The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Eight

Newbery, of Picture-Book Memory — How to Keep up Appearances — Miseries of Authorship — A Poor Relation — Letter to Hodson

Being now known in the publishing world, Goldsmith began to find casual employment in various quarters; among others he wrote occasionally for the “Literary Magazine,” a production set on foot by Mr. John Newbery, bookseller, St. Paul’s Churchyard, renowned in nursery literature throughout the latter half of the last century for his picture-books for children. Newbery was a worthy, intelligent, kind-hearted man, and a seasonable though cautious friend to authors, relieving them with small loans when in pecuniary difficulties, though always taking care to be well repaid by the labor of their pens. Goldsmith introduces him in a humorous yet friendly manner in his novel of the Vicar of Wakefield. “This person was no other than the philanthropic bookseller in St. Paul’s Churchyard, who has written so many little books for children; he called himself their friend; but he was the friend of all mankind. He was no sooner alighted but he was in haste to be gone; for he was ever on business of importance, and was at that time actually compiling materials for the history of one Mr. Thomas Trip. I immediately recollected this good-natured man’s red-pimpled face.”

Besides his literary job work, Goldsmith also resumed his medical practice, but with very trifling success. The scantiness of his purse still obliged him to live in obscure lodgings somewhere in the vicinity of Salisbury Square, Fleet Street; but his extended acquaintance and rising importance caused him to consult appearances. He adopted an expedient, then very common, and still practiced in London among those who have to tread the narrow path between pride and poverty; while he burrowed in lodgings suited to his means, he “hailed,” as it is termed, from the Temple Exchange Coffeehouse near Temple Bar. Here he received his medical calls; hence he dated his letters, and here he passed much of his leisure hours, conversing with the frequenters of the place. “Thirty pounds a year,” said a poor Irish painter, who understood the art of shifting, “is enough to enable a man to live in London without being contemptible. Ten pounds will find him in clothes and linen; he can live in a garret on eighteen pence a week; hail from a coffee-house, where, by occasionally spending threepence, he may pass some hours each day in good company; he may breakfast on bread and milk for a penny; dine for sixpence; do without supper; and on clean-shirt-day he may go abroad and pay visits.”

Goldsmith seems to have taken a leaf from this poor devil’s manual in respect to the coffee-house at least. Indeed, coffee-houses in those days were the resorts of wits and literati, where the topics of the day were gossiped over, and the affairs of literature and the drama discussed and criticised. In this way he enlarged the circle of his intimacy, which now embraced several names of notoriety.

Do we want a picture of Goldsmith’s experience in this part of his career? we have it in his observations on the life of an author in the “Inquiry into the State of Polite Learning,” published some years afterward.

“The author, unpatronized by the great, has naturally recourse to the bookseller. There cannot, perhaps, be imagined a combination more prejudicial to taste than this. It is the interest of the one to allow as little for writing, and for the other to write as much as possible; accordingly tedious compilations and periodical magazines are the result of their joint endeavors. In these circumstances the author bids adieu to fame; writes for bread; and for that only imagination is seldom called in. He sits down to address the venal muse with the most phlegmatic apathy; and, as we are told of the Russian, courts his mistress by falling asleep in her lap.”

Again. “Those who are unacquainted with the world are apt to fancy the man of wit as leading a very agreeable life. They conclude, perhaps, that he is attended with silent admiration, and dictates to the rest of mankind with all the eloquence of conscious superiority. Very different is his present situation. He is called an author, and all know that an author is a thing only to be laughed at. His person, not his jest, becomes the mirth of the company. At his approach the most fat, unthinking face brightens into malicious meaning. Even aldermen laugh, and avenge on him the ridicule which was lavished on their forefathers. . . . The poet’s poverty is a standing topic of contempt. His writing for bread is an unpardonable offense. Perhaps of all mankind an author in these times is used most hardly. We keep him poor, and yet revile his poverty. We reproach him for living by his wit, and yet allow him no other means to live. His taking refuge in garrets and cellars has of late been violently objected to him, and that by men who, I hope, are more apt to pity than insult his distress. Is poverty a careless fault? No doubt he knows how to prefer a bottle of champagne to the nectar of the neighboring ale-house, or a venison pasty to a plate of potatoes. Want of delicacy is not in him, but in those who deny him the opportunity of making an elegant choice. Wit certainly is the property of those who have it, nor should we be displeased if it is the only property a man sometimes has. We must not underrate him who uses it for subsistence, and flees from the ingratitude of the age even to a bookseller for redress.” . . .

“If the author be necessary among us, let us treat him with proper consideration as a child of the public, not as a rent-charge on the community. And indeed a child of the public he is in all respects; for while so well able to direct others, how incapable is he frequently found of guiding himself. His simplicity exposes him to all the insidious approaches of cunning; his sensibility, to the slightest invasions of contempt. Though possessed of fortitude to stand unmoved the expected bursts of an earthquake, yet of feelings so exquisitely poignant as to agonize under the slightest disappointment. Broken rest, tasteless meals, and causeless anxieties shorten life, and render it unfit for active employments; prolonged vigils and intense application still further contract his span, and make his time glide insensibly away.”

