« VorigeDoorgaan »
OLIVER GOLDSMITH was born on the 29th day of November, 1728*, at a place called Pallas, in the parish of Forney, and county of Longford, Ireland. His father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, was rector of the parish of Kilkenny West. He had seven children, five sons and two daughters. Oliver, the second son, was born very unexpectedly, after an interval of seven years from the former child. Mr. Goldsmith's income was but small; and having strained his means to the uttermost to procure a learned education for his eldest son, Henry, whose abilities were very superio and of whose success he had conceived the most sanguine hopes, he could only propose to bring up Oliver to some mercantile employment. With this view he was instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic, by a schoolmaster in his father's village, who had been a quarter-master in the army in Queen Anne's wars in that detachment which was sent to Spain. Having travelled over a considerable part of Europe, and being of a very romantic turn, he used to entertain Oliver with his adventures; and the impressions these made on his scholar were believed by the family to have given him that wandering and unsettled turn which appeared in his future life.
His fondness for books and learning, and a taste for poetry, which so early as eight or nine years old was manifested by poetical attempts, were encouraged, and he was placed under the care of the Rev. Mr. Griffin, then schoolmaster of Elphin; and at length his father consented to change his destination, and to send him to the university; some of his relations, who were very respectable clergymen, kindly offered to contribute towards the expense, particularly the Rev. Thomas Contarine, a gentleman of distinguished learning and good preferment, who had married Oliver's aunt. He was removed to the school of Athlone, where he continued about two years, and was then placed under the care of the Rev. Patrick Hughes, at Edgeworthstown, in the county of Longford, where he was fitted for the university. In his last journey to this school he met with the adventure on which he afterwards founded his comedy of “ She Stoops to Conquer.” He reached Ardagh at night-fall, and, inquiring for the best house in the place, was answered in a literal sense, and, instead of being sent to an inn, was directed to a private house. Here the servants, supposing him to be a friend of their master's, admitted him and took charge of his horse ; and Oliver, walking into the parlour, found the host at the fire-side. This gentleman soon perceived the mistake, and being fond of a laugh, humoured the joke. Goldsmith called about him, treated his landlord, his wife, and his daughters, and never found out his error till he called for his bill. The thoughtless extravagance which, during his whole life, perpetually ruined his projects and embarrassed his pursuits, so that, as he himself said, he seemed to be in love with difficulties, was here displayed. The poor student, with barely sufficient money to meet necessary expenses, and that not his own, could not refrain from treating the landlord of the inn to wine and good cheer. Truly the life of Goldsmith affords a striking lesson to all who are apt to forget the wise old saying, “ Be just before you are generous.”
In June 1744, Goldsmith, then fifteen years of age, was sent to Dublin, and entered in Trinity College as a sizar under the Rev. Mr. Wilder, one of the fellows, to whom he was particularly recommended. He was a man of harsh temper and violent manners, and very quickly disgusted his pupil. Oliver soon found acquaintance in Dublin, and on one occasion was in his heedless manner foolish enough, regardless of prudence and economy, to break through all college rules, and invite a party of both sexes to a supper and dance at his rooms. His tutor burst in upon the astonished assembly, and, not satisfied with putting an end to the unlawful revelry, proceeded so far as to subject Goldsmith to personal chastisement in the midst of the assembled company. Oliver was indignant, and immediately quitted the college and disposed of all his books and spare clothes; but he lingered about Dublin till but a solitary shilling was left in his pocket, when he set out on his travels. His intention was to go on ship-board at Cork, for some other country-he knew not whither. On this shilling he supported himself, as he affirmed, for three days, and then parting by degrees with the clothes off his back, was reduced to such extremity of famine, that, after fasting twenty-four hours, he thought a handful of grey peas, given him by a girl at a wake, the most comfortable repast he had ever made. At length he contrived to send to his brother, who brought him back to college. But he and his tutor could never forget what had passed, and the savage disposition of Wilder delighted in tormenting his victim; he persecuted him with unremitting cruelty, especially at the quarterly examinations, when he would insult him before his fellow students, by sarcastic taunts and ironical applauses of the severest malignity. This treatment produced its natural effects, an habitual despondency and its concomitant idleness. One of his contemporaries described him as perpetually lounging about the gate of the college.
