The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Thirty-Five

Broken Health — Dissipation and Debts — The Irish Widow — Practical Jokes — Scrub — A Misquoted Pun — Malagrida — Goldsmith Proved to Be a Fool — Distressed Ballad Singers — The Poet at Ranelagh

Goldsmith returned to town in the autumn (1772), with his health much disordered. His close fits of sedentary application, during which he in a manner tied himself to the mast, had laid the seeds of a lurking malady in his system, and produced a severe illness in the course of the summer. Town life was not favorable to the health either of body or mind. He could not resist the siren voice of temptation, which, now that he had become a notoriety, assailed him on every side. Accordingly we find him launching away in a career of social dissipation; dining and supping out; at clubs, at routs, at theaters; he is a guest with Johnson at the Thrales, and an object of Mrs. Thrale’s lively sallies; he is a lion at Mrs. Vesey’s and Mrs. Montagu’s, where some of the high-bred blue-stockings pronounce him a “wild genius,” and others, peradventure, a “wild Irishman.” In the meantime his pecuniary difficulties are increasing upon him, conflicting with his proneness to pleasure and expense, and contributing by the harassment of his mind to the wear and tear of his constitution. His Animated Nature, though not finished, had been entirely paid for, and the money spent. The money advanced by Garrick on Newbery’s note still hangs over him as a debt. The tale on which Newbery had loaned from two to three hundred pounds previous to the excursion to Barton has proved a failure. The bookseller is urgent for the settlement of his complicated account; the perplexed author has nothing to offer him in liquidation but the copyright of the comedy which he has in his portfolio; “Though to tell you the truth, Frank,” said he, “there are great doubts of its success.” The offer was accepted, and, like bargains wrung from Goldsmith in times of emergency, turned out a golden speculation to the bookseller.

In this way Goldsmith went on “outrunning the constable,” as he termed it; spending everything in advance; working with an overtasked head and weary heart to pay for past pleasures and past extravagance, and at the same time incurring new debts, to perpetuate his struggles and darken his future prospects. While the excitement of society and the excitement of composition conspire to keep up a feverishness of the system, he has incurred an unfortunate habit of quacking himself with James’ powders, a fashionable panacea of the day.

A farce, produced this year by Garrick, and entitled The Irish Widow, perpetuates the memory of practical jokes played off a year or two previously upon the alleged vanity of poor, simple-hearted Goldsmith. He was one evening at the house of his friend Burke, when he was beset by a tenth muse, an Irish widow and authoress, just arrived from Ireland, full of brogue and blunders, and poetic fire and rantipole gentility. She was soliciting subscriptions for her poems; and assailed Goldsmith for his patronage; the great Goldsmith — her countryman, and of course her friend. She overpowered him with eulogiums on his own poems, and then read some of her own, with vehemence of tone and gesture, appealing continually to the great Goldsmith to know how he relished them.

Poor Goldsmith did all that a kind-hearted and gallant gentleman could do hi such a case; he praised her poems as far as the stomach of his sense would permit: perhaps a little further; he offered her his subscription, and it was not until she had retired with many parting compliments to the great Goldsmith that he pronounced the poetry which had been inflicted on him execrable. The whole scene had been a hoax got up by Burke for the amusement of his company, and the Irish widow, so admirably performed, had been personated by a Mrs. Balfour, a lady of his connection, of great sprightliness and talent.

We see nothing in the story to establish the alleged vanity of Goldsmith, but we think it tells rather to the disadvantage of Burke; being unwarrantable under their relations of friendship, and a species of waggery quite beneath his genius. Croker, in his notes to Boswell, gives another of these practical jokes perpetrated by Burke at the expense of Goldsmith’s credulity. It was related to Croker by Colonel O’Moore, of Cloghan Castle, in Ireland, who was a party concerned. The colonel and Burke, walking one day through Leicester Square on their way to Sir Joshua Reynolds’, with whom they were to dine, observed Goldsmith, who was likewise to be a guest, standing and regarding a crowd which was staring and shouting at some foreign ladies in the window of a hotel. “Observe Goldsmith,” said Burke to O’Moore, “and mark what passes between us at Sir Joshua’s.” They passed on and reached there before him. Burke received Goldsmith with affected reserve and coldness; being pressed to explain the reason. “Really,” said he, “I am ashamed to keep company with a person who could act as you have just done in the Square.” Goldsmith protested he was ignorant of what was meant. “Why,” said Burke, “did you not exclaim as you were looking up at those women, what stupid beasts the crowd must be for staring with such admiration at those painted Jezebels, while a man of your talents passed by unnoticed?” “Surely, surely, my dear friend,” cried Goldsmith, with alarm, “surely I did not say so?” “Nay,” replied Burke, “if you had not said so, how should I have known it?” “That’s true,” answered Goldsmith, “I am very sorry — it was very foolish: I do recollect that something thing of the kind passed through my mind, but I did not think I had uttered it.”

