The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Thirty-Four

Mr. Joseph Cradock — An Author’s Confidings — An Amanuensis — Life at Edgeware — Goldsmith Conjuring — George Colman — The Fantoccini

Among the agreeable acquaintances made by Goldsmith about this time was a Mr. Joseph Cradock, a young gentleman of Leicestershire, living at his ease, but disposed to “make himself uneasy,” by meddling with literature and the theater; in fact, he had a passion for plays and players, and had come up to town with a modified translation of Voltaire’s tragedy of Zobeide, in a view to get it acted. There was no great difficulty in the case, as he was a man of fortune, had letters of introduction to persons of note, and was altogether in a different position from the indigent man of genius whom managers might harass with impunity. Goldsmith met him at the house of Yates, the actor, and finding that he was a friend of Lord Clare, soon became sociable with him. Mutual tastes quickened the intimacy, especially as they found means of serving each other. Goldsmith wrote an epilogue for the tragedy of Zobeide; and Cradock, who was an amateur musician, arranged the music for the Threnodia Augustalis, a lament on the death of the Princess Dowager of Wales, the political mistress and patron of Lord Clare, which Goldsmith had thrown off hastily to please that nobleman. The tragedy was played with some success at Covent Garden; the Lament was recited and sung at Mrs. Cornelys’ rooms — a very fashionable resort in Soho Square, got up by a woman of enterprise of that name. It was in whimsical parody of those gay and somewhat promiscuous assemblages that Goldsmith used to call the motley evening parties at his lodgings “little Cornelys.”

The Threnodia Augustalis was not publicly known to be by Goldsmith until several years after his death.

Cradock was one of the few polite intimates who felt more disposed to sympathize with the generous qualities of the poet than to sport with his eccentricities. He sought his society whenever he came to town, and occasionally had him to his seat in the country. Goldsmith appreciated his sympathy, and unburdened himself to him without reserve. Seeing the lettered ease in which this amateur author was enabled to live, and the time he could bestow on the elaboration of a manuscript, “Ah! Mr. Cradock,” cried he, “think of me that must write a volume every month!” He complained to him of the attempts made by inferior writers, and by others who could scarcely come under that denomination, not only to abuse and depreciate his writings, but to render him ridiculous as a man; perverting every harmless sentiment and action into charges of absurdity, malice, or folly. “Sir,” said he, in the fullness of his heart, “I am as a lion bated by curs!”

Another acquaintance which he made about this time, was a young countryman of the name of M’Donnell, whom he met in a state of destitution, and, of course, befriended. The following grateful recollections of his kindness and his merits were furnished by that person in after years:

“It was in the year 1772,” writes he, “that the death of my elder brother — when in London, on my way to Ireland — left me in a most forlorn situation; I was then about eighteen; I possessed neither friends nor money, nor the means of getting to Ireland, of which or of England I knew scarcely anything, from having so long resided in France. In this situation I had strolled about for two or three days, considering what to do, but unable to come to any determination, when Providence directed me to the Temple Gardens. I threw myself on a seat, and, willing to forget my miseries for a moment, drew out a book; that book was a volume of Boileau. I had not been there long when a gentleman, strolling about, passed near me, and observing, perhaps, something Irish or foreign in my garb or countenance, addressed me: ‘Sir, you seem studious; I hope you find this a favorable place to pursue it.’ ‘Not very studious, sir; I fear it is the want of society that brings me hither; I am solitary and unknown in this metropolis’; and a passage from Cicero — Oratio pro Archia — occurring to me, I quoted it; ‘Haec studia pronoctant nobiscum, perigrinantur, rusticantur.’ ‘You are a scholar, too, sir, I perceive.’ ‘A piece of one, sir; but I ought still to have been in the college where I had the good fortune to pick up the little I know.’ A good deal of conversation ensued; I told him part of my history, and he, in return, gave his address in the Temple, desiring me to call soon, from which, to my infinite surprise and gratification, I found that the person who thus seemed to take an interest in my fate was my countryman, and a distinguished ornament of letters.