While poor Goldsmith was thus struggling with the difficulties and discouragements which in those days beset the path of an author, his friends in Ireland received accounts of his literary success and of the distinguished acquaintances he was making. This was enough to put the wise heads at Lissoy and Ballymahon in a ferment of conjectures. With the exaggerated notions of provincial relatives concerning the family great man in the metropolis, some of Goldsmith’s poor kindred pictured him to themselves seated in high places, clothed in purple and fine linen, and hand and glove with the givers of gifts and dispensers of patronage. Accordingly, he was one day surprised at the sudden apparition, in his miserable lodging, of his younger brother Charles, a raw youth of twenty-one, endowed with a double share of the family heedlessness, and who expected to be forthwith helped into some snug by-path to fortune by one or other of Oliver’s great friends. Charles was sadly disconcerted on learning that, so far from being able to provide for others, his brother could scarcely take care of himself. He looked round with a rueful eye on the poet’s quarters, and could not help expressing his surprise and disappointment at finding him no better off. “All in good tune, my dear boy,” replied poor Goldsmith, with infinite good-humor; “I shall be richer by-and-by. Addison, let me tell you, wrote his poem of the Campaign in a garret in the Haymarket, three stones high, and you see I am not come to that yet, for I have only got to the second story.”

Charles Goldsmith did not remain long to embarrass his brother in London. With the same roving disposition and inconsiderate temper of Oliver, he suddenly departed in a humble capacity to seek his fortune in the West Indies, and nothing was heard of him for above thirty years, when, after having been given up as dead by his friends, he made his reappearance in England.

Shortly after his departure Goldsmith wrote a letter to his brother-inlaw, Daniel Hodson, Esq., of which the following is an extract; it was partly intended, no doubt, to dissipate any further illusions concerning his fortunes which might float on the magnificent imagination of his friends in Ballymahon.

“I suppose you desire to know my present situation. As there is nothing in it at which I should blush, or which mankind could censure, I see no reason for making it a secret. In short, by a very little practice as a physician, and a very little reputation as a poet, I make a shift to live. Nothing is more apt to introduce us to the gates of the muses than poverty; but it were well if they only left us at the door. The mischief is they sometimes choose to give us their company to the entertainment; and want, instead of being gentleman-usher, often turns master of the ceremonies.

“Thus, upon learning I write, no doubt you imagine I starve; and the name of an author naturally reminds you of a garret. In this particular I do not think proper to undeceive my friends. But, whether I eat or starve, live in a first floor or four pairs of stairs high, I still remember them with ardor; nay, my very country comes in for a share of my affection. Unaccountable fondness for country, this maladie du pais, as the French call it! Unaccountable that he should still have an affection for a place, who never, when in it, received above common civility; who never brought anything out of it except his brogue and his blunders. Surely my affection is equally ridiculous with the Scotchman’s, who refused to be cured of the itch because it made him unco’ thoughtful of his wife and bonny Inverary.

“But now, to be serious: let me ask myself what gives me a wish to see Ireland again. The country is a fine one, perhaps? No. There are good company in Ireland? No. The conversation there is generally made up of a smutty toast or a bawdy song; the vivacity supported by some humble cousin, who had just folly enough to earn his dinner. Then, perhaps, there’s more wit and learning among the Irish? Oh, Lord, no! There has been more money spent in the encouragement of the Padareen mare there one season than given in rewards to learned men since the time of Usher. All their productions in learning amount to perhaps a translation, or a few tracts in divinity; and all their productions in wit to just nothing at all. Why the plague, then, so fond of Ireland? Then, all at once, because you, my dear friend, and a few more who are exceptions to the general picture, have a residence there. This it is that gives me all the pangs I feel in separation. I confess I carry this spirit sometimes to the souring the pleasures I at present possess. If I go to the opera, where Signora Columba pours out all the mazes of melody, I sit and sigh for Lissoy fireside, and Johnny Armstrong’s ‘Last Good-night’ from Peggy Golden. If I climb Hampstead Hill, than where nature never exhibited a more magnificent prospect, I confess it fine; but then I had rather be placed on the little mount before Lissoy gate, and there take in, to me, the most pleasing horizon in nature.

“Before Charles came hither my thoughts sometimes found refuge from severer studies among my friends in Ireland. I fancied strange revolutions at home; but I find it was the rapidity of my own motion that gave an imaginary one to objects really at rest. No alterations there. Some friends, he tells me, are still lean, but very rich; others very fat, but still very poor. Nay, all the news I hear of you is, that you sally out in visits among the neighbors, and sometimes make a migration from the blue bed to the brown. I could from my heart wish that you and she (Mrs. Hodson), and Lissoy and Ballymahon, and all of you, would fairly make a migration into Middlesex; though, upon second thoughts, this might be attended with a few inconveniences. Therefore, as the mountain will not come to Mohammed, why Mohammed shall go to the mountain; or, to speak plain English, as you cannot conveniently pay me a visit, if next summer I can contrive to be absent six weeks from London, I shall spend three of them among my friends in Ireland. But first, believe me, my design is purely to visit, and neither to cut a figure nor levy contributions; neither to excite envy nor solicit favor; in fact, my circumstances are adapted to neither. I am too poor to be gazed at, and too rich to need assistance.”

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