The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Forty-Four

A Return to Drudgery — Forced Gayety — Retreat to the Country — The Poem of Retaliation — Portrait of Garrick — Of Goldsmith — Of Reynolds — Illness of the Poet — His Death — Grief of His Friends — A Last Word Respecting the Jessamy Bride

The Barton festivities are over; Christmas, with all its home-felt revelry of the heart, has passed like a dream; the Jessamy Bride has beamed her last smile upon the poor poet, and the early part of 1774 finds him in his now dreary bachelor abode in the Temple, toiling fitfully and hopelessly at a multiplicity of tasks. His Animated Nature, so long delayed, so often interrupted, is at length announced for publication, though it has yet to receive a few finishing touches. He is preparing a third History of England, to be compressed and condensed in one volume, for the use of schools. He is revising his Inquiry into Polite Learning, for which he receives the pittance of five guineas, much needed in his present scantiness of purse; he is arranging his Survey of Experimental Philosophy, and he is translating the Comic Romance of Scarron. Such is a part of the various labors of a drudging, depressing kind, by which his head is made wrong and his heart faint. “If there is a mental drudgery,” says Sir Walter Scott, “which lowers the spirits and lacerates the nerves, like the toil of a slave, it is that which is exacted by literary composition, when the heart is not in unison with the work upon which the head is employed. Add to the unhappy author’s task sickness, sorrow, or the pressure of unfavorable circumstances, and the labor of the bondsman becomes light in comparison.” Goldsmith again makes an effort to rally his spirits by going into gay society. “Our club,” writes Beauclerc to Charlemont, on the 12th of February, “has dwindled away to nothing. Sir Joshua and Goldsmith have got into such a round of pleasures that they have no time.” This shows how little Beauclerc was the companion of the poet’s mind, or could judge of him below the surface. Reynolds, the kind participator in joyless dissipation, could have told a different story of his companion’s heart-sick gayety.

In this forced mood Goldsmith gave entertainments in his chambers in the Temple; the last of which was a dinner to Johnson, Reynolds, and others of his intimates, who partook with sorrow and reluctance of his imprudent hospitality. The first course vexed them by its needless profusion. When a second, equally extravagant, was served up, Johnson and Reynolds declined to partake of it; the rest of the company, understanding their motives, followed their example, and the dishes went from the table untasted. Goldsmith felt sensibly this silent and well-intended rebuke.

The gayeties of society, however, cannot medicine for any length of time a mind diseased. Wearied by the distractions and harassed by the expenses of a town life, which he had not the discretion to regulate, Goldsmith took the resolution, too tardily adopted, of retiring to the serene quiet and cheap and healthful pleasures of the country, and of passing only two months of the year in London. He accordingly made arrangements to sell his right in the Temple chambers, and in the month of March retired to his country quarters at Hyde, there to devote himself to toil. At this dispirited juncture, when inspiration seemed to be at an end, and the poetic fire extinguished, a spark fell on his combustible imagination and set it in a blaze.

He belonged to a temporary association of men of talent, some of them members of the Literary Club, who dined together occasionally at the St. James’ Coffee-house. At these dinners, as usual, he was one of the last to arrive. On one occasion, when he was more dilatory than usual, a whim seized the company to write epitaphs on him, as “The late Dr. Goldsmith,” and several were thrown off in a playful vein, hitting off his peculiarities. The only one extant was written by Garrick, and has been preserved, very probably, by its pungency:

“Here lies poet Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,

Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor poll.”

Goldsmith did not relish the sarcasm, especially as coming from such a quarter. He was not very ready at repartee; but he took his time, and in the interval of his various tasks concocted a series of epigrammatic sketches, under the title of Retaliation, in which the characters of his distinguished intimates were admirably hit off, with a mixture of generous praise and good-humored raillery. In fact, the poem for its graphic truth; its nice discrimination; its terse good sense, and its shrewd knowledge of the world, must have electrified the club almost as much as the first appearance of The Traveler, and let them still deeper into the character and talents of the man they had been accustomed to consider as their butt. Retaliation, in a word, closed his accounts with the club, and balanced all his previous deficiencies.

The portrait of David Garrick is one of the most elaborate in the poem. When the poet came to touch it off, he had some lurking piques to gratify, which the recent attack had revived. He may have forgotten David’s cavalier treatment of him, in the early days of his comparative obscurity; he may have forgiven his refusal of his plays; but Garrick had been capricious in his conduct in the times of their recent intercourse; sometimes treating him with gross familiarity, at other times affecting dignity and reserve, and assuming airs of superiority; frequently he had been facetious and witty in company at his expense, and lastly he had been guilty of the couplet just quoted. Goldsmith, therefore, touched off the lights and shadows of his character with a free hand, and, at the same time, gave a side hit at his old rival, Kelly, and his critical persecutor, Kenrick, in making them sycophantic satellites of the actor. Goldsmith, however, was void of gall, even in his revenge, and his very satire was more humorous than caustic:

“Here lies David Garrick, describe him who can,

An abridgment of all that was pleasant in man;

As an actor, confess’d without rival to shine;

As a wit, if not first, in the very first line:

Yet, with talents like these, and an excellent heart.

