The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty-Six

Goldsmith in the Temple — Judge Day and Grattan — Labor and Dissipation — Publication of the Roman History — Opinions of it — History of Animated Nature — Temple Rookery — Anecdotes of a Spider

In the winter of 1768–69 Goldsmith occupied himself at his quarters in the Temple, slowly “building up” his Roman History. We have pleasant views of him in this learned and half-cloistered retreat of wit and lawyers and legal students, in the reminiscences of Judge Day of the Irish Bench, who in his advanced age delighted to recall the days of his youth, when he was a templar, and to speak of the kindness with which he and his fellow-student, Grattan, were treated by the poet. “I was just arrived from college,” said he, “full freighted with academic gleanings, and our author did not disdain to receive from me some opinions and hints toward his Greek and Roman histories. Being then a young man, I felt much flattered by the notice of so celebrated a person. He took great delight in the conversation of Grattan, whose brilliancy in the morning of life furnished full earnest of the unrivaled splendor which awaited his meridian; and finding us dwelling together in Essex Court, near himself, where he frequently visited my immortal friend, his warm heart became naturally prepossessed toward the associate of one whom he so much admired.”

The judge goes on, in his reminiscences, to give a picture of Goldsmith’s social habits, similar in style to those already furnished. He frequented much the Grecian Coffee–House, then the favorite resort of the Irish and Lancashire Templars. He delighted in collecting his friends around him at evening parties at his chambers, where he entertained them with a cordial and unostentatious hospitality. “Occasionally,” adds the judge, “he amused them with his flute, or with whist, neither of which he played well, particularly the latter, but, on losing his money, he never lost his temper. In a run of bad luck and worse play, he would fling his cards upon the floor and exclaim, ‘Byefore George, I ought forever to renounce thee, fickle, faithless Fortune.’”

The judge was aware at the time that all the learned labor of poor Goldsmith upon his Roman History was mere hack work to recruit his exhausted finances. “His purse replenished,” adds he, “by labors of this kind, the season of relaxation and pleasure took its turn, in attending the theaters, Ranelagh, Vauxhall, and other scenes of gayety and amusement. Whenever his funds were dissipated — and they fled more rapidly from being the dupe of many artful persons, male and female, who practiced upon his benevolence — he returned to his literary labors, and shut himself up from society to provide fresh matter for his bookseller, and fresh supplies for himself.”

How completely had the young student discerned the characteristics of poor, genial, generous, drudging, holiday-loving Goldsmith; toiling that he might play; earning his bread by the sweat of his brains, and then throwing it out of the window.

The Roman History was published in the middle of May, in two volumes of five hundred pages each. It was brought out without parade or pretension, and was announced as for the use of schools and colleges; but, though a work written for bread, not fame, such is its ease, perspicuity, good sense, and the delightful simplicity of its style, that it was well received by the critics, commanded a prompt and extensive sale, and has ever since remained in the hands of young and old.

Johnson, who, as we have before remarked, rarely praised or dispraised things by halves, broke forth in a warm eulogy of the author and the work, in a conversation with Boswell, to the great astonishment of the latter. “Whether we take Goldsmith,” said he, “as a poet, as a comic writer, or as a historian, he stands in the first class.” Boswell. —“A historian! My dear sir, you surely will not rank his compilation of the Roman History with the works of other historians of this age.” Johnson. —“Why, who are before him?” Boswell. —“Hume — Robertson — Lord Lyttelton.” Johnson (his antipathy against the Scotch beginning to rise). —“I have not read Hume; but doubtless Goldsmith’s History is better than the verbiage of Robertson, or the foppery of Dalrymple.” Boswell. —“Will you not admit the superiority of Robertson, in whose history we find such penetration, such painting?” Johnson. —“Sir, you must consider how that penetration and that painting are employed. It is not history, it is imagination. He who describes what he never saw, draws from fancy. Robertson paints minds as Sir Joshua paints faces, in a history-piece; he imagines a heroic countenance. You must look upon Robertson’s work as romance, and try it by that standard. History it is not. Besides, sir, it is the great excellence of a writer to put into his book as much as his book will hold. Goldsmith has done this in his history. Now Robertson might have put twice as much in his book. Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool; the wool takes up more room than the gold. No, sir, I always thought Robertson would be crushed with his own weight — would be buried under his own ornaments. Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know; Robertson detains you a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith’s plain narrative will please again and again. I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils, ‘Read over your compositions, and whenever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out!’— Goldsmith’s abridgment is better than that of Lucius Floras or Eutropius; and I will venture to say, that if you compare him with Vertot in the same places of the Roman History, you will find that he excels Vertot. Sir, he has the art of compiling, and of saying everything he has to say in a pleasing manner. He is now writing a Natural History, and will make it as entertaining as a Persian tale.”