It is not surprising that, under such circumstances, Goldsmith was not a candidate for the usual premiums, and obtained no scholarship; we only wonder when we find that he did succeed in proeuring an exhibition on the foundation of Erasmus Smyth, on the 15th of June, 1747. His college life was irregular, and on one occasion he narrowly escaped from expulsion, on account of his share in a riot, in which the scholars attacked the bailiffs, and afterwards attempted to break open the prisons.
In February 1749, O.S. (two years after the regular time), he obtained his degree of Bachelor of Arts. His father was now dead, but his loss was supplied by his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarine. This gentleman, who was ever a kind friend to his nephew, was descended from the noble Venetian family of Contarini; and it may
# In the epitaph engraven on his tomb he is erroneously stated to have been born in 1731.
perhaps be allowable here to remark, that the adventures of his Italian ancestor furnished Wr. D’Israeli with the groundwork A his delightful tale of Contarini Flemning. Mr. Contarine wished his Dephe* to enter the church, but he had no llking to the profession, having always a strong inclination for visiting foreign countries; however, he did make an application to the bishop, but was rejected, according to some accounts, on account of his youth; wording to others, either because he had neglected his professional studies, or from a (perhaps exayzeraturi, report of irregularities at college. His uncle now procured for him the office of tutor to the family of a neighbouring gentleman, where he continued about a year ; but as soon as he found himself possessed of a little money, the desire of wandering seized him. He resigned his office, bought a horse, and rode away, no one knew whither. At the end of six weeks he returned to his mother's house without a penny, bringing nothing with him but the clothes on his back, and a little raw-boned horse not worth twenty shillings, which he called Piddletack. To ws.count for his absence he said he had been to Cork, where he had sold his horse, paid for his pamage to America, and embarked all his property; but being detained three weeks for a wind, the captain hal at length sails without him whilst he was absent on a party of pleasure, leaving him with scarcely suffi. cient to buy Fiddleback and get home. Indeed his finances had run so low, that he was obliged to borrow a guinea and a hall from a friend he encountered on the road home.
Hiy uncle's kindness still continued, and he now resolved to send him to the Temple, that he might make the law his profession. But in his way to London, he met at Dublin with a sharper who tempted him to play, and emptied his pockets of fifty pounds, with which he had been furnished for his voyage and journey. Notwithstanding this terrible imprudence, his uncle again forgave him; and it was now decided that he should go to Edinburgh for the purpose of studying physic, the law being now given up, though for what reason his biographers have not informed us. To Edinburgh be accordingly went, about the latter end of the year 1752, or the beginning of the following year. His conduct here was precisely what might have been expected from his previous life. The same habits of prodigality, inconsiderate generosity, and alternate dissipation and study, which he had hitherto pursued, he still continued. He did not seek the best society, but preferred that in which he was sure to shine: the adulation of fools being sweeter to the ears of vanity than the approbation of wise men. He had been initiated in the treacherous excitement of the gaming-table at Dublin, and he never afterwards abandoned the practice. Notwithstanding all he did to hinder his own advancement, he did advance; and, after passing through the regular courses at Edinburgh, his uncle furnished him with the means of proceeding to Leyden, for the purpose of completing his medical education. At Leyden he continued about a year, and studied chemistry and anatomy, but at this time he was stripped of every shilling at the gaming-table. In this exigency he received pecuniary relief from a fellow-student, (Dr. Ellis, afterwards clerk of the Irish House of Commons,) with which he determined to quit Holland and to visit the adjacent countries. But unfortunately his curiosity led him to view a garden, where the choicest flowers were reared for sale. Poor Goldsmith, recollecting that his uncle was an admirer of such rarities, without reflecting on the reduced state of his own finances was tempted to purchase some of those costly flower roots to be sent as a present to Ireland, and thereby left himself so little cash, that he is said to have set out on his travels with only one clean shirt, and no money in his pocket.
