The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Thirty-One

Dinner at the Royal Academy — The Rowley Controversy — Horace Walpole’s Conduct to Chatterton — Johnson at Redcliffe Church — Goldsmith’s History of England — Davies’ Criticism — Letter to Bennet Langton

On St. George’s day of this year (1771), the first annual banquet of the Royal Academy was held in the exhibition room; the walls of which were covered with works of art, about to be submitted to public inspection. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who first suggested this elegant festival, presided in his official character; Drs. Johnson and Goldsmith, of course, were present, as professors of the academy; and, besides the academicians, there was a large number of the most distinguished men of the day as guests. Goldsmith on this occasion drew on himself the attention of the company by launching out with enthusiasm on the poems recently given to the world by Chatterton as the works of an ancient author by the name of Rowley, discovered in the tower of Redcliffe Church, at Bristol. Goldsmith spoke of them with rapture, as a treasure of old English poetry. This immediately raised the question of their authenticity; they having been pronounced a forgery of Chatterton’s. Goldsmith was warm for their being genuine. When he considered, he said, the merit of the poetry; the acquaintance with life and the human heart displayed in them, the antique quaintness of the language and the familiar knowledge of historical events of their supposed day, he could not believe it possible they could be the work of a boy of sixteen, of narrow education, and confined to the duties of an attorney’s office. They must be the productions of Rowley.

Johnson, who was a stout unbeliever in Rowley, as he had been in Ossian, rolled in his chair and laughed at the enthusiasm of Goldsmith. Horace Walpole, who sat near by, joined in the laugh and jeer as soon as he found that the “trouvaille,” as he called it, “of his friend Chatterton” was in question. This matter, which had excited the simple admiration of Goldsmith, was no novelty to him, he said. “He might, had he pleased, have had the honor of ushering the great discovery to the learned world.” And so he might, had he followed his first impulse in the matter, for he himself had been an original believer; had pronounced some specimen verses sent to him by Chatterton wonderful for their harmony and spirit; and had been ready to print them and publish them to the world with his sanction. When he found, however, that his unknown correspondent was a mere boy, humble in sphere and indigent in circumstances, and when Gray and Mason pronounced the poems forgeries, he had changed his whole conduct toward the unfortunate author, and by his neglect and coldness had dashed all his sanguine hopes to the ground.

Exulting in his superior discernment, this cold-hearted man of society now went on to divert himself, as he says, with the credulity of Goldsmith, whom he was accustomed to pronounce “an inspired idiot”; but his mirth was soon dashed, for on asking the poet what had become of this Chatterton, he was answered, doubtless in the feeling tone of one who had experienced the pangs of despondent genius, that “he had been to London and had destroyed himself.”

The reply struck a pang of self-reproach even to the cold heart of Walpole; a faint blush may have visited his cheek at his recent levity. “The persons of honor and veracity who were present,” said he in after years, when he found it necessary to exculpate himself from the charge of heartless neglect of genius, “will attest with what surprise and concern. I thus first heard of his death.” Well might he feel concern. His cold neglect had doubtless contributed to madden the spirit of that youthful genius, and hurry him toward his untimely end; nor have all the excuses and palliations of Walpole’s friends and admirers been ever able entirely to clear this stigma from his fame.

But what was there in the enthusiasm and credulity of honest Goldsmith in this matter to subject him to the laugh of Johnson or the raillery of Walpole? Granting the poems were not ancient, were they not good? Granting they were not the productions of Rowley, were they the less admirable for being the productions of Chatterton? Johnson himself testified to their merits and the genius of their composer when, some years afterward, he visited the tower of Redcliffe Church, and was shown the coffer in which poor Chatterton had pretended to find them. “This,” said he, “is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.”

As to Goldsmith, he persisted in his credulity, and had subsequently a dispute with Dr. Percy on the subject, which interrupted and almost destroyed their friendship. After all, his enthusiasm was of a generous, poetic kind; the poems remain beautiful monuments of genius, and it is even now difficult to persuade one’s self that they could be entirely the productions of a youth of sixteen.