The Natural History to which Johnson alluded was the History of Animated Nature, which Goldsmith commenced in 1769, under an engagement with Griffin, the bookseller, to complete it as soon as possible in eight volumes, each containing upward of four hundred pages, in pica; a hundred guineas to be paid to the author on the delivery of each volume in manuscript.

He was induced to engage in this work by the urgent solicitations of the booksellers, who had been struck by the sterling merits and captivating style of an introduction which he wrote to Brookes’ Natural History. It was Goldsmith’s intention originally to make a translation of Pliny, with a popular commentary; but the appearance of Buffon’s work induced him to change his plan and make use of that author for a guide and model.

Cumberland, speaking of this work, observes: “Distress drove Goldsmith upon undertakings neither congenial with his studies nor worthy of his talents. I remember him when, in his chambers in the Temple, he showed me the beginning of his Animated Nature; it was with a sigh, such as genius draws when hard necessity diverts it from its bent to drudge for bread, and talk of birds, and beasts, and creeping things, which Pidock’s showman would have done as well. Poor fellow, he hardly knows an ass from a mule, nor a turkey from a goose, but when he sees it on the table.”

Others of Goldsmith’s friends entertained similar ideas with respect to his fitness for the task, and they were apt now and then to banter him on the subject, and to amuse themselves with his easy credulity. The custom among the natives of Otaheite of eating dogs being once mentioned in company, Goldsmith observed that a similar custom prevailed in China; that a dog-butcher is as common there as any other butcher; and that when he walks abroad all the dogs fall on him. Johnson. —“That is not owing to his killing dogs; sir, I remember a butcher at Litchfield, whom a dog that was in the house where I lived always attacked. It is the smell of carnage which provokes this, let the animals he has killed be what they may.” Goldsmith. —“Yes, there is a general abhorrence in animals at the signs of massacre. If you put a tub full of blood into a stable, the horses are likely to go mad.” Johnson. —“I doubt that.” Goldsmith. —“Nay, sir, it is a fact well authenticated.” Thrale. —“You had better prove it before you put it into your book on Natural History. You may do it in my stable if you will.” Johnson. —“Nay, sir, I would not have him prove it. If he is content to take his information from others, he may get through his book with little trouble, and without much endangering his reputation. But if he makes experiments for so comprehensive a book as his, there would be no end to them; his erroneous assertions would fall then upon himself; and he might be blamed for not having made experiments as to every particular.”

Johnson’s original prediction, however, with respect to this work, that Goldsmith would make it as entertaining as a Persian tale, was verified; and though much of it was borrowed from Buffon, and but little of it written from his own observation; though it was by no means profound, and was chargeable with many errors, yet the charms of his style and the play of his happy disposition throughout have continued to render it far more popular and readable than many works on the subject of much greater scope and science. Cumberland was mistaken, however, in his notion of Goldsmith’s ignorance and lack of observation as to the characteristics of animals. On the contrary, he was a minute and shrewd observer of them; but he observed them with the eye of a poet and moralist as well as a naturalist. We quote two passages from his works illustrative of this fact, and we do so the more readily because they are in a manner a part of his history, and give us another peep into his private life in the Temple; of his mode of occupying himself in his lonely and apparently idle moments, and of another class of acquaintances which he made there.

