The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Eighteen

Social Position of Goldsmith — His Colloquial Contests with Johnson — Anecdotes and Illustrations

THE social position of Goldsmith had undergone a material change since the publication of The Traveler. Before that event he was but partially known as the author of some clever anonymous writings, and had been a tolerated member of the club and the Johnson circle, without much being expected from him. Now he had suddenly risen to literary fame, and become one of the lions of the day. The highest regions of intellectual society were now open to him; but he was not prepared to move in them with confidence and success. Ballymahon had not been a good school of manners at the outset of life; nor had his experience as a “poor student” at colleges and medical schools contributed to give him the polish of society. He had brought from Ireland, as he said, nothing but his “brogue and his blunders,” and they had never left him. He had traveled, it is true; but the Continental tour which in those days gave the finishing grace to the education of a patrician youth, had, with poor Goldsmith, been little better than a course of literary vagabondizing. It had enriched his mind, deepened and widened the benevolence of his heart, and filled his memory with enchanting pictures, but it had contributed little to disciplining him for the polite intercourse of the world. His life in London had hitherto been a struggle with sordid cares and sad humiliations. “You scarcely can conceive,” wrote he some time previously to his brother, “how much eight years of disappointment, anguish, and study have worn me down.” Several more years had since been added to the term during which he had trod the lowly walks of life. He had been a tutor, an apothecary’s drudge, a petty physician of the suburbs, a bookseller’s hack, drudging for daily bread. Each separate walk had been beset by its peculiar thorns and humiliations. It is wonderful how his heart retained its gentleness and kindness through all these trials; how his mind rose above the “meannesses of poverty,” to which, as he says, he was compelled to submit; but it would be still more wonderful, had his manners acquired a tone corresponding to the innate grace and refinement of his intellect. He was near forty years of age when he published The Traveler, and was lifted by it into celebrity. As is beautifully said of him by one of his biographers, “he has fought his way to consideration and esteem; but he bears upon him the scars of his twelve years’ conflict; of the mean sorrows through which he has passed; and of the cheap indulgences he has sought relief and help from. There is nothing plastic in his nature now. His manners and habits are completely formed; and in them any further success can make little favorable change, whatever it may effect for his mind or genius.”*

* Forster’s Goldsmith

We are not to be surprised, therefore, at finding him make an awkward figure in the elegant drawing-rooms which were now open to him, and disappointing those who had formed an idea of him from the fascinating ease and gracefulness of his poetry.

Even the literary club, and the circle of which it formed a part, after their surprise at the intellectual flights of which he showed himself capable, fell into a conventional mode of judging and talking of him, and of placing him in absurd and whimsical points of view. His very celebrity operated here to his disadvantage. It brought him into continual comparison with Johnson, who was the oracle of that circle and had given it a tone. Conversation was the great staple there, and of this Johnson was a master. He had been a reader and thinker from childhood; his melancholy temperament, which unfitted him for the pleasures of youth, had made him so. For many years past the vast variety of works he had been obliged to consult in preparing his Dictionary had stored an uncommonly retentive memory with facts on all kinds of subjects; making it a perfect colloquial armory. “He had all his life,” says Boswell, “habituated himself to consider conversation as a trial of intellectual vigor and skill. He had disciplined himself as a talker as well as a writer, making it a rule to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in, so that by constant practice and never suffering any careless expression to escape him, he had attained an extraordinary accuracy and command of language.”

His common conversation in all companies, according to Sir Joshua Reynolds, was such as to secure him universal attention, something above the usual colloquial style being always expected from him.

“I do not care,” said Orme, the historian of Hindostan, “on what subject Johnson talks; but I love better to hear him talk than anybody. He either gives you new thoughts or a new coloring.”

A stronger and more graphic eulogium is given by Dr. Percy. “The conversation of Johnson,” says he, “is strong and clear, and may be compared to an antique statue, where every vein and muscle is distinct and clear.”

