The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty-Five

Dinner at Bickerstaff’s — Hiffernan and His Impecuniosity — Kenrick’s Epigram — Johnson’s Consolation — Goldsmith’s Toilet — The Bloom-Colored Coat — New Acquaintances — The Hornecks — A Touch of Poetry and Passion — The Jessamy Bride

In October Goldsmith returned to town and resumed his usual haunts. We hear of him at a dinner given by his countryman, Isaac Bickerstaff, author of Love in a Village, Lionel and Clarissa, and other successful dramatic pieces. The dinner was to be followed by the reading by Bickerstaff of a new play. Among the guests was one Paul Hiffernan, likewise an Irishman; somewhat idle and intemperate; who lived nobody knew how nor where, sponging wherever he had a chance, and often of course upon Goldsmith, who was ever the vagabond’s friend, or rather victim. Hiffernan was something of a physician, and elevated the emptiness of his purse into the dignity of a disease, which he termed impecuniosity, and against which he claimed a right to call for relief from the healthier purses of his friends. He was a scribbler for the newspapers, and latterly a dramatic critic, which had probably gained him an invitation to the dinner and reading. The wine and wassail, however, befogged his senses. Scarce had the author got into the second act of his play, when Hiffernan began to nod, and at length snored outright. Bickerstaff was embarrassed, but continued to read in a more elevated tone. The louder he read, the louder Hiffernan snored; until the author came to a pause. “Never mind the brute, Bick, but go on,” cried Goldsmith. “He would have served Homer just so if he were here and reading his own works.”

Kenrick, Goldsmith’s old enemy, travestied this anecdote in the following lines, pretending that the poet had compared his countryman Bickerstaff to Homer.

“What are your Bretons, Romans, Grecians,

Compared with thoroughbred Milesians!

Step into Griffin’s shop, he’ll tell ye

Of Goldsmith, Bickerstaff, and Kelly . . .

And, take one Irish evidence for t’other,

Ev’n Homer’s self is but their foster brother.”

Johnson was a rough consoler to a man when wincing under an attack of this kind. “Never mind, sir,” said he to Goldsmith, when he saw that he felt the sting. “A man whose business it is to be talked of is much helped by being attacked. Fame, sir, is a shuttlecock; if it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground; to keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.”

Bickerstaff, at the time of which we are speaking, was in high vogue, the associate of the first wits of the day; a few years afterward he was obliged to fly the country to escape the punishment of an infamous crime. Johnson expressed great astonishment at hearing the offense for which he had fled. “Why, sir,” said Thrale; “he had long been a suspected man.” Perhaps there was a knowing look on the part of the eminent brewer, which provoked a somewhat contemptuous reply. “By those who look close to the ground,” said Johnson, “dirt will sometimes be seen; I hope I see things from a greater distance.”

We have already noticed the improvement, or rather the increased expense, of Goldsmith’s wardrobe since his elevation into polite society. “He was fond,” says one of his contemporaries, “of exhibiting his muscular little person in the gayest apparel of the day, to which was added a bag-wig and sword.” Thus arrayed, he used to figure about in the sunshine in the Temple Gardens, much to his own satisfaction, but to the amusement of his acquaintances.

Boswell, in his memoirs, has rendered one of his suits forever famous. That worthy, on the 16th of October in this same year, gave a dinner to Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Garrick, Murphy, Bickerstaff, and Davies. Goldsmith was generally apt to bustle in at the last moment, when the guests were taking their seats at table, but on this occasion he was unusually early. While waiting for some lingerers to arrive, “he strutted about,” says Boswell, “bragging of his dress, and I believe was seriously vain of it, for his mind was undoubtedly prone to such impressions. ‘Come, come,’ said Garrick, ‘talk no more of that. You are perhaps the worst — eh, eh?’ Goldsmith was eagerly attempting to interrupt him, when Garrick went on, laughing ironically, ‘Nay, you will always look like a gentleman; but I am talking of your being well or ill dressed.’ ‘Well, let me tell you,’ said Goldsmith, ‘when the tailor brought home my bloom-colored coat, he said, ‘Sir, I have a favor to beg of you; when anybody asks you who made your clothes, be pleased to mention John Filby, at the Harrow, in Water Lane.’ ‘Why, sir,’ cried Johnson, ‘that was because he knew the strange color would attract crowds to gaze at it, and thus they might hear of him, and see how well he could make a coat of so absurd a color.’”

But though Goldsmith might permit this raillery on the part of his friends, he was quick to resent any personalities of the kind from strangers. As he was one day walking the Strand in grand array with bag-wig and sword, he excited the merriment of two coxcombs, one of whom called to the other to “look at that fly with a long pin stuck through it.” Stung to the quick, Goldsmith’s first retort was to caution the passers-by to be on their guard against “that brace of disguised pickpockets”— his next was to step into the middle of the street, where there was room for action, half draw his sword, and beckon the joker, who was armed in like manner, to follow him. This was literally a war of wit which the other had not anticipated. He had no inclination to push the joke to such an extreme, but abandoning the ground, sneaked off with his brother wag amid the hootings of the spectators.

