The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Sixteen

New Lodgings — Johnson’s Compliment — A Titled Patron — The Poet at Northumberland House — His Independence of The Great — The Countess of Northumberland — Edwin and Angelina — Gosford and Lord Clare — Publication of Essays — Evils of a Rising Reputation — Hangers-On — Job Writing — Goody Two Shoes — A Medical Campaign — Mrs. Sidebotham

Goldsmith, now that he was rising in the world, and becoming a notoriety, felt himself called upon to improve his style of living. He according emerged from Wine–Office Court, and took chambers in the Temple. It is true they were but of humble pretensions, situated on what was then the library staircase, and it would appear that he was a kind of inmate with Jeffs, the butler of the society. Still he was in the Temple, that classic region rendered famous by the “Spectator” and other essayists, as the abode of gay wits and thoughtful men of letters; and which, with its retired courts and embowered gardens, in the very heart of a noisy metropolis, is, to the quiet-seeking student and author, an oasis freshening with verdure in the midst of a desert. Johnson, who had become a kind of growling supervisor of the poet’s affairs, paid him a visit soon after he had installed himself in his new quarters, and went prying about the apartment, in his near-sighted manner, examining everything minutely. Goldsmith was fidgeted by this curious scrutiny, and apprehending a disposition to find fault, exclaimed, with the air of a man who had money in both pockets, “I shall soon be in better chambers than these.” The harmless bravado drew a reply from Johnson which touched the chord of proper pride. “Nay, sir,” said he, “never mind that. Nil te quæsiveris extra,” implying that his reputation rendered him independent of outward show. Happy would it have been for poor Goldsmith could he have kept this consolatory compliment perpetually in mind, and squared his expenses accordingly.

Among the persons of rank who were struck with the merits of The Traveler was the Earl (afterward Duke) of Northumberland. He procured several other of Goldsmith’s writings, the perusal of which tended to elevate the author in his good opinion, and to gain for him his good will. The earl held the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and understanding Goldsmith was an Irishman, was disposed to extend to him the patronage which his high post afforded. He intimated the same to his relative, Dr. Percy, who, he found, was well acquainted with the poet, and expressed a wish that the latter should wait upon him. Here, then, was another opportunity for Goldsmith to better his fortune, had he been knowing and worldly enough to profit by it. Unluckily the path to fortune lay through the aristocratical mazes of Northumberland House, and the poet blundered at the outset. The following is the account he used to give of his visit: “I dressed myself in the best manner I could, and, after studying some compliments I thought necessary on such an occasion, proceeded to Northumberland House, and acquainted the servants that I had particular business with the duke. They showed me into an antechamber, where, after waiting some time, a gentleman, very elegantly dressed, made his appearance; taking him for the duke, I delivered all the fine things I had composed in order to compliment him on the honor he had done me; when, to my great astonishment, he told me I had mistaken him for his master, who would see me immediately. At that instant the duke came into the apartment, and I was so confounded on the occasion that I wanted words barely sufficient to express the sense I entertained of the duke’s politeness, and went away exceedingly chagrined at the blunder I had committed.”

Sir John Hawkins, in his life of Dr. Johnson, gives some further particulars of this visit, of which he was, in part, a witness. “Having one day,” says he, “a call to make on the late Duke, then Earl, of Northumberland, I found Goldsmith waiting for an audience in an outer room; I asked him what had brought him there; he told me an invitation from his lordship. I made my business as short as I could, and, as a reason, mentioned that Dr. Goldsmith was waiting without. The earl asked me if I was acquainted with him. I told him that I was, adding what I thought was most likely to recommend him. I retired, and stayed in the outer room to take him home. Upon his coming out, I asked him the result of his conversation. ‘His lordship,’ said he, ‘told me he had read my poem, meaning The Traveler, and was much delighted with it; that he was going to be lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and that, hearing I was a native of that country, he should be glad to do me any kindness.’ ‘And what did you answer,’ said I, ‘to this gracious offer?’ ‘Why,’ said he, ‘I could say nothing but that I had a brother there, a clergyman, that stood in need of help: as for myself, I have no great dependence on the promises of great men; I look to the booksellers for support; they are my best friends, and I am not inclined to forsake them for others.’” “Thus,” continues Sir John, “did this idiot in the affairs of the world trifle with his fortunes, and put back the hand that was held out to assist him.”