Such was the colloquial giant with which Goldsmith’s celebrity and his habits of intimacy brought him into continual comparison; can we wonder that he should appear to disadvantage? Conversation grave, discursive, and disputatious, such as Johnson excelled and delighted in, was to him a severe task, and he never was good at a task of any kind. He had not, like Johnson, a vast fund of acquired facts to draw upon; nor a retentive memory to furnish them forth when wanted. He could not, like the great lexicographer, mold his ideas and balance his periods while talking. He had a flow of ideas, but it was apt to be hurried and confused, and as he said of himself, he had contracted a hesitating and disagreeable manner of speaking. He used to say that he always argued best when he argued alone; that is to say, he could master a subject in his study, with his pen in his hand; but when he came into company he grew confused, and was unable to talk about it. Johnson made a remark concerning him to somewhat of the same purport. “No man,” said he, “is more foolish than Goldsmith when he has not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he has.” Yet with all this conscious deficiency he was continually getting involved in colloquial contests with Johnson and other prime talkers of the literary circle. He felt that he had become a notoriety; that he had entered the lists and was expected to make fight; so with that heedlessness which characterized him in everything else, he dashed on at a venture; trusting to chance in this as in other things, and hoping occasionally to make a lucky hit. Johnson perceived his hap-hazard temerity, but gave him no credit for the real diffidence which lay at bottom. “The misfortune of Goldsmith in conversation,” said he, “is this, he goes on without knowing how he is to get off. His genius is great, but his knowledge is small. As they say of a generous man it is a pity he is not rich, we may say of Goldsmith it is a pity he is not knowing. He would not keep his knowledge to himself.” And, on another occasion he observes: “Goldsmith, rather than not talk, will talk of what he knows himself to be ignorant, which can only end in exposing him. If in company with two founders, he would fall a talking on the method of making cannon, though both of them would soon see that he did not know what metal a cannon is made of.” And again: “Goldsmith should not be forever attempting to shine in conversation; he has not temper for it, he is so much mortified when he fails. Sir, a game of jokes is composed partly of skill, partly of chance; a man may be beat at times by one who has not the tenth part of his wit. Now Goldsmith, putting himself against another, is like a man laying a hundred to one, who cannot spare the hundred. It is not worth a man’s while. A man should not lay a hundred to one unless he can easily spare it, though he has a hundred chances for him; he can get but a guinea, and he may lose a hundred. Goldsmith is in this state. When he contends, if he gets the better, it is a very little addition to a man of his literary reputation; if he does not get the better, he is miserably vexed.”

Johnson was not aware how much he was himself to blame in producing this vexation. “Goldsmith,” said Miss Reynolds, “always appeared to be overawed by Johnson, particularly when in company with people of any consequence; always as if impressed with fear of disgrace; and indeed well he might. I have been witness to many mortifications he has suffered in Dr. Johnson’s company.”

It may not have been disgrace that he feared, but rudeness. The great lexicographer, spoiled by the homage of society, was still more prone than himself to lose temper when the argument went against him. He could not brook appearing to be worsted; but would attempt to bear down his adversary by the rolling thunder of his periods; and when that failed, would become downright insulting. Boswell called it “having recourse to some sudden mode of robust sophistry”; but Goldsmith designated it much more happily. “There is no arguing with Johnson,” said he, ”for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.“

The following is given by Boswell as an instance of robust sophistry: “Once, when I was pressing upon him with visible advantage, he stopped me thus, ‘My dear Boswell, let’s have no more of this; you’ll make nothing of it. I’d rather hear you whistle a Scotch tune.’”

In several of the intellectual collisions recorded by Boswell as triumphs of Dr. Johnson, it really appears to us that Goldsmith had the best both of the wit and the argument, and especially of the courtesy and good-nature.

On one occasion he certainly gave Johnson a capital reproof as to his own colloquial peculiarities. Talking of fables, Goldsmith observed that the animals introduced in them seldom talked in character. “For instance,” said he, “the fable of the little fishes, who saw birds fly over their heads, and, envying them, petitioned Jupiter to be changed into birds. The skill consists in making them talk like little fishes.” Just then observing that Dr. Johnson was shaking his sides and laughing, he immediately added, “Why, Dr. Johnson, this is not so easy as you seem to think; for if you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales.”

But though Goldsmith suffered frequent mortifications in society from the overbearing, and sometimes harsh, conduct of Johnson, he always did justice to his benevolence. When royal pensions were granted to Dr. Johnson and Dr. Shebbeare, a punster remarked that the king had pensioned a she-bear and a he-bear; to which Goldsmith replied, “Johnson, to be sure, has a roughness in his manner, but no man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but the skin.“

Goldsmith, in conversation, shone most when he least thought of shining; when he gave up all effort to appear wise and learned, or to cope with the oracular sententiousness of Johnson, and gave way to his natural impulses. Even Boswell could perceive his merits on these occasions. “For my part,” said he, condescendingly, “I like very well to hear honest Goldsmith talk away carelessly”; and many a much, wiser man than Boswell delighted in those outpourings of a fertile fancy and a generous heart. In his happy moods, Goldsmith had an artless simplicity and buoyant good-humor that led to a thousand amusing blunders and whimsical confessions, much to the entertainment of his intimates; yet, in his most thoughtless garrulity, there was occasionally the gleam of the gold and the flash of the diamond.

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