In the month of August was published anonymously the History of England, on which Goldsmith had been for some time employed. It was in four volumes, compiled chiefly, as he acknowledged in the preface, from Rapin, Carle, Smollett and Hume, “each of whom,” says he, “have their admirers, in proportion as the reader is studious of political antiquities, fond of minute anecdote, a warm partisan, or a deliberate reasoner.” It possessed the same kind of merit as his other historical compilations; a clear, succinct narrative, a simple, easy, and graceful style, and an agreeable arrangement of facts; but was not remarkable for either depth of observation or minute accuracy of research. Many passages were transferred, with little if any alteration, from his Letters from a Nobleman to his Son on the same subject. The work, though written without party feeling, met with sharp animadversions from political scribblers. The writer was charged with being unfriendly to liberty, disposed to elevate monarchy above its proper sphere; a tool of ministers; one who would betray his country for a pension. Tom Davies, the publisher, the pompous little bibliopole of Russell Street, alarmed lest the book should prove unsalable, undertook to protect it by his pen, and wrote a long article in its defense in “The Public Advertiser.” He was vain of his critical effusion, and sought by nods and winks and innuendoes to intimate his authorship. “Have you seen,” said he in a letter to a friend, “‘An Impartial Account of Goldsmith’s History of England’? If you want to know who was the writer of it, you will find him in Russell Street — but mum!”

The history, on the whole, however, was well received; some of the critics declared that English history had never before been so usefully, so elegantly, and agreeably epitomized, “and, like his other historical writings, it has kept its ground” in English literature.

Goldsmith had intended this summer, in company with Sir Joshua Reynolds, to pay a visit to Bennet Langton, at his seat in Lincolnshire, where he was settled in domestic life, having the year previously married the Countess Dowager of Rothes. The following letter, however, dated from his chambers in the Temple, on the 7th of September, apologizes for putting off the visit, while it gives an amusing account of his summer occupations and of the attacks of the critics on his History of England:

“MY DEAR SIR— Since I had the pleasure of seeing you last, I have been almost wholly in the country, at a farmer’s house, quite alone, trying to write a comedy. It is now finished; but when or how it will be acted, or whether it will be acted at all, are questions I cannot resolve. I am therefore so much employed upon that, that I am under the necessity of putting off my intended visit to Lincolnshire for this season. Reynolds is just returned from Paris, and finds himself now in the case of a truant that must make up for his idle time by diligence. We have therefore agreed to postpone our journey till next summer, when we hope to have the honor of waiting upon Lady Rothes and you, and staying double the time of our late intended visit. We often meet, and never without remembering you. I see Mr. Beauclerc very often both in town and country. He is now going directly forward to become a second Boyle; deep in chemistry and physics. Johnson has been down on a visit to a country parson, Dr. Taylor; and is returned to his old haunts at Mrs. Thrale’s. Burke is a farmer, en attendant a better place; but visiting about too. Every soul is visiting about and merry but myself. And that is hard too, as I have been trying these three months to do something to make people laugh. There have I been strolling about the hedges, studying jests with a most tragical countenance. The Natural History is about half finished, and I will shortly finish the rest. God knows I am tired of this kind of finishing, which is but bungling work; and that not so much my fault as the fault of my scurvy circumstances. They begin to talk in town of the Opposition’s gaining ground; the cry of liberty is still as loud as ever. I have published, or Davies has published for me, an ‘Abridgment of the History of England,’ for which I have been a good deal abused in the newspapers, for betraying the liberties of the people. God knows I had no thought for or against liberty in my head; my whole aim being to make up a book of a decent size, that, as ‘Squire Richard says, would do no harm to nobody. However, they set me down as an arrant Tory, and consequently an honest man. When you come to look at any part of it, you’ll say that I am a sore Whig. God bless you, and with my most respectful compliments to her ladyship, I remain, dear sir, your most affectionate humble servant,

“OLIVER GOLDSMITH.”

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