The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty

The Great Cham of Literature and the King — Scene at Sir Joshua Reynolds’— Goldsmith Accused of Jealousy — Negotiations with Garrick — The Author and the Actor — Their Correspondence

The comedy of The Good–Natured Man was completed by Goldsmith early in 1767, and submitted to the perusal of Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, and others of the literary club, by whom it was heartily approved. Johnson, who was seldom half way either in censure or applause, pronounced it the best comedy that had been written since The Provoked Husband, and promised to furnish the prologue. This immediately became an object of great solicitude with Goldsmith, knowing the weight an introduction from the Great Cham of literature would have with the public; but circumstances occurred which he feared might drive the comedy and the prologue from Johnson’s thoughts. The latter was in the habit of visiting the royal library at the Queen’s (Buckingham) House, a noble collection of books, in the formation of which he had assisted the librarian, Mr. Bernard, with his advice. One evening, as he was seated there by the fire reading, he was surprised by the entrance of the king (George III.), then a young man; who sought this occasion to have a conversation with him. The conversation was varied and discursive; the king shifting from subject to subject according to his wont; “during the whole interview,” says Boswell, “Johnson talked to his majesty with profound respect, but still in his open, manly manner, with a sonorous voice, and never in that subdued tone which is commonly used at the levee and in the drawing-room. ‘I found his majesty wished I should talk,’ said he, ‘and I made it my business to talk. I find it does a man good to be talked to by his sovereign. In the first place, a man cannot be in a passion —’” It would have been well for Johnson’s colloquial disputants could he have often been under such decorous restraint. He retired from the interview highly gratified with the conversation of the king and with his gracious behavior. “Sir,” said he to the librarian, “they may talk of the king as they will, but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.” “Sir,” said he subsequently to Bennet Langton, “his manners are those of as fine a gentleman as we may suppose Louis the Fourteenth or Charles the Second.”

While Johnson’s face was still radiant with the reflex of royalty, he was holding forth one day to a listening group at Sir Joshua Reynolds’, who were anxious to hear every particular of this memorable conversation. Among other questions, the king had asked him whether he was writing anything. His reply was that he thought he had already done his part as a writer. “I should have thought so too,” said the king, “if you had not written so well.” “No man,” said Johnson, commenting on this speech, “could have made a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a king to pay. It was decisive.” “But did you make no reply to this high compliment?” asked one of the company. “No, sir,” replied the profoundly deferential Johnson, “when the king had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign.”

During all the tune that Johnson was thus holding forth, Goldsmith, who was present, appeared to take no interest in the royal theme, but remained seated on a sofa at a distance, in a moody fit of abstraction; at length recollecting himself, he sprang up, and advancing, exclaimed, with what Boswell calls his usual “frankness and simplicity,” “Well, you acquitted yourself in this conversation better than I should have done, for I should have bowed and stammered through the whole of it.” He afterward explained his seeming inattention, by saying that his mind was completely occupied about his play, and by fears lest Johnson, in his present state of royal excitement, would fail to furnish the much-desired prologue.

How natural and truthful is this explanation. Yet Boswell presumes to pronounce Goldsmith’s inattention affected and attributes it to jealousy. “It was strongly suspected,” says he, “that he was fretting with chagrin and envy at the singular honor Dr. Johnson had lately enjoyed.” It needed the littleness of mind of Boswell to ascribe such pitiful motives to Goldsmith, and to entertain such exaggerated notions of the honor paid to Dr. Johnson.

