The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Six

Landing in England — Shifts of a Man Without Money — The Pestle and Mortar — Theatricals in a Barn — Launch Upon London — A City Night Scene — Struggles with Penury — Miseries of a Tutor — A Doctor in the Suburb — Poor Practice and Second-Hand Finery — A Tragedy in Embryo — Project of the Written Mountains

After two years spent in roving about the Continent, “pursuing novelty,” as he said, “and losing content,” Goldsmith landed at Dover early in 1756. He appears to have had no definite plan of action. The death of his uncle Contarine, and the neglect of his relatives and friends to reply to his letters, seem to have produced in him a temporary feeling of loneliness and destitution, and his only thought was to get to London and throw himself upon the world. But how was he to get there? His purse was empty. England was to him as completely a foreign land as any part of the Continent, and where on earth is a penniless stranger more destitute? His flute and his philosophy were no longer of any avail; the English boors cared nothing for music; there were no convents; and as to the learned and the clergy, not one of them would give a vagrant scholar a supper and night’s lodging for the best thesis that ever was argued. “You may easily imagine,” says he, in a subsequent letter to his brother-inlaw, “what difficulties I had to encounter, left as I was without friends, recommendations, money, or impudence, and that in a country where being born an Irishman was sufficient to keep me unemployed. Many, in such circumstances, would have had recourse to the friar’s cord or the suicide’s halter. But, with all my follies, I had principle to resist the one, and resolution to combat the other.”

He applied at one place, we are told, for employment in the shop of a country apothecary; but all his medical science gathered in foreign universities could not gain him the management of a pestle and mortar. He even resorted, it is said, to the stage as a temporary expedient, and figured in low comedy at a country town in Kent. This accords with his last shift of the “Philosophic Vagabond,” and with the knowledge of country theatricals displayed in his Adventures of a Strolling Player, or may be a story suggested by them. All this part of his career, however, in which he must have trod the lowest paths of humility, are only to be conjectured from vague traditions, or scraps of autobiography gleaned from his miscellaneous writings.

At length we find him launched on the great metropolis, or rather drifting about its streets, at night, in the gloomy month of February, with but a few half-pence in his pocket. The deserts of Arabia are not more dreary and inhospitable than the streets of London at such a time, and to a stranger in such a plight. Do we want a picture as an illustration? We have it in his own words, and furnished, doubtless, from his own experience.

“The clock has just struck two; what a gloom hangs all around! no sound is heard but of the chiming clock, or the distant watch-dog. How few appear in those streets, which but some few hours ago were crowded! But who are those who make the streets their couch, and find a short repose from wretchedness at the doors of the opulent? They are strangers, wanderers, and orphans, whose circumstances are too humble to expect redress, and whose distresses are too great even for pity. Some are without the covering even of rags, and others emaciated with disease; the world has disclaimed them; society turns its back upon their distress, and has given them up to nakedness and hunger. These poor shivering females have once seen happier days, and been flattered into beauty. They are now turned out to meet the severity of winter. Perhaps now, lying at the doors of their betrayers, they sue to wretches whose hearts are insensible, or debauchees who may curse, but will not relieve them.

“Why, why was I born a man, and yet see the sufferings of wretches I cannot relieve! Poor houseless creatures! The world will give you reproaches, but will not give you relief.”

Poor houseless Goldsmith! we may here ejaculate — to what shifts he must have been driven to find shelter and sustenance for himself in this his first venture into London! Many years afterward, in the days of his social elevation, he startled a polite circle at Sir Joshua Reynolds’ by humorously dating an anecdote about the time he “lived among the beggars of Axe Lane.” Such may have been the desolate quarters with which he was fain to content himself when thus adrift upon the town, with but a few half-pence in his pocket.

The first authentic trace we have of him in this new part of his career, is filling the situation of an usher to a school, and even this employ he obtained with some difficulty, after a reference for a character to his friends in the University of Dublin. In the Vicar of Wakefield he makes George Primrose undergo a whimsical catechism concerning the requisites for an usher. “Have you been bred apprentice to the business?” “No.” “Then you won’t do for a school. Can you dress the boys’ hair?” “No.” “Then you won’t do for a school. Can you lie three in a bed?” “No.” “Then you will never do for a school. Have you a good stomach?” “Yes.” “Then you will by no means do for a school. I have been an usher in a boarding-school myself, and may I die of an anodyne necklace, but I had rather be under-turnkey in Newgate. I was up early and late; I was browbeat by the master, hated for my ugly face by the mistress, worried by the boys.”

