The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Thirty-Three

Dinner at General Oglethorpe’s — Anecdotes of the General — Dispute About Dueling — Ghost Stories

We have mentioned old General Oglethorpe as one of Goldsmith’s aristocratical acquaintances. This veteran, born in 1698, had commenced life early, by serving, when a mere stripling, under Prince Eugene, against the Turks. He had continued in military life, and been promoted to the rank of major-general in 1745, and received a command during the Scottish rebellion. Being of strong Jacobite tendencies, he was suspected and accused of favoring the rebels; and though acquitted by a court of inquiry, was never afterward employed; or, in technical language, was shelved. He had since been repeatedly a member of parliament, and had always distinguished himself by learning, taste, active benevolence, and high Tory principles. His name, however, has become historical, chiefly from his transactions in America, and the share he took in the settlement of the colony of Georgia. It lies embalmed in honorable immortality in a single line of Pope’s:

“One, driven by strong benevolence of soul,

Shall fly, like Oglethorpe, from pole to pole.”

The veteran was now seventy-four years of age, but healthy and vigorous, and as much the preux chevalier as in his younger days, when he served with Prince Eugene. His table was often the gathering-place of men of talent. Johnson was frequently there, and delighted in drawing from the general details of his various “experiences.” He was anxious that he should give the world his life. “I know no man,” said he, “whose life would be more interesting.” Still the vivacity of the general’s mind and the variety of his knowledge made him skip from subject to subject too fast for the lexicographer. “Oglethorpe,” growled he, “never completes what he has to say.”

Boswell gives us an interesting and characteristic account of a dinner party at the general’s (April 10, 1772), at which Goldsmith and Johnson were present. After dinner, when the cloth was removed, Oglethorpe, at Johnson’s request, gave an account of the siege of Belgrade, in the true veteran style. Pouring a little wine upon the table, he drew his lines and parallels with a wet finger, describing the positions of the opposing forces. “Here were we — here were the Turks,” to all which Johnson listened with the most earnest attention, poring over the plans and diagrams with his usual purblind closeness.

In the course of conversation the general gave an anecdote of himself in early life, when serving under Prince Eugene. Sitting at table once in company with a prince of Wurtemberg, the latter gave a fillip to a glass of wine, so as to make some of it fly in Oglethorpe’s face. The manner in which it was done was somewhat equivocal. How was it to be taken by the stripling officer? If seriously, he must challenge the prince; but in so doing he might fix on himself the character of a drawcansir. If passed over without notice, he might be charged with cowardice. His mind was made up in an instant. “Prince,” said he, smiling, “that is an excellent joke; but we do it much better in England.” So saying, he threw a whole glass of wine in the prince’s face. “Il a bien fait, mon prince,” cried an old general present, “vouz l’avez commencé.” (He has done right, my prince; you commenced it.) The prince had the good sense to acquiesce in the decision of the veteran, and Oglethorpe’s retort in kind was taken in good part.

It was probably at the close of this story that the officious Boswell, ever anxious to promote conversation for the benefit of his note-book, started the question whether dueling were consistent with moral duty. The old general fired up in an instant. “Undoubtedly,” said he, with a lofty air; “undoubtedly a man has a right to defend his honor.” Goldsmith immediately carried the war into Boswell’s own quarters, and pinned him with the question, “what he would do if affronted?” The pliant Boswell, who for the moment had the fear of the general rather than of Johnson before his eyes, replied, “he should think it necessary to fight.” “Why, then, that solves the question,” replied Goldsmith. “No, sir,” thundered out Johnson; “it does not follow that what a man would do, is therefore right.” He, however, subsequently went into a discussion to show that there were necessities in the case arising out of the artificial refinement of society, and its proscription of any one who should put up with an affront without fighting a duel. “He then,” concluded he, “who fights a duel does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defense, to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven out of society. I could wish there were not that superfluity of refinement; but while such notions prevail, no doubt a man may lawfully fight a duel.”

Another question started was, whether people who disagreed on a capital point could live together in friendship. Johnson said they might. Goldsmith said they could not, as they had not the idem velle atque idem voile — the same liking and aversions. Johnson rejoined that they must shun the subject on which they disagreed. “But, sir,” said Goldsmith, “when people live together who have something as to which they disagree, and which they want to shun, they will be in the situation mentioned in the story of Blue Beard: ‘you may look into all the chambers but one’; but we should have the greatest inclination to look into that chamber, to talk of that subject.” “Sir,” thundered Johnson, in a loud voice, “I am not saying that you could live in friendship with a man from whom you differ as to some point; I am only saying that I could do it.”

Who will not say that Goldsmith had not the best of this petty contest? How just was his remark! how felicitous the illustration of the blue chamber! how rude and overbearing was the argumentum ad hominem of Johnson, when he felt that he had the worst of the argument!

The conversation turned upon ghosts! General Oglethorpe told the story of a Colonel Prendergast, an officer in the Duke of Marlborough’s army, who predicted among his comrades that he should die on a certain day. The battle of Malplaquet took place on that day. The colonel was in the midst of it but came out unhurt. The firing had ceased, and his brother officers jested with him about the fallacy of his prediction. “The day is not over,” replied he, gravely, “I shall die notwithstanding what you see.” His words proved true. The order for a cessation of firing had not reached one of the French batteries, and a random shot from it killed the colonel on the spot. Among his effects was found a pocketbook in which he had made a solemn entry, that Sir John Friend, who had been executed for high treason, had appeared to him, either in a dream or vision, and predicted that he would meet him on a certain day (the very day of the battle). Colonel Cecil, who took possession of the effects of Colonel Prendergast, and read the entry in the pocketbook, told this story to Pope, the poet, in the presence of General Oglethorpe.

This story, as related by the general, appears to have been well received, if not credited, by both Johnson and Goldsmith, each of whom had something to relate in kind. Goldsmith’s brother, the clergyman in whom he had such implicit confidence, had assured him of his having seen an apparition. Johnson also had a friend, old Mr. Cave, the printer, at St. John’s Gate, “an honest man, and a sensible man,” who told him he had seen a ghost: he did not, however, like to talk of it, and seemed to be in great horror, whenever it was mentioned. “And pray, sir,” asked Boswell, “what did he say was the appearance?” “Why, sir, something of a shadowy being.”

The reader will not be surprised at this superstitious turn in the conversation of such intelligent men, when he recollects that, but a few years before this time, all London had been agitated by the absurd story of the Cock Lane ghost; a matter which Dr. Johnson had deemed worthy of his serious investigation, and about which Goldsmith had written a pamphlet.

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