We cannot join with Sir John in his worldly sneer at the conduct of Goldsmith on this occasion. While we admire that honest independence of spirit which prevented him from asking favors for himself, we love that warmth of affection which instantly sought to advance the fortunes of a brother: but the peculiar merits of poor Goldsmith seem to have been little understood by the Hawkinses, the Boswells, and the other biographers of the day.

After all, the introduction to Northumberland House did not prove so complete a failure as the humorous account given by Goldsmith, and the cynical account given by Sir John Hawkins, might lead one to suppose. Dr. Percy, the heir male of the ancient Percies, brought the poet into the acquaintance of his kinswoman, the countess, who, before her marriage with the earl, was in her own right heiress of the House of Northumberland. “She was a lady,” says Boswell, “not only of high dignity of spirit, such as became her noble blood, but of excellent understanding and lively talents.” Under her auspices a poem of Goldsmith’s had an aristocratical introduction to the world. This was the beautiful ballad of the Hermit, originally published under the name of Edwin and Angelina. It was suggested by an old English ballad beginning “Gentle Herdsman,” shown him by Dr. Percy, who was at that time making his famous collection, entitled Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which he submitted to the inspection of Goldsmith prior to publication. A few copies only of the Hermit were printed at first, with the following title page: “Edwin and Angelina: a Ballad. By Mr. Goldsmith. Printed for the Amusement of the Countess of Northumberland.”

All this, though it may not have been attended with any immediate pecuniary advantage, contributed to give Goldsmith’s name and poetry the high stamp of fashion, so potent in England; the circle at Northumberland House, however, was of too stately and aristocratical a nature to be much to his taste, and we do not find that he became familiar in it.

He was much more at home at Gosford, the noble seat of his countryman, Robert Nugent, afterward Baron Nugent and Viscount Clare, who appreciated his merits even more heartily than the Earl of Northumberland, and occasionally made him his guest both in town and country. Nugent is described as a jovial voluptuary, who left the Roman Catholic for the Protestant religion, with a view to bettering his fortunes; he had an Irishman’s inclination for rich widows, and an Irishman’s luck with the sex; having been thrice married and gained a fortune with each wife. He was now nearly sixty, with a remarkably loud voice, broad Irish brogue, and ready, but somewhat coarse wit. With all his occasional coarseness he was capable of high thought, and had produced poems which showed a truly poetic vein. He was long a member of the House of Commons, where his ready wit, his fearless decision, and good-humored audacity of expression, always gained him a hearing, though his tall person and awkward manner gained him the nickname of Squire Gawky, among the political scribblers of the day. With a patron of this jovial temperament Goldsmith probably felt more at ease than with those of higher refinement.

The celebrity which Goldsmith had acquired by his poem of The Traveler, occasioned a resuscitation of many of his miscellaneous and anonymous tales and essays from the various newspapers and other transient publications in which they lay dormant. These he published in 1765, in a collected form, under the title of “Essays by Mr. Goldsmith.” “The following essays,” observes he in his preface, “have already appeared at different times, and in different publications. The pamphlets in which they were inserted being generally unsuccessful, these shared the common fate, without assisting the booksellers’ aims, or extending the author’s reputation. The public were too strenuously employed with their own follies to be assiduous in estimating mine; so that many of my best attempts in this way have fallen victims to the transient topic of the times — the Ghost in Cock Lane, or the Siege of Ticonderoga.

“But, though they have passed pretty silently into the world, I can by no means complain of their circulation. The magazines and papers of the day have indeed been liberal enough in this respect. Most of these essays have been regularly reprinted twice or thrice a year, and conveyed to the public through the kennel of some engaging compilation. If there be a pride in multiplied editions, I have seen some of my labors sixteen times reprinted, and claimed by different parents as their own. I have seen them flourished at the beginning with praise, and signed at the end with the names of Philautos, Philalethes, Phileleutheros, and Philanthropos. It is time, however, at last to vindicate my claims; and as these entertainers of the public, as they call themselves, have partly lived upon me for some years, let me now try if I cannot live a little upon myself.”

It was but little, in fact, for all the pecuniary emolument he received from the volume was twenty guineas. It had a good circulation, however, was translated into French, and has maintained its stand among the British classics.