It is proper to observe that these jokes were played off by Burke before he had attained the full eminence of his social position, and that he may have felt privileged to take liberties with Goldsmith as his countryman and college associate. It is evident, however, that the peculiarities of the latter, and his guileless simplicity, made him a butt for the broad waggery of some of his associates; while others more polished, though equally perfidious, are on the watch to give currency to his bulls and blunders.

The Stratford jubilee, in honor of Shakespeare, where Boswell had made a fool of himself, was still in every one’s mind. It was sportively suggested that a fete should be held at Lichfield in honor of Johnson and Garrick, and that the Beaux’ Stratagem should be played by the members of the Literary Club. “Then,” exclaimed Goldsmith, “I shall certainly play Scrub. I should like of all things to try my hand at that character.” The unwary speech, which any one else might have made without comment, has been thought worthy of record as whimsically characteristic. Beauclerc was extremely apt to circulate anecdotes at his expense, founded perhaps on some trivial incident, but dressed up with the embellishments of his sarcastic brain. One relates to a venerable dish of peas, served up at Sir Joshua’s table, which should have been green, but were any other color. A wag suggested to Goldsmith, in a whisper, that they should be sent to Hammersmith, as that was the way to turn-em-green (Turnham–Green). Goldsmith, delighted with the pun, endeavored to repeat it at Burke’s table, but missed the point. “That is the way to make ’em green,” said he. Nobody laughed. He perceived he was at fault. “I mean that is the road to turn ’em green.” A dead pause and a stare; “whereupon,” adds Beauclerc, “he started up disconcerted and abruptly left the table.” This is evidently one of Beauclerc’s caricatures.

On another occasion the poet and Beauclerc were seated at the theater next to Lord Shelburne, the minister, whom political writers thought proper to nickname Malagrida. “Do you know,” said Goldsmith to his lordship, in the course of conversation, “that I never could conceive why they called you Malagrida, for Malagrida was a very good sort of man.” This was too good a trip of the tongue for Beauclerc to let pass: he serves it up in his next letter to Lord Charlemont, as a specimen of a mode of turning a thought the wrong way, peculiar to the poet; he makes merry over it with his witty and sarcastic compeer, Horace Walpole, who pronounces it “a picture of Goldsmith’s whole life.” Dr. Johnson alone, when he hears it bandied about as Goldsmith’s last blunder, growls forth a friendly defense: “Sir,” said he, “it was a mere blunder in emphasis. He meant to say, I wonder they should use Malagrida as a term of reproach.” Poor Goldsmith! On such points he was ever doomed to be misinterpreted. Rogers, the poet, meeting in times long subsequent with a survivor of those days, asked him what Goldsmith really was in conversation. The old conversational character was too deeply stamped in the memory of the veteran to be effaced. “Sir,” replied the old wiseacre, “he was a fool. The right word never came to him. If you gave him back a bad shilling, he’d say, Why, it’s as good a shilling as ever was born. You know he ought to have said coined. Coined, sir, never entered his head. He was a fool, sir.”

We have so many anecdotes in which Goldsmith’s simplicity is played upon that it is quite a treat to meet with one in which he is represented playing upon the simplicity of others, especially when the victim of his joke is the “Great Cham” himself, whom all others are disposed to hold so much in awe. Goldsmith and Johnson were supping cozily together at a tavern in Dean Street, Soho, kept by Jack Roberts, a singer at Drury Lane, and a protege of Garrick’s. Johnson delighted in these gastronomical tete-a-tetes, and was expatiating in high good-humor on rumps and kidneys, the veins of his forehead swelling with the ardor of mastication. “These,” said he, “are pretty little things; but a man must eat a great many of them before he is filled.” “Ay; but how many of them,” asked Goldsmith, with affected simplicity, “would reach to the moon?” “To the moon! Ah, sir, that, I fear, exceeds your calculation.” “Not at all, sir; I think I could tell.” “Pray, then, sir, let us hear.” “Why, sir, one, if it were long enough!” Johnson growled for a time at finding himself caught in such a trite schoolboy trap. “Well, sir,” cried he at length, “I have deserved it. I should not have provoked so foolish an answer by so foolish a question.”