The Good–Natured Man was now ready for performance, but the question was how to get it upon the stage. The affairs of Covent Garden, for which it had been intended, were thrown into confusion by the recent death of Rich, the manager. Drury Lane was under the management of Garrick, but a feud, it will be recollected, existed between him and the poet, from the animadversions of the latter on the mismanagement of theatrical affairs, and the refusal of the former to give the poet his vote for the secretaryship of the Society of Arts. Times, however, were changed. Goldsmith when that feud took place was an anonymous writer, almost unknown to fame, and of no circulation in society. Now he had become a literary lion; he was a member of the Literary Club; he was the associate of Johnson, Burke, Topham Beauclerc, and other magnates; in a word, he had risen to consequence in the public eye, and of course was of consequence in the eyes of David Garrick. Sir Joshua Reynolds saw the lurking scruples of pride existing between the author and actor, and thinking it a pity that two men of such congenial talents, and who might be so serviceable to each other, should be kept asunder by a worn-out pique, exerted his friendly offices to bring them together. The meeting took place in Reynolds’ house in Leicester Square. Garrick, however, could not entirely put off the mock majesty of the stage; he meant to be civil, but he was rather too gracious and condescending. Tom Davies, in his Life of Garrick, gives an amusing picture of the coming together of these punctilious parties. “The manager,” says he, “was fully conscious of his (Goldsmith’s) merit, and perhaps more ostentatious of his abilities to serve a dramatic author than became a man of his prudence; Goldsmith was, on his side, as fully persuaded of his own importance and independent greatness. Mr. Garrick, who had so long been treated with the complimentary language paid to a successful patentee and admired actor, expected that the writer would esteem the patronage of his play a favor; Goldsmith rejected all ideas of kindness in a bargain that was intended to be of mutual advantage to both parties, and in this he was certainly justifiable; Mr. Garrick could reasonably expect no thanks for the acting a new play, which he would have rejected if he had not been convinced it would have amply rewarded his pains and expense. I believe the manager was willing to accept the play, but he wished to be courted to it; and the doctor was not disposed to purchase his friendship by the resignation of his sincerity.” They separated, however, with an understanding on the part of Goldsmith that his play would be acted. The conduct of Garrick subsequently proved evasive, not through any lingerings of past hostility, but from habitual indecision in matters of the kind, and from real scruples of delicacy. He did not think the piece likely to succeed on the stage, and avowed that opinion to Reynolds and Johnson; but hesitated to say as much to Goldsmith, through fear of wounding his feelings. A further misunderstanding was the result of this want of decision and frankness; repeated interviews and some correspondence took place without bringing matters to a point, and in the meantime the theatrical season passed away.

Goldsmith’s pocket, never well supplied, suffered grievously by this delay, and he considered himself entitled to call upon the manager, who still talked of acting the play, to advance him forty pounds upon a note of the younger Newbery. Garrick readily complied, but subsequently suggested certain important alterations in the comedy as indispensable to its success; these were indignantly rejected by the author, but pertinaciously insisted on by the manager. Garrick proposed to leave the matter to the arbitration of Whitehead, the laureate, who officiated as his “reader” and elbow critic. Goldsmith was more indignant than ever, and a violent dispute ensued, which was only calmed by the interference of Burke and Reynolds.

Just at this time, order came out of confusion in the affairs of Covent Garden. A pique having risen between Colman and Garrick, in the course of their joint authorship of The Clandestine Marriage, the former had become manager and part proprietor of Covent Garden, and was preparing to open a powerful competition with his former colleague. On hearing of this, Goldsmith made overtures to Colman; who, without waiting to consult his fellow proprietors, who were absent, gave instantly a favorable reply. Goldsmith felt the contrast of this warm, encouraging conduct, to the chilling delays and objections of Garrick. He at once abandoned his piece to the discretion of Colman. “Dear sir,” says he in a letter dated Temple Garden Court, July 9th, “I am very much obliged to you for your kind partiality in my favor, and your tenderness in shortening the interval of my expectation. That the play is liable to many objections I well know, but I am happy that it is in hands the most capable in the world of removing them. If then, dear sir, you will complete your favor by putting the piece into such a state as it may be acted, or of directing me how to do it, I shall ever retain a sense of your goodness to me. And indeed, though most probably this be the last I shall ever write, yet I can’t help feeling a secret satisfaction that poets for the future are likely to have a protector who declines taking advantage of their dreadful situation; and scorns that importance which may be acquired by trifling with their anxieties.”

The next day Goldsmith wrote to Garrick, who was at Lichfield, informing him of his having transferred his piece to Covent Garden, for which it had been originally written, and by the patentee of which it was claimed, observing, “As I found you had very great difficulties about that piece, I complied with his desire. . . . I am extremely sorry that you should think me warm at our last meeting; your judgment certainly ought to be free, especially in a matter which must in some measure concern your own credit and interest. I assure you, sir, I have no disposition to differ with you on this or any other account, but am, with a high opinion of your abilities, and a very real esteem, Sir, your most obedient humble servant. Oliver Goldsmith.”

In his reply, Garrick observed, “I was, indeed, much hurt that your warmth at our last meeting mistook my sincere and friendly attention to your play for the remains of a former misunderstanding, which I had as much forgot as if it had never existed. What I said to you at my own house I now repeat, that I felt more pain in giving my sentiments than you possibly would in receiving them. It has been the business, and ever will be, of my life to live on the best terms with men of genius; and I know that Dr. Goldsmith will have no reason to change his previous friendly disposition toward me, as I shall be glad of every future opportunity to convince him how much I am his obedient servant and well-wisher. D. Garrick.”

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