The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Five

The Agreeable Fellow-Passengers — Risks from Friends Picked up by the Wayside — Sketches of Holland and the Dutch — Shifts While a Poor Student at Leyden — The Tulip Speculation — The Provident Flute — Sojourn at Paris — Sketch of Voltaire — Traveling Shifts of a Philosophic Vagabond

His usual indiscretion attended Goldsmith at the very outset of his foreign enterprise. He had intended to take shipping at Leith for Holland, but on arriving at that port he found a ship about to sail for Bordeaux, with six agreeable passengers, whose acquaintance he had probably made at the inn. He was not a man to resist a sudden impulse; so, instead of embarking for Holland, he found himself plowing the seas on his way to the other side of the Continent. Scarcely had the ship been two days at sea when she was driven by stress of weather to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here “of course” Goldsmith and his agreeable fellow-passengers found it expedient to go on shore and “refresh themselves after the fatigues of the voyage.” “Of course” they frolicked and made merry until a late hour in the evening, when, in the midst of their hilarity, the door was burst open, and a sergeant and twelve grenadiers entered with fixed bayonets, and took the whole convivial party prisoners.

It seems that the agreeable companions with whom our greenhorn had struck up such a sudden intimacy were Scotchmen in the French service, who had been in Scotland enlisting recruits for the French army.

In vain Goldsmith protested his innocence; he was marched off with his fellow-revelers to prison, whence he with difficulty obtained his release at the end of a fortnight. With his customary facility, however, at palliating his misadventures, he found everything turn out for the best. His imprisonment saved his life, for during his detention the ship proceeded on her voyage, but was wrecked at the mouth of the Garonne, and all on board perished.

Goldsmith’s second embarkation was for Holland direct, and in nine days he arrived at Rotterdam, whence he proceeded, without any more deviations, to Leyden. He gives a whimsical picture, in one of his letters, of the appearance of the Hollanders. “The modern Dutchman is quite a different creature from him of former times; he in everything imitates a Frenchman but in his easy, disengaged air. He is vastly ceremonious, and is, perhaps, exactly what a Frenchman might have been in the reign of Louis XIV. Such are the better bred. But the downright Hollander is one of the oddest figures in nature. Upon a lank head of hair he wears a half-cocked narrow hat, laced with black ribbon; no coat, but seven waistcoats and nine pair of breeches, so that his hips reach up almost to his armpits. This well-clothed vegetable is now fit to see company or make love. But what a pleasing creature is the object of his appetite! why, she wears a large fur cap, with a deal of Flanders lace; and for every pair of breeches he carries, she puts on two petticoats.

“A Dutch lady burns nothing about her phlegmatic admirer but his tobacco. You must know, sir, every woman carries in her hand a stove of coals, which, when she sits, she snugs under her petticoats, and at this chimney dozing Strephon lights his pipe.”

In the same letter, he contrasts Scotland and Holland. “There hills and rocks intercept every prospect; here it is all a continued plain. There you might see a well-dressed duchess issuing from a dirty close, and here a dirty Dutchman inhabiting a palace. The Scotch may be compared to a tulip, planted in dung; but I can never see a Dutchman in his own house but I think of a magnificent Egyptian temple dedicated to an ox.”

The country itself awakened his admiration. “Nothing,” said he, “can equal its beauty; wherever I turn my eyes, fine houses, elegant gardens, statues, grottoes, vistas, present themselves; but when you enter their towns you are charmed beyond description. No misery is to be seen here; every one is usefully employed.” And again, in his noble description in The Traveler:

“To men of other minds my fancy flies,

Imbosom’d in the deep where Holland lies.

Methinks her patient sons before me stand,

Where the broad ocean leans against the land,

And, sedulous to stop the coming tide,

Lift the tall rampire’s artificial pride.

Onward, methinks, and diligently slow,

The firm connected bulwark seems to grow;

Spreads its long arms amid the watery roar,

Scoops out an empire, and usurps the shore.

While the pent ocean, rising o’er the pile,

Sees an amphibious world before him smile;

The slow canal, the yellow blossom’d vale,

The willow-tufted bank, the gliding sail,

The crowded mart, the cultivated plain,

A new creation rescued from his reign.”

He remained about a year at Leyden, attending the lectures of Gaubius on chemistry and Albinus on anatomy; though his studies are said to have been miscellaneous, and directed to literature rather than science. The thirty-three pounds with which he had set out on his travels were soon consumed, and he was put to many a shift to meet his expenses until his precarious remittances should arrive. He had a good friend on these occasions in a fellow-student and countryman, named Ellis, who afterward rose to eminence as a physician. He used frequently to loan small sums to Goldsmith, which were always scrupulously paid. Ellis discovered the innate merits of the poor awkward student, and used to declare in after life that “it was a common remark in Leyden, that in all the peculiarities of Goldsmith, an elevation of mind was to be noted; a philosophical tone and manner; the feelings of a gentleman, and the language and information of a scholar.”

