The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty-One

More Hack Authorship — Tom Davies and the Roman History — Canonbury Castle — Political Authorship — Pecuniary Temptation — Death of Newbery the Elder

Though Goldsmith’s comedy was now in train to be performed, it could not be brought out before Christmas; in the meantime, he must live. Again, therefore, he had to resort to literary jobs for his daily support. These obtained for him petty occasional sums, the largest of which was ten pounds, from the elder Newbery, for a historical compilation; but this scanty rill of quasi patronage, so sterile in its products, was likely soon to cease; Newbery being too ill to attend to business, and having to transfer the whole management of it to his nephew.

At this time Tom Davies, the sometime Roscius, sometime bibliopole, stepped forward to Goldsmith’s relief, and proposed that he should undertake an easy popular history of Rome in two volumes. An arrangement was soon made. Goldsmith undertook to complete it in two years, if possible, for two hundred and fifty guineas, and forthwith set about his task with cheerful alacrity. As usual, he sought a rural retreat during the summer months, where he might alternate his literary labors with strolls about the green fields. “Merry Islington” was again his resort, but he now aspired to better quarters than formerly, and engaged the chambers occupied occasionally by Mr. Newbery in Canonbury House, or Castle, as it is popularly called. This had been a hunting lodge of Queen Elizabeth, in whose time it was surrounded by parks and forests. In Goldsmith’s day nothing remained of it but an old brick tower; it was still in the country, amid rural scenery, and was a favorite nestling-place of authors, publishers, and others of the literary order.

See on the distant slope, majestic shows

Old Canonbury’s tower, an ancient pile

To various fates assigned; and where by turns

Meanness and grandeur have alternate reign’d;

Thither, in latter days, have genius fled

From yonder city, to respire and die.

There the sweet bard of Auburn sat, and tuned

The plaintive moanings of his village dirge.

There learned Chambers treasured lore for men,

And Newbery there his A B C’s for babes.

A number of these he had for fellow occupants of the castle; and they formed a temporary club, which held its meetings at the Crown Tavern, on the Islington lower road; and here he presided in his own genial style, and was the life and delight of the company.

The writer of these pages visited old Canonbury Castle some years since, out of regard to the memory of Goldsmith. The apartment was still shown which the poet had inhabited, consisting of a sitting-room and small bedroom, with paneled wainscots and Gothic windows. The quaintness and quietude of the place were still attractive. It was one of the resorts of citizens on their Sunday walks, who would ascend to the top of the tower and amuse themselves with reconnoitering the city through a telescope. Not far from this tower were the gardens of the White Conduit House, a Cockney Elysium, where Goldsmith used to figure in the humbler days of his fortune. In the first edition of his Essays he speaks of a stroll in these gardens, where he at that time, no doubt, thought himself in perfectly genteel society. After his rise in the world, however, he became too knowing to speak of such plebeian haunts. In a new edition of his Essays, therefore, the White Conduit House and its garden disappears, and he speaks of “a stroll in the Park.”

While Goldsmith was literally living from hand to mouth by the forced drudgery of the pen, his independence of spirit was subjected to a sore pecuniary trial. It was the opening of Lord North’s administration, a time of great political excitement. The public mind was agitated by the question of American taxation, and other questions of like irritating tendency. Junius and Wilkes and other powerful writers were attacking the administration with all their force; Grub Street was stirred up to its lowest depths; inflammatory talent of all kinds was in full activity, and the kingdom was deluged with pamphlets, lampoons and libels of the grossest kinds. The ministry were looking anxiously round for literary support. It was thought that the pen of Goldsmith might be readily enlisted. His hospitable friend and countryman, Robert Nugent, politically known as Squire Gawky, had come out strenuously for colonial taxation; had been selected for a lordship of the board of trade, and raised to the rank of Baron Nugent and Viscount Clare. His example, it was thought, would be enough of itself to bring Goldsmith into the ministerial ranks; and then what writer of the day was proof against a full purse or a pension? Accordingly one Parson Scott, chaplain to Lord Sandwich, and author of Anti Se anus Panurge, and other political libels in support of the administration, was sent to negotiate with the poet, who at this time was returned to town. Dr. Scott, in after years, when his political subserviency had been rewarded by two fat crown livings, used to make what he considered a good story out of this embassy to the poet. “I found him,” said he, “in a miserable suit of chambers in the Temple. I told him my authority: I told how I was empowered to pay most liberally for his exertions; and, would you believe it! he was so absurd as to say, ‘I can earn as much as will supply my wants without writing for any party; the assistance you offer is therefore unnecessary to me’; and so I left him in his garret!” Who does not admire the sturdy independence of poor Goldsmith toiling in his garret for nine guineas the job, and smile with contempt at the indignant wonder of the political divine, albeit his subserviency was repaid by two fat crown livings?

Not long after this occurrence, Goldsmith’s old friend, though frugal-handed employer, Newbery, of picture-book renown, closed his mortal career. The poet has celebrated him as the friend of all mankind; he certainly lost nothing by his friendship. He coined the brains of his authors in the times of their exigency, and made them pay dear for the plank put out to keep them from drowning. It is not likely his death caused much lamentation among the scribbling tribe; we may express decent respect for the memory of the just, but we shed tears only at the grave of the generous.

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