Speaking in his Animated Nature of the habitudes of Rooks, “I have often amused myself,” says he, “with observing their plans of policy from my window in the Temple, that looks upon a grove, where they have made a colony in the midst of a city. At the commencement of spring the rookery, which, during the continuance of winter, seemed to have been deserted, or only guarded by about five or six, like old soldiers in a garrison, now begins to be once more frequented; and in a short time, all the bustle and hurry of business will be fairly commenced.”

The other passage, which we take the liberty to quote at some length, is from an admirable paper in the “Bee,” and relates to the House Spider.

“Of all the solitary insects I have ever remarked, the spider is the most sagacious, and its motions to me, who have attentively considered them, seem almost to exceed belief. . . . I perceived, about four years ago, a large spider in one corner of my room making its web; and, though the maid frequently leveled her broom against the labors of the little animal, I had the good fortune then to prevent its destruction, and I may say it more than paid me by the entertainment it afforded.

“In three days the web was, with incredible diligence, completed; nor could I avoid thinking that the insect seemed to exult in its new abode. It frequently traversed it round, examined the strength of every part of it, retired into its hole, and came out very frequently. The first enemy, however, it had to encounter was another and a much larger spider, which, having no web of its own, and having probably exhausted all its stock in former labors of this kind, came to invade the property of its neighbor. Soon, then, a terrible encounter ensued, in which the invader seemed to have the victory, and the laborious spider was obliged to take refuge in its hole. Upon this I perceived the victor using every art to draw the enemy from its stronghold. He seemed to go off, but quickly returned; and when he found all arts in vain, began to demolish the new web without mercy. This brought on another battle, and, contrary to my expectations, the laborious spider became conqueror, and fairly killed his antagonist.

“Now, then, in peaceable possession of what was justly its own, it waited three days with the utmost patience, repairing the breaches of its web, and taking no sustenance that I could perceive. At last, however, a large blue fly fell into the snare, and struggled hard to get loose. The spider gave it leave to entangle itself as much as possible, but it seemed to be too strong for the cobweb. I must own I was greatly surprised when I saw the spider immediately sally out, and in less than a minute weave a new net round its captive, by which the motion of its wings was stopped; and when it was fairly hampered in this manner it was seized and dragged into the hole.

“In this manner it lived, in a precarious state; and nature seemed to have fitted it for such a life, for upon a single fly it subsisted for more than a week. I once put a wasp into the net; but when the spider came out in order to seize it, as usual, upon perceiving what kind of an enemy it had to deal with, it instantly broke all the bands that held it fast, and contributed all that lay in its power to disengage so formidable an antagonist. When the wasp was set at liberty, I expected the spider would have set about repairing the breaches that were made in its net; but those, it seems, were irreparable; wherefore the cobweb was now entirely forsaken, and a new one begun, which was completed in the usual time.

“I had now a mind to try how many cobwebs a single spider could furnish; wherefore I destroyed this, and the insect set about another. When I destroyed the other also, its whole stock seemed entirely exhausted, and it could spin no more. The arts it made use of to support itself, now deprived of its great means of subsistence, were indeed surprising. I have seen it roll up its legs like a ball, and lie motionless for hours together, but cautiously watching all the time; when a fly happened to approach sufficiently near, it would dart out all at once, and often seize its prey.

“Of this life, however, it soon began to grow weary, and resolved to invade the possession of some other spider, since it could not make a web of its own. It formed an attack upon a neighboring fortification with great vigor, and at first was as vigorously repulsed. Not daunted, however, with one defeat, in this manner it continued to lay siege to another’s web for three days, and at length, having killed the defendant, actually took possession. When smaller flies happen to fall into the snare, the spider does not sally out at once, but very patiently waits till it is sure of them; for, upon his immediately approaching the terror of his appearance might give the captive strength sufficient to get loose; the manner, then, is to wait patiently, till, by ineffectual and impotent struggles, the captive has wasted all its strength, and then he becomes a certain and easy conquest.

“The insect I am now describing lived three years; every year it changed its skin and got a new set of legs. I have sometimes plucked off a leg, which grew again in two or three days. At first it dreaded my approach to its web, but at last it became so familiar as to take a fly out of my hand; and, upon my touching any part of the web, would immediately leave its hole, prepared either for a defense or an attack.”

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