Sometimes, in his emergencies, Goldsmith undertook to teach the English language. It is true he was ignorant of the Dutch, but he had a smattering of the French, picked up among the Irish priests at Ballymahon. He depicts his whimsical embarrassment in this respect, in his account in the Vicar of Wakefield of the philosophical vagabond who went to Holland to teach the natives English, without knowing a word of their own language. Sometimes, when sorely pinched, and sometimes, perhaps, when flush, he resorted to the gambling tables, which in those days abounded in Holland. His good friend Ellis repeatedly warned him against this unfortunate propensity, but in vain. It brought its own cure, or rather its own punishment, by stripping him of every shilling.

Ellis once more stepped in to his relief with a true Irishman’s generosity, but with more considerateness than generally characterizes an Irishman, for he only granted pecuniary aid on condition of his quitting the sphere of danger. Goldsmith gladly consented to leave Holland, being anxious to visit other parts. He intended to proceed to Paris and pursue his studies there, and was furnished by his friend with money for the journey. Unluckily, he rambled into the garden of a florist just before quitting Leyden. The tulip mania was still prevalent in Holland, and some species of that splendid flower brought immense prices. In wandering through the garden Goldsmith recollected that his uncle Contarine was a tulip fancier. The thought suddenly struck him that here was an opportunity of testifying, in a delicate manner, his sense of that generous uncle’s past kindnesses. In an instant his hand was in his pocket; a number of choice and costly tulip-roots were purchased and packed up for Mr. Contarine; and it was not until he had paid for them that he bethought himself that he had spent all the money borrowed for his traveling expenses. Too proud, however, to give up his journey, and too shamefaced to make another appeal to his friend’s liberality, he determined to travel on foot, and depend upon chance and good luck for the means of getting forward; and it is said that he actually set off on a tour of the Continent, in February, 1775, with but one spare shirt, a flute, and a single guinea.

“Blessed,” says one of his biographers, “with a good constitution, an adventurous spirit, and with that thoughtless, or, perhaps, happy disposition which takes no care for tomorrow, he continued his travels for a long time in spite of innumerable privations.” In his amusing narrative of the adventures of a “Philosophic Vagabond” in the Vicar of Wakefield, we find shadowed out the expedients he pursued. “I had some knowledge of music, with a tolerable voice; I now turned what was once my amusement into a present means of subsistence. I passed among the harmless peasants of Flanders, and among such of the French as were poor enough to be very merry, for I ever found them sprightly in proportion to their wants. Whenever I approached a peasant’s house toward nightfall, I played one of my merriest tunes, and that procured me not only a lodging, but subsistence for the next day; but in truth I must own, whenever I attempted to entertain persons of a higher rank, they always thought my performance odious, and never made me any return for my endeavors to please them.”

At Paris he attended the chemical lectures of Rouelle, then in great vogue, where he says he witnessed as bright a circle of beauty as graced the court of Versailles. His love of theatricals, also, led him to attend the performances of the celebrated actress Mademoiselle Clairon, with which he was greatly delighted. He seems to have looked upon the state of society with the eye of a philosopher, but to have read the signs of the times with the prophetic eye of a poet. In his rambles about the environs of Paris he was struck with the immense quantities of game running about almost in a tame state; and saw in those costly and rigid preserves for the amusement and luxury of the privileged few a sure “badge of the slavery of the people.” This slavery he predicted was drawing toward a close. “When I consider that these parliaments, the members of which are all created by the court, and the presidents of which can only act by immediate direction, presume even to mention privileges and freedom, who till of late received directions from the throne with implicit humility; when this is considered, I cannot help fancying that the genius of Freedom has entered that kingdom in disguise. If they have but three weak monarchs more successively on the throne, the mask will be laid aside and the country will certainly once more be free.” Events have testified to the sage forecast of the poet.

During a brief sojourn in Paris he appears to have gained access to valuable society, and to have had the honor and pleasure of making the acquaintance of Voltaire; of whom, in after years, he wrote a memoir. “As a companion,” says he, “no man ever exceeded him when he pleased to lead the conversation; which, however, was not always the case. In company which he either disliked or despised, few could be more reserved than he; but when he was warmed in discourse, and got over a hesitating manner, which sometimes he was subject to, it was rapture to hear him. His meager visage seemed insensibly to gather beauty; every muscle in it had meaning, and his eye beamed with unusual brightness. The person who writes this memoir,” continues he, “remembers to have seen him in a select company of wits of both sexes at Paris, when the subject happened to turn upon English taste and learning. Fontenelle (then nearly a hundred years old), who was of the party, and who being unacquainted with the language or authors of the country he undertook to condemn, with a spirit truly vulgar began to revile both. Diderot, who liked the English, and knew something of their literary pretensions, attempted to vindicate their poetry and learning, but with unequal abilities. The company quickly perceived that Fontenelle was superior in the dispute, and were surprised at the silence which Voltaire had preserved all the former part of the night, particularly as the conversation happened to turn upon one of his favorite topics. Fontenelle continued his triumph until about twelve o’clock, when Voltaire appeared at last roused from his reverie. His whole frame seemed animated. He began his defense with the utmost defiance mixed with spirit, and now and then let fall the finest strokes of raillery upon his antagonist; and his harangue lasted till three in the morning. I must confess that, whether from national partiality or from the elegant sensibility of his manner, I never was so charmed, nor did I ever remember so absolute a victory as he gained in this dispute.”

