« VorigeDoorgaan »
cupied and at ease. It arose not from a scene at the Literary Club in Gerrard Street as sometimes said, but from a more miscellaneous meeting, consisting of a few of its members and their friends who assembled to dine at the St. James's Coffee-house. Thus Richard and William Burke, Cumberland, Ridge, and Hickey who have a place in the poem, were never members of the original club; nor was Dr. Douglas, till after the death of the Poet.
Much mirth and convivial pleasantry appears to have resulted from their meetings. The late Sir George Beaumont mentioned that whatever was the dinner hour, whether in a private or public party, Goldsmith always came late and generally in a bustle. A peculiarity like this which is always noticed, is often disagreeable, and certainly never to be classed among the minor virtues, drew attention upon him at table, and became a source of banter to his companions; this led to further observation; his person, dialect and manners, his genius mingled with peculiarities, his negligences and blunders, often no doubt the effect of abstraction, furnished a theme for jocular notice, too tempting to be lost by men drawn together to amuse and be amused; and the remark of some one how he would be estimated by posterity first gave rise to the idea of characterising him by epitaphs.
It does not appear that many were written, or none that deserved remembrance, except that by
Garrick, of which the following is stated to be an
"Here lies Poet Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel, but talk'd like poor Poll.”
Another was written upon him by Caleb Whitefoord as stated to the writer by the relatives of that gentleman, who is also said to have exercised his pen in a similar manner upon Cumberland. The former forgave the offence with his usual placability, but not so the latter, and they were thenceforward not friends; both these were once in the cabinet of Garrick, though neither being preserved, their merit was probably inconsiderable.
Cumberland and Cradock have each in their memoirs stated they were present on the occasion that gave birth to Retaliation. There is however no identity of circumstances in their respective relations, which from the minuteness of detail given by Cumberland must have been the case had both been present; we are reduced therefore to the necessity of believing that one only, or probably neither, were there. The explanation may be this. Writing from memory at the distance of thirty and forty years respectively, and desirous of being thought present at an interesting scene in literary history, they seem to have described what they heard shortly after the occurrence, with what they saw on another occasion at the same
* By Dr. M'Donnell.
place, and to have confounded the circumstances in their recollection. The account of Cradock as being more general is on the whole more probable.
Cumberland is too commonly inaccurate to be safely followed; nor are his anecdotes told quite in character. When, for instance, he describes himself as retiring to a side table to write couplets on Goldsmith, and Johnson as snatching them from his hand to read to the company, we may fairly doubt whether this occurred; of all men the moralist had least sympathy with practical jokes, of which this must be considered one of the rudest ; neither would he probably read aloud what was thought likely to give pain to his friend. When we find likewise that Sir Joshua is mentioned as illuminating the epitaph written by Dean Barnard with a pen and ink sketch of the Poet's bust "inimitably caricatured," we may be certain of misstatement; for this was wholly foreign to the president's habits as Northcote observes, and assuredly would not have been done to one whose feelings he was at all times solicitous not to offend. A third statement of his connected with this poem is still more unsupported by fact. "Goldsmith sickened and died, and we had one concluding meeting at my house, when it was decided to publish his Retaliation." Whatever such a meeting, if it really occurred, might decide, it had no power to accelerate or retard a production which had then found its way into other hands.
By comparing minute circumstances, it would appear that the affair of the epitaphs was not confined to one evening, and that when first produced, Goldsmith was not present. As he was known to be sensitive, though soon disposed to forget offence, it is not probable he would sit patiently to be made the subject of ridicule to a party some of whom were little known to him, or that others would so far trespass on presumed good nature as to attempt it in his presence, though what was said or written no doubt reached him soon afterward. On the other hand it is equally certain that "Retaliation" was not read to the club in its
meetings. Of the existence of the poem the greater part of the members were ignorant until its appearance from the press; by whose instrumentality it has not been ascertained, though at first supposed to be from a copy in the hands of Mr. Bott. Two or three others were given to particular friends with strict injunctions to secrecy until the plan should be so far completed as to admit of being brought out with effect, and turn the laugh not of the tavern party merely, but of the kingdom against the aggressors. Mr. Burke is said to have had a sketch of a few of the characters; and Mrs. Cholmondeley another copy more complete. Its date likewise has been doubted. The period however at which it was written may be ascertained with tolerable preci sion by the line
"Our Dods shall be pious, our Kenricks shall lecture."
The allusion applies to a series of lectures on Shakspeare, commenced by Kenrick in the great room of the Devil Tavern at Temple Bar on the 19th January 1774, and continued weekly for a considerable time. We may therefore assign the month of February, he being unwell in March, as the date of the chief part of the composition; and judging from its nature, we may believe it was not struck off at a heat. To plunge into the recesses of character and bring up to the surface what the owner himself is scarcely conscious of, or would willingly conceal, requires time, care, and repeated touching to be accurate. Thus, those he had known the longest, such as Burke and Garrick, are finished in the best manner; while to Dean Barnard, who was of only a few weeks' acquaintance as the poem intimates, he has been unable to assign a distinguishing character.
A production such as this presents no ordinary difficulties to the writer, as he requires for its execution great acuteness and much good nature, keen perception of the shades of character, and deep insight into the human heart. Indiscriminate satire is of no very difficult accomplishment. Neither is much skill required to sketch our friends so gently or generally as to give no offence. But to be at once searching and accurate, to individualize the man from his species, to unveil foibles without violently shocking selflove, and while probing them to inflict no pain; to be faithful yet friendly, witty and discreet;