Among the many incidents related as illustrative of Goldsmith’s vanity and envy is one which occurred one evening when he was in a drawing-room with a party of ladies, and a ballad-singer under the window struck up his favorite song of Sally Salisbury. “How miserably this woman sings!” exclaimed he. “Pray, doctor,” said the lady of the house, “could you do it better?” “Yes, madam, and the company shall be judges.” The company, of course, prepared to be entertained by an absurdity; but their smiles were wellnigh turned to tears, for he acquitted himself with a skill and pathos that drew universal applause. He had, in fact, a delicate ear for music, which had been jarred by the false notes of the ballad-singer; and there were certain pathetic ballads, associated with recollections of his childhood, which were sure to touch the springs of his heart. We have another story of him, connected with ballad-singing, which is still more characteristic. He was one evening at the house of Sir William Chambers, in Berners Street, seated at a whist table with Sir William, Lady Chambers, and Baretti, when all at once he threw down his cards, hurried out of the room and into the street. He returned in an instant, resumed his seat, and the game went on. Sir William, after a little hesitation, ventured to ask the cause of his retreat, fearing he had been overcome by the heat of the room. “Not at all,” replied Goldsmith; “but in truth I could not bear to hear that unfortunate woman in the street, half singing, half sobbing, for such tones could only arise from the extremity of distress; her voice grated painfully on my ear and jarred my frame, so that I could not rest until I had sent her away.” It was in fact a poor ballad-singer, whose cracked voice had been heard by others of the party, but without having the same effect on their sensibilities. It was the reality of his fictitious scene in the story of the “Man in Black”; wherein he describes a woman in rags with one child in her arms and another on her back, attempting to sing ballads, but with such a mournful voice that it was difficult to determine whether she was singing or crying. “A wretch,” he adds, “who, in the deepest distress, still aimed at good-humor, was an object my friend was by no means capable of withstanding.” The Man in Black gave the poor woman all that he had — a bundle of matches. Goldsmith, it is probable, sent his ballad-singer away rejoicing with all the money in his pocket.

Ranelagh was at that time greatly in vogue as a place of public entertainment. It was situated near Chelsea; the principal room was a rotunda of great dimensions, with an orchestra in the center and tiers of boxes all round. It was a place to which Johnson resorted occasionally. “I am a great friend to public amusements,” said he, “for they keep people from vice.”* Goldsmith was equally a friend to them, though perhaps not altogether on such moral grounds. He was particularly fond of masquerades, which were then exceedingly popular, and got up at Ranelagh with great expense and magnificence. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had likewise a taste for such amusements, was sometimes his companion, at other times he went alone; his peculiarities of person and manner would soon betray him, whatever might be his disguise, and he would be singled out by wags, acquainted with his foibles, and more successful than himself in maintaining their incognito, as a capital subject to be played upon. Some, pretending not to know him, would decry his writings, and praise those of his contemporaries; others would laud his verses to the skies, but purposely misquote and burlesque them; others would annoy him with parodies; while one young lady, whom he was teasing, as he supposed, with great success and infinite humor, silenced his rather boisterous laughter by quoting his own line about “the loud laugh that speaks the vacant mind.” On one occasion he was absolutely driven out of the house by the persevering jokes of a wag, whose complete disguise gave him no means of retaliation.

* “Alas, sir!” said Johnson, speaking, when in another mood, of grand houses, fine gardens, and splendid places of public amusement; “alas, sir! these are only struggles for happiness. When I first entered Ranelagh it gave an expansion and gay sensation to my mind, such as I never experienced anywhere else. But, as Xerxes wept when he viewed his immense army, and considered that not one of that great multitude would be alive a hundred years afterward, so it went to my heart to consider that there was not one in all that brilliant circle that was not afraid to go home and think.”

His name appearing in the newspapers among the distinguished persons present at one of these amusements, his old enemy, Kenrick, immediately addressed to him a copy of anonymous verses, to the following purport.

To Dr. Goldsmith
On seeing his name in the list of mummers at the late masquerade

“How widely different, Goldsmith, are the ways

Of doctors now, and those of ancient days!

Theirs taught the truth in academic shades,

Ours in lewd hops and midnight masquerades.

So changed the times! say, philosophic sage,

Whose genius suits so well this tasteful age,

Is the Pantheon, late a sink obscene,

Become the fountain of chaste Hippocrene?

Or do thy moral numbers quaintly flow,

Inspired by th’ Aganippe of Soho?

Do wisdom’s sons gorge cates and vermicelli,

Like beastly Bickerstaffe or bothering Kelly?

Or art thou tired of th’ undeserved applause

Bestowed on bards affecting Virtue’s cause?

Is this the good that makes the humble vain,

The good philosophy should not disdain?

If so, let pride dissemble all it can,

A modern sage is still much less than man.”

Goldsmith was keenly sensitive to attacks of the kind, and meeting Kenrick at the Chapter Coffee-house, called him to sharp account for taking such a liberty with his name, and calling his morals in question, merely on account of his being seen at a place of general resort and amusement. Kenrick shuffled and sneaked, protesting that he meant nothing derogatory to his private character. Goldsmith let him know, however, that he was aware of his having more than once indulged in attacks of this dastard kind, and intimated that another such outrage would be followed by personal chastisement.

Kenrick having played the craven in his presence, avenged himself as soon as he was gone by complaining of his having made a wanton attack upon him, and by making coarse comments upon his writings, conversation and person.

The scurrilous satire of Kenrick, however unmerited, may have checked Goldsmith’s taste for masquerades. Sir Joshua Reynolds, calling on the poet one morning, found him walking about his room in somewhat of a reverie, kicking a bundle of clothes before him like a football. It proved to be an expensive masquerade dress, which he said he had been fool enough to purchase, and as there was no other way of getting the worth of his money, he was trying to take it out in exercise.

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