Goldsmith’s ramblings took him into Germany and Switzerland, from which last mentioned country he sent to his brother in Ireland the first brief sketch, afterward amplified into his poem of The Traveler.

At Geneva he became traveling tutor to a mongrel young gentleman, son of a London pawnbroker, who had been suddenly elevated into fortune and absurdity by the death of an uncle. The youth, before setting up for a gentleman, had been an attorney’s apprentice, and was an arrant pettifogger in money matters. Never were two beings more illy assorted than he and Goldsmith. We may form an idea of the tutor and the pupil from the following extract from the narrative of the “Philosophic Vagabond.”

“I was to be the young gentleman’s governor, but with a proviso that he should always be permitted to govern himself. My pupil, in fact, understood the art of guiding in money concerns much better than I. He was heir to a fortune of about two hundred thousand pounds, left him by an uncle in the West Indies; and his guardians, to qualify him for the management of it, had bound him apprentice to an attorney. Thus avarice was his prevailing passion; all his questions on the road were how money might be saved — which was the least expensive course of travel — whether anything could be bought that would turn to account when disposed of again in London. Such curiosities on the way as could be seen for nothing he was ready enough to look at; but if the sight of them was to be paid for, he usually asserted that he had been told that they were not worth seeing. He never paid a bill that he would not observe how amazingly expensive traveling was; and all this though not yet twenty-one.”

In this sketch Goldsmith undoubtedly shadows forth his annoyances as traveling tutor to this concrete young gentleman, compounded of the pawnbroker, the pettifogger, and the West Indian heir, with an overlaying of the city miser. They had continual difficulties on all points of expense until they reached Marseilles, where both were glad to separate.

Once more on foot, but freed from the irksome duties of “bear leader,” and with some of his pay, as tutor, in his pocket, Goldsmith continued his half-vagrant peregrinations through part of France and Piedmont, and some of the Italian States. He had acquired, as has been shown, a habit of shifting along and living by expedients, and a new one presented itself in Italy. “My skill in music,” says he, in the “Philosophic Vagabond,” “could avail me nothing in a country where every peasant was a better musician than I; but by this time I had acquired another talent, which answered my purpose as well, and this was a skill in disputation. In all the foreign universities and convents there are, upon certain days, philosophical theses maintained against every adventitious disputant; for which, if the champion opposes with any dexterity, he can claim a gratuity in money, a dinner, and a bed for one night.” Though a poor wandering scholar, his reception in these learned piles was as free from humiliation as in the cottages of the peasantry. “With the members of these establishments,” said he, “I could converse on topics of literature, and then I always forgot the meanness of my circumstances.”

At Padua, where he remained some months, he is said to have taken his medical degree. It is probable he was brought to a pause in this city by the death of his uncle Contarine, who had hitherto assisted him in his wanderings by occasional, though, of course, slender remittances. Deprived of this source of supplies he wrote to his friends in Ireland, and especially to his brother-inlaw Hodson, describing his destitute situation. His letters brought him neither money nor reply. It appears from subsequent correspondence that his brother-inlaw actually exerted himself to raise a subscription for his assistance among his relatives, friends, and acquaintance, but without success. Their faith and hope in him were most probably at an end; as yet he had disappointed them at every point, he had given none of the anticipated proofs of talent, and they were too poor to support what they may have considered the wandering propensities of a heedless spendthrift.

Thus left to his own precarious resources, Goldsmith gave up all further wandering in Italy, without visiting the south, though Rome and Naples must have held out powerful attractions to one of his poetical cast. Once more resuming his pilgrim staff, he turned his face toward England, “walking along from city to city, examining mankind more nearly, and seeing both sides of the picture.” In traversing France his flute — his magic flute — was once more in requisition, as we may conclude, by the following passage in his Traveler:

“Gay, sprightly land of mirth and social ease,

Pleased with thyself, whom all the world can please,

How often have I led thy sportive choir

With tuneless pipe beside the murmuring Loire!

Where shading elms along the margin grew,

And freshened from the wave the zephyr flew;

And haply though my harsh note falt’ring still,

But mocked all tune, and marr’d the dancer’s skill;

Yet would the village praise my wondrous power,

And dance forgetful of the noontide hour.

Alike all ages: Dames of ancient days

Have led their children through the mirthful maze,

And the gay grandsire, skill’d in gestic lore,

Has frisk’d beneath the burden of threescore.”

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