do believe he wrote this poem himself, and, let me tell you, that is believing a great deal.”

At the next meeting of the club Chamier sounded the author a little about his poem. “Mr. Goldsmith,” said he, “what do you mean by the last word in the first line of your Traveler, ‘remote, unfriended, solitary, slow?’ do you mean tardiness of locomotion?” “Yes,” replied Goldsmith inconsiderately, being probably flurried at the moment. “No, sir,” interposed his protecting friend Johnson, “you did not mean tardiness of locomotion; you meant that sluggishness of mind which comes upon a man in solitude.” “Ah,” exclaimed Goldsmith, “that was what I meant.” Chamier immediately believed that Johnson himself had written the line, and a rumor became prevalent that he was the author of many of the finest passages. This was ultimately set at rest by Johnson himself, who marked with a pencil all the verses he had contributed, nine in number, inserted toward the conclusion, and by no means the best in the poem. He moreover, with generous warmth, pronounced it the finest poem that had appeared since the days of Pope.

But one of the highest testimonials to the charm of the poem was given by Miss Reynolds, who had toasted poor Goldsmith as the ugliest man of her acquaintance. Shortly after the appearance of The Traveler, Dr. Johnson read it aloud from beginning to end in her presence. “Well,” exclaimed she, when he had finished, “I never more shall think Dr. Goldsmith ugly!”

On another occasion, when the merits of The Traveler were discussed at Reynolds’ board, Langton declared “There was not a bad line in the poem, not one of Dryden’s careless verses.” “I was glad,” observed Reynolds, “to hear Charles Fox say it was one of the finest poems in the English language.” “Why was you glad?” rejoined Langton; “you surely had no doubt of this before.” “No,” interposed Johnson, decisively; “the merit of The Traveler is so well established that Mr. Fox’s praise cannot augment it, nor his censure diminish it.”

Boswell, who was absent from England at the time of the publication of The Traveler, was astonished, on his return, to find Goldsmith, whom he had so much undervalued, suddenly elevated almost to a par with his idol. He accounted for it by concluding that much both of the sentiments and expression of the poem had been derived from conversations with Johnson. “He imitates you, sir,” said this incarnation of toadyism. “Why, no, sir,” replied Johnson, “Jack Hawksworth is one of my imitators, but not Goldsmith. Goldy, sir, has great merit.” “But, sir, he is much indebted to you for his getting so high in the public estimation.” “Why, sir, he has, perhaps, got sooner to it by his intimacy with me.”

The poem went through several editions in the course of the first year, and received some few additions and corrections from the author’s pen. It produced a golden harvest to Mr. Newbery, but all the remuneration on record, doled out by his niggard hand to the author, was twenty guineas!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/irving/washington/goldsmith/chapter15.html

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