He used to give an account of his own travels, so nearly resembling those of the wanderer in his “ Vicar of Wakefield," that some of the following particulars are believed to belong to himself :-" I had some knowledge of music, and now turned what was once my amusement into a present means of subsistence. Whenever I approached a peasant's house towards night-fall, I played one of my most merry tunes, and that procured me not only a lodging, but subsistence for the next day. I once or twice attempted to play to people of fashion, but they always thought my performance odious, and never rewarded me with even a trifle." His classical learning procured him also entertainment at the monasteries, especially those of the Irish nation. And in some of the foreign universities and convents, upon certain days, theses are maintained against any adventitious disputant; for which, if the champion opposes with some dexterity, he may claim a gratuity in money, a dinner, and a bed for the night. This afforded another resouree for our forlorn pilgrim. “ Thus,” says he, “I fought my way towards England, walked alone from city to city, examined mankind more nearly, and, if I may so express it, saw both sides of the picture." In this manner he travelled through Flanders and some parts of France and Germany, till he arrived in Switzerland; and here he wrote, as he tells us in the dedication of his poem of “The Traveller," part of that beautiful poem. From Switzerland he proceeded to Italy, and spent six months at Padua, and, either at this city or at Louvain, it is not quite certain nich, he took his medical degree. He visited all the northern part of Italy, and saw Venice, Verona, and Florence; but on hearing of his uncle's death, he turned his steps towards England, and, still travelling on foot, he passed through France. After spending about a year in his travels he at length landed at Dover, about the breaking out of the war in 1756.
On his arrival in London be found himself utterly destitute. His German flute and his talents for disputation, were now of no avail. He endeavoured to obtain employment as usher in an academy, but his want of references was a bar to his success. He, however, bethought him of writing to Dr. Radcliffe, who had been joint tutor with Wilder in Trinity College, and he kindly gave him a sufficient recommendation. How long he continued an usher is not known, but his next attempt was as an assistant to an apothecary. It was long before he could obtain employment, and he suffered many a repulse on account of “ his threadbare coat, his uncouth figure, and Hibernian dialect." At length he was admitted into the laboratory of a chemist, in which situation he was discovered by Dr. Sleigh, an old fellow-student of his at Edinburgh, who was then in London. This gentleman liberally assisted Goldsmith with his purse, and enabled him to commence practice as a physician, at Bankside, Southwark. Here, however, he had more patients than fees; but he had leisure to pursue literature, and endeavoured from that urce to draw the support denied by his profession.
While he was thus endeavouring to support himself between his prescriptions and his pen, he renewed his acquaintance with several of the young physicians whom he had known at Edinburgh. Among these was a son of the Rev. Dr. Milner, a dissenting minister, who kept a classical school at Peckham in Surrey, of considerable eminence. Observing Dr. Goldsmith's distressed situation, he invited him to take charge of his father's school, while he was confined by a long illness, which at length proved fatal ; and in return, his father, who had some interest with several of the India directors, promised to exert it in procuring for him employment on the medical establishment of the East India Company. This he faithfully performed, and Dr. Goldsmith obtained a regular appointment as physician to one of the factories in India, in the year 1758. To prepare for his equipment, he began to write his “ Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Literature in Europe,” and published proposals for printing it by subscriptions of five shillings each ; but he appears to have soon given up his East India appointment, and meeting with Mr. Griffiths, the publisher and proprietor of the Monthly Review, he entered into engagements with him as a writer in that periodical. At the end of seven or eight months, this connexion was dissolved by mutual consent.
Goldsmith now resided in miserable lodgings in Green Arbour Court, in the Old Bailey, where he completed his “ Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Literature in Europe,” which was published by Dodsley in 1759. Whilst he was writing his “Enquiry," he conducted a “Lady's Magazine,” for Wilkie, a bookseller, and was also engaged with other literary associates in a weekly publication called " The Bee, being Essays on the most interesting subjects," and he subsequently contributed a series of letters in the character of a Chinese Philosopher, to a periodical paper called “ The Ledger," which were afterwards collected and published under the title of “The Citizen of the World." He afterwards removed to lodgings of a much better description in Wine-Office Court, Fleet Street, where he wrote his “ Vicar of Wakefield.” Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, gives a curious anecdote connected with this work, as it was related to him by Johnson. “I received one morning," said Johnson, "a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion. I perceived he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return, and having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill.” The bookseller, Mr. Newberry, had but little hope for the success of the work, and kept it by him, till the publication of “ The Traveller” had established Goldsmith's fame. The “Vicar of Wakefield" was then published, and at once attained that popularity which it has ever since enjoyed. We forget the improbability of the story in the charm of that beautiful picture of simple-minded virtue.
His acquaintance with Johnson commenced in the early part of 1761, and the first visit he ever received from that great man was in May in that year, when he gave an invitation to him and much other company, many of them literary men, to a supper in Wine-Office Court. Johnson was dressed with a neatness and precision so unusual with him as to surprise a friend who called to accompany him. “Why, Sir," said Johnson, “I hear that Goldsmith, who is a very great sloven, justifics his disregard of cleanliness and decency, by quoting my practice, and I am desirous this night to show him a better example."