This proneness to finery in dress, however, which Boswell and others of Goldsmith’s contemporaries, who did not understand the secret plies of his character, attributed to vanity, arose, we are convinced, from a widely different motive. It was from a painful idea of his own personal defects, which had been cruelly stamped upon his mind in his boyhood by the sneers and jeers of his playmates, and had been ground deeper into it by rude speeches made to him in every step of his struggling career, until it had become a constant cause of awkwardness and embarrassment. This he had experienced the more sensibly since his reputation had elevated him into polite society; and he was constantly endeavoring by the aid of dress to acquire that personal acceptability, if we may use the phrase, which nature had denied him. If ever he betrayed a little self-complacency on first turning out in a new suit, it may perhaps have been because he felt as if he had achieved a triumph over his ugliness.

There were circumstances too about the time of which we are treating which may have rendered Goldsmith more than usually attentive to his personal appearance. He had recently made the acquaintance of a most agreeable family from Devonshire, which he met at the house of his friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It consisted of Mrs. Horneck, widow of Captain Kane Horneck; two daughters, seventeen and nineteen years of age, and an only son, Charles, “the Captain in Lace,” as his sisters playfully and somewhat proudly called him, he having lately entered the Guards. The daughters are described as uncommonly beautiful, intelligent, sprightly, and agreeable. Catharine, the eldest, went among her friends by the name of “Little Comedy,” indicative, very probably, of her disposition. She was engaged to William Henry Bunbury, second son of a Suffolk baronet. The hand and heart of her sister Mary were yet unengaged, although she bore the by-name among her friends of the “Jessamy Bride.” This family was prepared, by their intimacy with Reynolds and his sister, to appreciate the merits of Goldsmith. The poet had always been a chosen friend of the eminent painter, and Miss Reynolds, as we have shown, ever since she had heard his poem of The Traveler read aloud, had ceased to consider him ugly. The Hornecks were equally capable of forgetting his person in admiring his works. On becoming acquainted with him, too, they were delighted with his guileless simplicity; his buoyant good-nature and his innate benevolence, and an enduring intimacy soon sprang up between them. For once poor Goldsmith had met with polite society with which he was perfectly at home, and by which he was fully appreciated; for once he had met with lovely women, to whom his ugly features were not repulsive. A proof of the easy and playful terms in which he was with them remains in a whimsical epistle in verse, of which the following was the occasion. A dinner was to be given to their family by a Dr. Baker, a friend of their mother’s, at which Reynolds and Angelica Kauffman were to be present. The young ladies were eager to have Goldsmith of the party, and their intimacy with Dr. Baker allowing them to take the liberty, they wrote a joint invitation to the poet at the last moment. It came too late, and drew from him the following reply; on the top of which was scrawled, “This is a poem! This is a copy of verses!”

“Your mandate I got,

You may all go to pot;

Had your senses been right,

You’d have sent before night —

So tell Horneck and Nesbitt,

And Baker and his bit,

And Kauffman beside,

And the Jessamy Bride,

With the rest of the crew.

The Reynoldses too,

Little Comedy’s face,

And the Captain in Lace —

Tell each other to rue

Your Devonshire crew,

For sending so late

To one of my state.

But ’tis Reynolds’s way

From wisdom to stray,

And Angelica’s whim

To befrolic like him;

But alas! your good worships, how could they be wiser,

When both have been spoil’d in today’s ‘Advertiser’?”*

* The following lines had appeared in that day’s “Advertiser,” on the portrait of Sir Joshua by Angelica Kauffman:

“While fair Angelica, with matchless grace,

Paints Conway’s burly form and Stanhope’s face;

Our hearts to beauty willing homage pay,

We praise, admire, and gaze our souls away.

But when the likeness she hath done for thee,

O Reynolds! with astonishment we see,

Forced to submit, with all our pride we own,

Such strength, such harmony excelled by none.

And thou art rivaled by thyself alone.”

It has been intimated that the intimacy of poor Goldsmith with the Misses Horneck, which began in so sprightly a vein, gradually assumed something of a more tender nature, and that he was not insensible to the fascinations of the younger sister. This may account for some of the phenomena which about this time appeared in his wardrobe and toilet. During the first year of his acquaintance with these lovely girls, the tell-tale book of his tailor, Mr. William Filby, displays entries of four or five full suits, besides separate articles of dress. Among the items we find a green half-trimmed frock and breeches, lined with silk; a queen’s blue dress suit; a half dress suit of ratteen, lined with satin; a pair of silk stocking breeches, and another pair of bloom color. Alas! poor Goldsmith! how much of this silken finery was dictated, not by vanity, but humble consciousness of thy defects; how much of it was to atone for the uncouthness of thy person, and to win favor in the eyes of the Jessamy Bride!

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