The man had his failings, a dupe to his art.

Like an ill-judging beauty, his colors he spread,

And beplaster’d with rouge his own natural red.

On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting;

’Twas only that when he was off he was acting.

With no reason on earth to go out of his way,

He turn’d and he varied full ten times a day:

Though secure of our hearts, yet confoundedly sick

If they were not his own by finessing and trick:

He cast off his friends as a huntsman his pack,

For he knew, when he pleased, he could whistle them back.

Of praise a mere glutton, he swallow’d what came,

And the puff of a dunce he mistook it for fame;

Till his relish, grown callous almost to disease,

Who pepper’d the highest was surest to please.

But let us be candid, and speak out our mind,

If dunces applauded, he paid them in kind.

Ye Kenricks, ye Kellys, and Woodfalls so grave,

What a commerce was yours, while you got and you gavel

How did Grub Street re-echo the shouts that you raised,

While he was be-Rosciused and you were be-praised!

But peace to his spirit, wherever it flies,

To act as an angel and mix with the skies;

Those poets who owe their best fame to his skill,

Shall still be his flatterers, go where he will;

Old Shakespeare receive him with praise and with love,

And Beaumonts and Bens be his Kellys above.”

This portion of Retaliation soon brought a retort from Garrick, which we insert, as giving something of a likeness of Goldsmith, though in broad caricature:

“Here, Hermes, says Jove, who with nectar was mellow,

Go fetch me some clay — I will make an odd fellow:

Right and wrong shall be jumbled, much gold and some dross,

Without cause be he pleased, without cause be he cross;

Be sure, as I work, to throw in contradictions,

A great love of truth, yet a mind turn’d to fictions;

Now mix these ingredients, which, warm’d in the baking,

Turn’d to learning and gaming, religion, and

raking,

With the love of a wench, let his writings be chaste;

Tip his tongue with strange matters, his lips with fine taste;

That the rake and the poet o’er all may prevail,

Set fire to the head and set fire to the tail;

For the joy of each sex on the world I’ll bestow it,

This scholar, rake, Christian, dupe, gamester, and poet.

Though a mixture so odd, he shall merit great fame,

And among brother mortals be Goldsmith his name;

When on earth this strange meteor no more shall appear,

You, Hermes, shall fetch him, to make us sport here.”

The charge of raking, so repeatedly advanced in the foregoing lines, must be considered a sportive one, founded, perhaps, on an incident or two within Garrick’s knowledge, but not borne out by the course of Goldsmith’s life. He seems to have had a tender sentiment for the sex, but perfectly free from libertinism. Neither was he an habitual gamester. The strictest scrutiny has detected no settled vice of the kind. He was fond of a game of cards, but an unskillful and careless player. Cards in those days were universally introduced into society. High play was, in fact, a fashionable amusement, as at one time was deep drinking; and a man might occasionally lose large sums, and be beguiled into deep potations, without incurring the character of a gamester or a drunkard. Poor Goldsmith, on his advent into high society, assumed fine notions with fine clothes; he was thrown occasionally among high players, men of fortune who could sport their cool hundreds as carelessly as his early comrades at Ballymahon could their half crowns. Being at all times magnificent in money matters, he may have played with them in their own way, without considering that what was sport to them to him was ruin. Indeed part of his financial embarrassments may have arisen from losses of the kind, incurred inadvertently, not in the indulgence of a habit. “I do not believe Goldsmith to have deserved the name of gamester,” said one of his contemporaries; “he liked cards very well, as other people do, and lost and won occasionally; but as far as I saw or heard, and I had many opportunities of hearing, never any considerable sum. If he gamed with any one, it was probably with Beauclerc, but I do not know that such was the case.”

Retaliation, as we have already observed, was thrown off in parts, at intervals, and was never completed. Some characters, originally intended to be introduced, remained unattempted; others were but partially sketched — such was the one of Reynolds, the friend of his heart, and which he commenced with a felicity which makes us regret that it should remain unfinished.

“Here Reynolds is laid, and to tell you my mind,

He has not left a wiser or better behind.

His pencil was striking, resistless, and grand;

His manners were gentle, complying, and bland;

Still born to improve us in every part,

His pencil our faces, his manners our heart.

To coxcombs averse, yet most civilly steering,

When they judged without skill he was still hard of hearing:

When they talked of their Raphaels, Correggios, and stuff,

He shifted his trumpet and only took snuff.