“I did not fail to keep the appointment, and was received in the kindest manner. He told me, smilingly, that he was not rich; that he could do little for me in direct pecuniary aid, but would endeavor to put me in the way of doing something for myself; observing, that he could at least furnish me with advice not wholly useless to a young man placed in the heart of a great metropolis. ‘In London,’ he continued, ‘nothing is to be got for nothing; you must work; and no man who chooses to be industrious need be under obligations to another, for here labor of every kind commands its reward. If you think proper to assist me occasionally as amanuensis, I shall be obliged, and you will be placed under no obligation, until something more permanent can be secured for you.’ This employment, which I pursued for some time, was to translate passages from Buffon, which was abridged or altered, according to circumstances, for his Natural History.”

Goldsmith’s literary tasks were fast getting ahead of him, and he began now to “toil after them in vain.”

Five volumes of the Natural History here spoken of had long since been paid for by Mr. Griffin, yet most of them were still to be written. His young amanuensis bears testimony to his embarrassments and perplexities, but to the degree of equanimity with which he bore them:

“It has been said,” observes he, “that he was irritable. Such may have been the case at times; nay, I believe it was so; for what with the continual pursuit of authors, printers, and booksellers, and occasional pecuniary embarrassments, few could have avoided exhibiting similar marks of impatience. But it was never so toward me. I saw him only in his bland and kind moods, with a flow, perhaps an overflow, of the milk of human kindness for all who were in any manner dependent upon him. I looked upon him with awe and veneration, and he upon me as a kind parent upon a child.

“His manner and address exhibited much frankness and cordiality, particularly to those with whom he possessed any degree of intimacy. His good-nature was equally apparent. Ton could not dislike the man, although several of his follies and foibles you might be tempted to condemn. He was generous and inconsiderate; money with him had little value.”

To escape from many of the tormentors just alluded to, and to devote himself without interruption to his task, Goldsmith took lodgings for the summer at a farmhouse near the six-mile stone on the Edgeware road, and carried down his books in two return post-chaises. He used to say he believed the farmer’s family thought him an odd character, similar to that in which the “Spectator” appeared to his landlady and her children: he was “The Gentleman.” Boswell tells us that he went to visit him at the place in company with Mickle, translator of the Lusiad. Goldsmith was not at home. Having a curiosity to see his apartment, however, they went in, and found curious scraps of descriptions of animals scrawled upon the wall with a black lead pencil.

The farmhouse in question is still in existence, though much altered. It stands upon a gentle eminence in Hyde Lane, commanding a pleasant prospect toward Hendon. The room is still pointed out in which She Stoops to Conquer was written; a convenient and airy apartment, up one Sight of stairs.

Some matter-of-fact traditions concerning the author were furnished, a few years since, by a son of the farmer, who was sixteen years of age at the time Goldsmith resided with his father. Though he had engaged to board with the family, his meals were generally sent to him in his room, in which he passed the most of his time, negligently dressed, with his shirt collar open, busily engaged in writing. Sometimes, probably when in moods of composition, he would wander into the kitchen, without noticing any one, stand musing with his back to the fire, and then hurry off again to his room, no doubt to commit to paper some thought which had struck him.

Sometimes he strolled about the fields, or was to be seen loitering and reading and musing under the hedges. He was subject to fits of wakefulness and read much in bed; if not disposed to read, he still kept the candle burning; if he wished to extinguish it, and it was out of his reach, he flung his slipper at it, which would be found in the morning near the overturned candlestick, and daubed with grease. He was noted here, as everywhere else, for his charitable feelings. No beggar applied to him in vain, and he evinced on all occasions great commiseration for the poor.

He had the use of the parlor to receive and entertain company, and was visited by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hugh Boyd, the reputed author of Junius, Sir William Chambers, and other distinguished characters. He gave occasionally, though rarely, a dinner party; and on one occasion, when his guests were detained by a thunder shower, he got up a dance, and carried the merriment late into the night.

As usual, he was the promoter of hilarity among the young, and at one time took the children of the house to see a company of strolling players at Hendon. The greatest amusement to the party, however, was derived from his own jokes on the road and his comments on the performance, which produced infinite laughter among his youthful companions.

Near to his rural retreat at Edgeware, a Mr. Seguin, an Irish merchant, of literary tastes, had country quarters for his family, where Goldsmith was always welcome.