Notwithstanding that the reputation of Goldsmith had greatly risen, his finances were often at a very low ebb, owing to his heedlessness as to expense, his liability to be imposed upon, and a spontaneous and irresistible propensity to give to every one who asked. The very rise in his reputation had increased these embarrassments. It had enlarged his circle of needy acquaintances, authors poorer in pocket than himself, who came in search of literary counsel; which generally meant a guinea and a breakfast. And then his Irish hangers-on! “Our doctor,” said one of these sponges, “had a constant levee of his distressed countrymen, whose wants, as far as he was able, he always relieved; and he has often been known to leave himself without a guinea, in order to supply the necessities of others.”

This constant drainage of the purse therefore obliged him to undertake all jobs proposed by the booksellers, and to keep up a kind of running account with Mr. Newbery; who was his banker on all occasions, sometimes for pounds, sometimes for shillings; but who was a rigid accountant, and took care to be amply repaid in manuscript. Many effusions, hastily penned in these moments of exigency, were published anonymously, and never claimed. Some of them have but recently been traced to his pen; while of many the true authorship will probably never be discovered. Among others it is suggested, and with great probability, that he wrote for Mr. Newbery the famous nursery story of Goody Two Shoes, which appeared in 1765, at a moment when Goldsmith was scribbling for Newbery, and much pressed for funds. Several quaint little tales introduced in his Essays show that he had a turn for this species of mock history; and the advertisement and title-page bear the stamp of his sly and playful humor.

“We are desired to give notice that there is in the press, and speedily will be published, either by subscription or otherwise, as the public shall please to determine, the History of Little Goody Two Shoes, otherwise Mrs. Margery Two Shoes; with the means by which she acquired learning and wisdom, and, in consequence thereof, her estate; set forth at large for the benefit of those

“Who, from a state of rags and care,

And having shoes but half a pair,

Their fortune and their fame should fix,

And gallop in a coach and six.”

The world is probably not aware of the ingenuity, humor, good sense, and sly satire contained in many of the old English nursery-tales. They have evidently been the sportive productions of able writers, who would not trust their names to productions that might be considered beneath their dignity. The ponderous works on which they relied for immortality have perhaps sunk into oblivion, and carried their names down with them; while their unacknowledged offspring, Jack the Giant Killer, Giles Gingerbread, and Tom Thumb, flourish in wide-spreading and never-ceasing popularity.

As Goldsmith had now acquired popularity and an extensive acquaintance, he attempted, with the advice of his friends, to procure a more regular and ample support by resuming the medical profession. He accordingly launched himself upon the town in style; hired a man-servant; replenished his wardrobe at considerable expense, and appeared in a professional wig and cane, purple silk small-clothes, and a scarlet roquelaure buttoned to the chin: a fantastic garb, as we should think at the present day, but not unsuited to the fashion of the times.

With his sturdy little person thus arrayed in the unusual magnificence of purple and fine linen, and his scarlet roquelaure flaunting from his shoulders, he used to strut into the apartments of his patients swaying his three-cornered hat in one hand and his medical scepter, the cane, in the other, and assuming an air of gravity and importance suited to the solemnity of his wig; at least, such is the picture given of him by the waiting gentlewoman who let him into the chamber of one of his lady patients.

He soon, however, grew tired and impatient of the duties and restraints of his profession; his practice was chiefly among his friends, and the fees were not sufficient for his maintenance; he was disgusted with attendance on sick-chambers and capricious patients, and looked back with longing to his tavern haunts and broad convivial meetings, from which the dignity and duties of his medical calling restrained him. At length, on prescribing to a lady of his acquaintance who, to use a hackneyed phrase, “rejoiced” in the aristocratical name of Sidebotham, a warm dispute arose between him and the apothecary as to the quantity of medicine to be administered. The doctor stood up for the rights and dignities of his profession, and resented the interference of the compounder of drugs. His rights and dignities, however, were disregarded; his wig and cane and scarlet roquelaure were of no avail; Mrs. Sidebotham sided with the hero of the pestle and mortar; and Goldsmith flung out of the house in a passion. “I am determined henceforth,” said he to Topham Beauclerc, “to leave off prescribing for friends.” “Do so, my dear doctor,” was the reply; “whenever you undertake to kill, let it be only your enemies.”

This was the end of Goldsmith’s medical career.

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