Goldsmith remained but a short time in this situation, and to the mortifications experienced there we doubtless owe the picturings given in his writings of the hardships of an usher’s life. “He is generally,” says he, “the laughingstock of the school. Every trick is played upon him; the oddity of his manner, his dress, or his language, is a fund of eternal ridicule; the master himself now and then cannot avoid joining in the laugh; and the poor wretch, eternally resenting this ill-usage, lives in a state of war with all the family.”—“He is obliged, perhaps, to sleep in the same bed with the French teacher, who disturbs him for an hour every night in papering and filleting his hair, and stinks worse than a carrion with his rancid pomatums, when he lays his head beside him on the bolster.”

His next shift was as assistant in the laboratory of a chemist near Fish Street Hill. After remaining here a few months, he heard that Dr. Sleigh, who had been his friend and fellow-student at Edinburgh, was in London. Eager to meet with a friendly face in this land of strangers, he immediately called on him; “but though it was Sunday, and it is to be supposed I was in my best clothes, Sleigh scarcely knew me — such is the tax the unfortunate pay to poverty. However, when he did recollect me, I found his heart as warm as ever, and he shared his purse and friendship with me during his continuance in London.”

Through the advice and assistance of Dr. Sleigh, he now commenced the practice of medicine, but in a small way, in Bankside, Southwark, and chiefly among the poor; for he wanted the figure, address, polish, and management, to succeed among the rich. His old schoolmate and college companion, Beatty, who used to aid him with his purse at the university, met him about this time, decked out in the tarnished finery of a second-hand suit of green and gold, with a shirt and neckcloth of a fortnight’s wear.

Poor Goldsmith endeavored to assume a prosperous air in the eyes of his early associate. “He was practicing physic,” he said, “and doing very well!” At this moment poverty was pinching him to the bone in spite of his practice and his dirty finery. His fees were necessarily small, and ill paid, and he was fain to seek some precarious assistance from his pen. Here his quondam fellow-student, Dr. Sleigh, was again of service, introducing him to some of the booksellers, who gave him occasional, though starveling employment. According to tradition, however, his most efficient patron just now was a journeyman printer, one of his poor patients of Bankside, who had formed a good opinion of his talents, and perceived his poverty and his literary shifts. The printer was in the employ of Mr. Samuel Richardson, the author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison; who combined the novelist and the publisher, and was in flourishing circumstances. Through the journeyman’s intervention Goldsmith is said to have become acquainted with Richardson, who employed him as reader and corrector of the press, at his printing establishment in Salisbury Court; an occupation which he alternated with his medical duties.

Being admitted occasionally to Richardson’s parlor, he began to form literary acquaintances, among whom the most important was Dr. Young, the author of Night Thoughts, a poem in the height of fashion. It is not probable, however, that much familiarity took place at the time between the literary lion of the day and the poor Aesculapius of Bankside, the humble corrector of the press. Still the communion with literary men had its effect to set his imagination teeming. Dr. Farr, one of his Edinburgh fellow-students, who was at London about this time, attending the hospitals and lectures, gives us an amusing account of Goldsmith in his literary character.

“Early in January he called upon me one morning before I was up, and, on my entering the room, I recognized my old acquaintance, dressed in a rusty, full-trimmed black suit, with his pockets full of papers, which instantly reminded me of the poet in Garrick’s farce of Lethe. After we had finished our breakfast he drew from his pocket part of a tragedy, which he said he had brought for my correction. In vain I pleaded inability, when he began to read; and every part on which I expressed a doubt as to the propriety was immediately blotted out. I then most earnestly pressed him not to trust to my judgment, but to take the opinion of persons better qualified to decide on dramatic compositions. He now told me he had submitted his productions, so far as he had written, to Mr. Richardson, the author of Clarissa, on which I peremptorily declined offering another criticism on the performance.”

From the graphic description given of him by Dr. Farr, it will be perceived that the tarnished finery of green and gold had been succeeded by a professional suit of black, to which, we are told, were added the wig and cane indispensable to medical doctors in those days. The coat was a second-hand one, of rusty velvet, with a patch on the left breast, which he adroitly covered with his three-cornered hat during his medical visits; and we have an amusing anecdote of his contest of courtesy with a patient who persisted in endeavoring to relieve him from the hat, which only made him press it more devoutly to his heart.

Nothing further has ever been heard of the tragedy mentioned by Dr. Farr; it was probably never completed. The same gentleman speaks of a strange Quixotic scheme which Goldsmith had in contemplation at the time, “of going to decipher the inscriptions on the written mountains,” though he was altogether ignorant of Arabic, or the language in which they might be supposed to be written. “The salary of three hundred pounds,” adds Dr. Farr, “which had been left for the purpose, was the temptation.” This was probably one of many dreamy projects with which his fervid brain was apt to teem. On such subjects he was prone to talk vaguely and magnificently, but inconsiderately, from a kindled imagination rather than a well-instructed judgment. He had always a great notion of expeditions to the East, and wonders to be seen and effected in the Oriental countries.

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