In this family he would indulge in playful and even grotesque humor, and was ready for anything — conversation, music, or a game of romps. He prided himself upon his dancing, and would walk a minuet with Mrs. Seguin, to the infinite amusement of herself and the children, whose shouts of laughter he bore with perfect good-humor. He would sing Irish songs, and the Scotch ballad of Johnny Armstrong. He took the lead in the children’s sports of blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper, etc., or in their games at cards, and was the most noisy of the party, affecting to cheat and to be excessively eager to win; while with children of smaller size he would turn the hind part of his wig before, and play all kinds of tricks to amuse them.

One word as to his musical skill and his performance on the flute, which comes up so invariably in all his fireside revels. He really knew nothing of music scientifically; he had a good ear, and may have played sweetly; but we are told he could not read a note of music. Roubillac, the statuary, once played a trick upon him in this respect. He pretended to score down an air as the poet played it, but put down crotchets and semi-breves at random. When he had finished, Goldsmith cast his eyes over it and pronounced it correct! It is possible that his execution in music was like his style in writing; in sweetness and melody he may have snatched a grace beyond the reach of art!

He was at all times a capital companion for children, and knew how to fall in with their humors. “I little thought,” said Miss Hawkins, the woman grown, “what I should have to boast, when Goldsmith taught me to play Jack and Jill by two bits of paper on his fingers.” He entertained Mrs. Garrick, we are told, with a whole budget of stories and songs; delivered the Chimney Sweep with exquisite taste as a solo; and performed a duet with Garrick of Old Rose and Burn the Bellows.

“I was only five years old,” says the late George Colman, “when Goldsmith one evening, when drinking coffee with my father, took me on his knee and began to play with me, which amiable act I returned with a very smart slap in the face; it must have been a tingler, for I left the marks of my little spiteful paw upon his cheek. This infantile outrage was followed by summary justice, and I was locked up by my father in an adjoining room, to undergo solitary imprisonment in the dark. Here I began to howl and scream most abominably. At length a friend appeared to extricate me from jeopardy; it was the good-natured doctor himself, with a lighted candle in his hand, and a smile upon his countenance, which was still partially red from the effects of my petulance. I sulked and sobbed, and he fondled and soothed until I began to brighten. He seized the propitious moment, placed three hats upon the carpet, and a shilling under each; the shillings, he told me, were England, France, and Spain. ‘Hey, presto, cockolorum!’ cried the doctor, and, lo! on uncovering the shillings, they were all found congregated under one. I was no politician at the time, and therefore might not have wondered at the sudden revolution which brought England, France, and Spain all under one crown; but, as I was also no conjurer, it amazed me beyond measure. From that time, whenever the doctor came to visit my father,

“‘I pluck’d his gown to share the good man’s smile’;

a game of romps constantly ensued, and we were always cordial friends and merry playfellows.”

Although Goldsmith made the Edgeware farmhouse his headquarters for the summer, he would absent himself for weeks at a time on visits to Mr. Cradock, Lord Clare, and Mr. Langton, at their country-seats. He would often visit town, also, to dine and partake of the public amusements. On one occasion he accompanied Edmund Burke to witness a performance of the Italian Fantoccini or Puppets, in Panton Street; an exhibition which had hit the caprice of the town, and was in great vogue. The puppets were set in motion by wires, so well concealed as to be with difficulty detected. Boswell, with his usual obtuseness with respect to Goldsmith, accuses him of being jealous of the puppets! “When Burke,” said he, “praised the dexterity with which one of them tossed a pike, ‘Pshaw,’ said Goldsmith with some warmth, ‘I can do it better myself.’” “The same evening,” adds Boswell, “when supping at Burke’s lodgings, he broke his shin by attempting to exhibit to the company how much better he could jump over a stick than the puppets.”

Goldsmith jealous of puppets! This even passes in absurdity Boswell’s charge upon him of being jealous of the beauty of the two Misses Horneck.

The Panton Street puppets were destined to be a source of further amusement to the town, and of annoyance to the little autocrat of the stage. Foote, the Aristophanes of the English drama, who was always on the alert to turn every subject of popular excitement to account, seeing the success of the Fantoccini, gave out that he should produce a Primitive Puppet-show at the Haymarket, to be entitled the Handsome Chambermaid, or Piety in Pattens: intended to burlesque the sentimental comedy which Garrick still maintained at Drury Lane. The idea of a play to be performed in a regular theater by puppets excited the curiosity and talk of the town. “Will your puppets be as large as life, Mr. Foote?” demanded a lady of rank. “Oh, no, my lady,” replied Foote, “not much larger than Garrick.”

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