His introduction to Mr. Newberry led to frequent connection with him. He corrected and revised many of his publications, and wrote the letters on English History, originally attributed to Lord Lyttleton. In 1763 he had lodgings at Canonbury House, Islington, where it is believed that he completed his poem of “The Traveller," which he finished with the greatest care. When composing poetry, he always wrote with wide lines to give room for corrections, which were frequently so considerable, that each word was often several times altered. This beautiful poem established his reputation, and his fame was widely spread. It was published in 1765, and met with the most decided success.
Dr. Goldsmith had in 1764 fixed his abode in the Temple, where he ever afterwards resided ; first in the Library Stair-Case; afterwards in the King's Bench Walk; and lastly at No. 2 in Brick Court, where he had chambers in the first floor elegantly furnished, and where he was visited by literary friends of the most distinguished merit, Goldsmith was one of the original members of the celebrated “Literary Club," commemorated in his poem of “Retaliation.”
The love of wandering was never quite extinguished in Goldsmith's mind, and the year before the publication of “ The Traveller,” he made unsuccessful applications, first to Lord Bute, and afterwards to the Duke, then Earl, of Northumberland and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for assistance in a project he had formed of visiting Asia, for the purpose of investigating the arts peculiar to the East, and introducing them to England. His interview with the Earl of Northumberland is a curious illustration of Goldsmith's character. He went primed with a set address, which by an unfortunate mistake he expended on his lordship’s groom of the chambers ; the discovery of his blunder threw him into such confusion that when the Earl himself appeared, and expressed his desire of serving him, he was utterly unable to enter on the real object of his visit; and to use his own words, as related by Sir John Hawkins, “ could say nothing but that he had a poor brother in Ireland, who stood in need of help; as for himself, he had no dependence on the promises of great men: he looked to the booksellers for support ; they were his best friends, and he was not inclined to forsake them for others."
In 1768 “ The Good-natured Man” was produced at Covent Garden. It kept possession of the stage for nine nights, but was not judged by the author's friends to have all the success it deserved. The “ Deserted Village” appeared in the succeeding year, and was hailed by the public with all that delight its perusal is so well calculated to bestow. While composing this fine poem, he wrote his well-known histories of Rome and England, and an abridgment of the former, which, although he never considered as conducive to his fame, were favourably spoken of by Dr. Johnson, and have kept their place as school-books to the present day. He was frequently occupied in writing dedications and introductions for the works of others; and in one of these, a preface or introduction to Dr. Brooks's “System of Natural History," a very dull and uninteresting work, he gave such an admirable display of the subject, and rendered it so interesting and captivating, that he was invited to engage in his larger work, “ The History of the Earth and Animated Nature.” This work, although elegantly written, is disfigured by many errors and inaccuracies.
He also drew up a “ Life of Parnell,” to be prefixed to an edition of his poems, in which the want of incidents in the private life of a scholar is very ingeniously supplied by the biographer's reflections. Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, says, “ The life of Dr. Parnell is a task which I should very willingly decline, since it has lately been written by Goldsmith, a man of such variety of powers, and such felicity of performance, that he always seemed to do best that which he was doing ; a man who had the art of being minute without tediousness, and general without confusion: whose language was copious without exuberance, exact without constraint, and easy without weakness. What such an author told, who would tell again ?"
At the establishment of the Royal Academy of Painting, his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds had procured for him the appointment of Professor of Ancient History; a mere complimentary distinction attended neither with emolument nor trouble, but which gave him a right to a seat at their occasional meetings, and, what was perhaps better, at their annual dinner.
On the 15th March, 1773, “ The Mistakes of a Night ; or She Stoops to Conquer,” made its appearance at Covent Garden, where it was not admitted by Mr. Colman without some difficulty, and even much and urgent solicitation of their common friends. But it was received by the audience with the highest applause, contrary to the expectation of the manager. Dr. Johnson said, “ That he knew of no comedy for many years that has so much exhilarated an audience, that has answered so much the great end of comedy-making an audience merry." The success of this piece excited the envy of a jealous scribbler, who attacked him in a scurrilous letter published in the London Packet. Goldsmith determined to revenge the affront by beating the publisher, and attended by a friend repaired to his shop in Paternoster Row, and attacked him with his stick, but the other was not slow to return the blows, and had not they been separated, the result might have been unfortunate for Goldsmith. As it was, he did not escape without several severe bruises.