By flattery unspoiled —”

The friendly portrait stood unfinished on the easel; the hand of the artist had failed! An access of a local complaint, under which he had suffered for some time past, added to a general prostration of health, brought Goldsmith back to town before he had well settled himself in the country. The local complaint subsided, but was followed by a low nervous fever. He was not aware of his critical situation, and intended to be at the club on the 25th of March, on which occasion Charles Fox, Sir Charles Bunbury (one of the Horneck connection), and two other new members were to be present. In the afternoon, however, he felt so unwell as to take to his bed, and his symptoms soon acquired sufficient force to keep him there. His malady fluctuated for several days, and hopes were entertained of his recovery, but they proved fallacious. He had skillful medical aid and faithful nursing, but he would not follow the advice of his physicians, and persisted in the use of James’ powders, which he had once found beneficial, but which were now injurious to him. His appetite was gone, his strength failed him, but his mind remained clear, and was perhaps too active for his frame. Anxieties and disappointments which had previously sapped his constitution, doubtless aggravated his present complaint and rendered him sleepless. In reply to an inquiry of his physician, he acknowledged that his mind was ill at ease. This was his last reply; he was too weak to talk, and in general took no notice of what was said to him. He sank at last into a deep sleep, and it was hoped a favorable crisis had arrived. He awoke, however, in strong convulsions, which continued without intermission until he expired, on the fourth of April, at five o’clock in the morning; being in the forty-sixth year of his age.

His death was a shock to the literary world, and a deep affliction to a wide circle of intimates and friends; for with all his foibles and peculiarities, he was fully as much beloved as he was admired. Burke, on hearing the news, burst into tears. Sir Joshua Reynolds threw by his pencil for the day, and grieved more than he had done in times of great family distress. “I was abroad at the time of his death,” writes Dr. M’Donnell, the youth whom when in distress he had employed as an amanuensis, “and I wept bitterly when the intelligence first reached me. A blank came over my heart as if I had lost one of my nearest relatives, and was followed for some days by a feeling of despondency.” Johnson felt the blow deeply and gloomily. In writing some time afterward to Boswell, he observed, “Of poor Dr. Goldsmith there is little to be told more than the papers have made public. He died of a fever, made, I am afraid, more violent by uneasiness of mind. His debts began to be heavy, and all his resources were exhausted. Sir Joshua is of opinion that he owed no less than two thousand pounds. Was ever poet so trusted before?”

Among his debts were seventy-nine pounds due to his tailor, Mr. William Filby, from whom he had received a new suit but a few days before his death. “My father,” said the younger Filby, “though a loser to that amount, attributed no blame to Goldsmith; he had been a good customer, and had he lived would have paid every farthing.” Others of his tradespeople evinced the same confidence in his integrity, notwithstanding his heedlessness. Two sister milliners in Temple Lane, who had been accustomed to deal with him, were concerned, when told, some time before his death, of his pecuniary embarrassments. “Oh, sir,” said they to Mr. Cradock, “sooner persuade him to let us work for him gratis than apply to any other; we are sure he will pay us when he can.”

On the stairs of his apartment there was the lamentation of the old and infirm, and the sobbing of women; poor objects of his charity to whom he had never turned a deaf ear, even when struggling himself with poverty.

But there was one mourner, whose enthusiasm for his memory, could it have been foreseen, might have soothed the bitterness of death. After the coffin had been screwed down, a lock of his hair was requested for a lady, a particular friend, who wished to preserve it as a remembrance. It was the beautiful Mary Horneck — the Jessamy Bride. The coffin was opened again, and a lock of hair cut off; which she treasured to her dying day. Poor Goldsmith! could he have foreseen that such a memorial of him was to be thus cherished!

One word more concerning this lady, to whom we have so often ventured to advert. She survived almost to the present day. Hazlitt met her at Northcote’s painting-room, about twenty years since, as Mrs. Gwyn, the widow of a General Gwyn of the army. She was at that time upward of seventy years of age. Still, he said, she was beautiful, beautiful even in years. After she was gone, Hazlitt remarked how handsome she still was. “I do not know,” said Northcote, “why she is so kind as to come to see me, except that I am the last link in the chain that connects her with all those she most esteemed when young — Johnson, Reynolds, Goldsmith — and remind her of the most delightful period of her life.” “Not only so,” observed Hazlitt, “but you remember what she was at twenty; and you thus bring back to her the triumphs of her youth — that pride of beauty, which must be the more fondly cherished as it has no external vouchers, and lives chiefly in the bosom of its once lovely possessor. In her, however, the Graces had triumphed over time; she was one of Ninon de l’Enclos’ people, of the last of the immortals. I could almost fancy the shade of Goldsmith in the room, looking round with complacency.”

The Jessamy Bride survived her sister upward of forty years, and died in 1840, within a few days of completing her eighty-eighth year. “She had gone through all the stages of life,” says Northcote, “and had lent a grace to each.” However gayly she may have sported with the half-concealed admiration of the poor awkward poet in the heyday of her youth and beauty, and however much it may have been made a subject of teasing by her youthful companions, she evidently prided herself in after years upon having been an object of his affectionate regard; it certainly rendered her interesting throughout life in the eyes of his admirers, and has hung a poetical wreath above her grave.

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