The career of Goldsmith was now drawing towards its close. One of his last publications was his “ History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” in 8 vols. 8vo., which was published in 1774, and which for two or three years before he had been preparing. The elegance and purity of the style, the interesting and striking reflections with which it abounds, and the powers of description which so frequently appear, must atone for the want of original information on the subjects introduced, and for the occasional mistakes, which were impossible to be avoided by a writer who took all his materials on trust, and, as far as they could be supplied, chiefly from Buffon. For this work he is said to have been paid by the bookseller £850, and during the time he was engaged in this undertaking, he had received the copy money for his comedy, and the profits of his third nights; so that his receipts amounted at this time to a considerable sum. He was, however, so liberal in his donations, and profuse in his disbursements; he was so unfortunately attached to the pernicious practice of gaming; and from his unsettled habits of life, his supplies being precarious and uncertain, he had been so little accustomed to regulate his expenses by any system of economy, that his debts far exceeded his resources ; and he was obliged to take up money in advance from the managers of the two theatres, for comedies which he engaged to furnish to each ; and from the booksellers for publications which he was to finish for the press. Amongst other works, he had projected “ A Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences,” and had engaged all his literary friends and the members of the club to contribute articles, each on the subject in which he excelled. All these engagements he fully intended, and doubtless would have been able, to fulfil with the strictest honour, as he had done on former occasions in similar exigencies ; but his premature death unhappily prevented the execution of his plans, and gave occasion to malignity to impute those failures to deliberate intention, which were merely the result of inevitable mortality.
He was subject to severe fits of strangury, owing probably to the intemperate manner in which he confined himself to the desk, when he was employed in his compilations, often indeed for several weeks successively, without taking exercise. On such occasions he usually hired lodgings in some farm-house a few miles from London, and wrote without cessation till he had finished his task. He then carried his copy to the bookseller, received his compensation, and gave himself up, perhaps for months, without interruption, to the gaieties, amusements, and societies of London.
In the spring of 1774, being embarrassed in his circumstances and attacked by his usual malady, his indisposition, aggravated by the anxiety of his mind, terminated in a fever, which, on the 25th of March, had become exceedingly violent, when he called in medical assistance. Although he had then taken ipecacuanha as an emetic, he would proceed to the use of James's powder, contrary to the advice of the medical gentleman who attended him. From the application of these powders, he had received the greatest benefit in a similar attack nearly two years before, but then they were administered by Dr. James in person. But now the progress of the disease was as unfavourable as possible ; every symptom became more alarming, and on Monday the 4th April he died, aged 45.
Thus early was cut off a man whose taste, and elegance of style, have adorned English literature with productions which will ever shed a halo of fame around his name. He died loved and lamented by his friends, who, justly prizing his real worth and warm heart, forgave his follies and forgot his faults. It was debated among the poet's friends whether they should not give him a public funeral, but that being considered unadvisable, probably on account of his debts, it was resolved to inter him privately, and to reserve the expenditure for a monument. He was accordingly buried in the Temple burying-ground on the 9th April ; and subsequently, by a subscription raised among the poet's friends, and chiefly by his brethren of the club, a marble monument executed by Nollekens was erected in Westminster Abbey, consisting of a large medallion with a good resemblance of Doctor in profile, and below a tablet of white marble inscribed with an epitaph written by Dr. Johnson.
In stature, Goldsmith was under the middle size, his body strongly built, and his limbs more sturdy than elegant: his complexion was pale, his forehead low, his face almost round and pitted with the small-pox; but marked with strong lines of thinking. His first appearance was not captivating; but when he grew easy and cheerful in company he relaxed into a display of great good humour. He did not, however, appear to so much advantage in company as might have been expected from a person of his genius and talents. His overweening vanity was perpetually leading him astray, and in attempting to do too much, he was led to speak without reflection, and frequently tempted to manifest an absurd jealousy of due attention in a manner that often rendered him ridiculous. “ No man,” said Johnson, “ was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had. As a writer he was of the most distinguished abilities. Whatever he composed, he did it better than any other man could. And whether we consider him as a poet, as a comic writer, or as an historian, (so far as regards his powers of composition,) he was one of the first writers of his time, and will ever stand in the foremost class."