iver Goldsmith, the fifth child of Charles and Ann Goldsmith, was born at Pallas, a hamlet of the parish of Forney, county of Longford, Ireland, November 10th, 1728. His father, the “Preacher” of the “Deserted Village,” having been presented to the Rectory of Kilkenny-West, about the year 1730, removed his family to Lissoy, the “Auburn” of the Poet. The “modest mansion” is a ruin, or, by this time, has quite disappeared. His first schoolmaster is described, by one who remembered him, as a man “stern to view,” in whose “morning face” the disasters of the day might be easily read. Goldsmith made small progress under the ferule of Paddy Burns, and, after being for some time a pupil in the diocesan school of Elphin, he was placed with a competent teacher at Athlone, where he remained two years. He was then transferred to the care of Mr. Hughes, vicar of Shruel, who treated him with kindness, and whom he always mentioned with respect and gratitude. His eldest sister has given a specimen of her brother’s early and ready humour. A large company of young people had assembled in his uncle’s house, at Elphin, and Oliver, then nine years old, was desired to dance a hornpipe, under very unfavourable circumstances, for his figure was short and thick, and the marks of recent small-pox were still conspicuous. A young man, who played the violin, compared him to Æsop dancing; but Oliver, stopping short in the performance, immediately disabled his satirist with a sharp epigram:—
“Our herald hath proclaim’d this saying, See Æsop dancing, and his monkey playing.”
On the 11th of June, 1745, he was admitted a Sizar of Trinity College, Dublin—a fact which denoted a considerable proficiency in classical learning; but he was unfortunate in his tutor, who deserved, and has won, the title of “Savage;” and, perhaps, the promise of Oliver was blighted by his severity. He neglected his studies, and was seen “perpetually lounging about the college gates.” We find him elected, June 15th, 1747, to an Exhibition, on the foundation of Erasmus Smith, obtaining a premium at the Christmas examination, and, after a delay of two years, taking his Bachelor’s degree, February 27th, 1750. His father died in 1747, but he found a second parent in the Rev Thomas Contarine, who was descended from a noble ancestry in Venice, and had been a contemporary and friend of Berkeley. The relatives of the poet now advised him to “go into orders,” and yielding to the persuasion of Mr. Contarine, he presented himself before the Bishop of Elphin, and was rejected. Tradition ascribes the failure to his uncanonical costume, and the episcopal dislike of scarlet breeches.
His kind friends might now, as he afterwards wrote, be perfectly satisfied that he was undone; but they did not abandon him. He was enabled to proceed to Edinburgh, towards the end of 1752, where he attended the lectures of Monro and the other Medical Professors. Scotland did not please him. “Shall I tire you,” he wrote to a friend, “with a description of this unfruitful country, where I must lead you over their hills all brown with heath, or their valleys scarcely able to feed a rabbit? Man alone seems to be the only creature who has arrived to the natural size in this poor soil.”
His design of completing his studies at Leyden was nearly frustrated by an act of generous imprudence, from which two college friends set him free. From Leyden, in the April or May of 1754, he sent a letter to Mr. Contarine, containing an account of his journey, and some lively sketches of the “downright Hollander,” with lank hair, laced hat, no coat, and seven waistcoats, the lady with her portable stove, the lugubrious Harlequin, and the domestic interior, which reminded him of a magnificent Egyptian temple dedicated to an ox. He remained in Leyden nearly a year, deriving small benefit from the instruction of the Professors, who, with the exception of Gaubius, the teacher of Chemistry, were as indolent as himself. Meanwhile, the necessaries of life were costly, and the attractions of the gaming-table proved to be overpowering and ruinous. At length, having emptied his purse, and reduced his wardrobe to a single shirt, he boldly resolved to make the tour of Europe. This characteristic chapter of the Poet’s history is yet to be written, if his lost letters should ever be recovered. The interesting and copious narrative which he communicated to Dr. Radcliff is known to have been destroyed by fire.
He commenced his travels about February, 1755. “A good voice,” adopting his own account of an earlier adventurer, “and a trifling skill in music, were the only finances he had to support an undertaking so extensive.” Thus he journeyed, and at night sang at the doors of peasants’ houses, to get himself a lodging. Once or twice, he “attempted to play to people of fashion,” but they despised his performance, and never rewarded him even with a trifle. We are told by Bishop Percy, that he reached Padua, and visited all the northern parts of Italy, returning, on foot, through France, and landing at Dover, about the beginning of the war, in 1756. We may believe his own assurance, that he fought his way homewards, examining mankind with near eyes, and seeing both sides of the picture.
He appeared in London, without means or interest. England, he complained, was a country, where being born an Irishman was sufficient to keep a man unemployed. With much difficulty he obtained the situation of usher at a school. Johnson did not remember the occupation with a fiercer disgust; and the redolent French teacher, papering his curls at night, was a frequent spectre of his memory. A migration from the school-room to the chemist’s shop slightly improved his condition. Better days were coming. By the aid of an Edinburgh acquaintance, Dr. Sleigh, and other friends, he was “set up” as a practitioner at Bankside, Southwark, where, in his pleasant confession, he got plenty of patients, but no fees. A physician, Dr. Farr, who had known him in Scotland, thus describes his appearance:—“He called upon me one morning, before I was up, and, on 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.’ On this occasion he read portions of a ‘Tragedy,’ and talked of a journey to decipher the inscriptions on the Written Mountains.” In later days, when writing an “Essay on the advantages to be derived from sending a judicious traveller into Asia,” Goldsmith professed to feel the difficulty of choosing a proper person for such an enterprise, and indicated the qualifications demanded:—“He should be a man of a philosophical turn, one apt to deduce consequences of general utility from particular occurrences—neither swollen with pride, nor hardened by prejudice—neither wedded to one particular system, nor instructed only in one particular science—neither wholly a botanist, nor wholly an antiquarian; his mind should be tinctured with miscellaneous knowledge, and his manners humanized by an intercourse with men. He should be, in some measure, an enthusiast to the design; fond of travelling, from a rapid imagination and an innate love of change; furnished with a body capable of sustaining every fatigue, and a heart not easily terrified at danger.”
With the year 1757, the prospects of Goldsmith brightened, and the papers which filled the pockets of the rusty black coat began to get abroad. He wrote several articles for the “Monthly Review,” translated the “Mémoires d’un Protestant,” and composed his “Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe.” The object of the work was special. He had obtained the appointment of physician to a factory on the coast of Coromandel, and was providing funds for the voyage. A considerable sum was needed. The Company’s warrant cost ten pounds, and the passage and equipment required one hundred and thirty pounds in addition; but the emoluments were expected to be large. The salary was one hundred pounds; the average returns of the general practice amounted to a thousand; there was an opening for commercial enterprise, and invested money brought twenty per cent. These were flattering inducements; but time deadened their charm, and he shrank from so distant a banishment, and beginning life again at the age of thirty-one. Eight years of anxiety and trial had done their work on his face and temper. His picture of himself was most discouraging. He had “contracted a hesitating, disagreeable manner of speaking, and a visage that looked ill-nature itself.” Home news deepened his melancholy, for his mother was almost blind.
The “Enquiry” appeared, without the Author’s name, April, 1759—a small volume, price half-a-crown; and in the autumn of the same year, the commencement of a weekly paper, called “The Bee,” afforded him an opportunity of showing his skill as an Editor. His plan was to “rove from flower to flower, with seeming inattention, but concealed choice, expatiate over all the beauties of the season, and make his industry his amusement.” The “Bee” expired with its eighth number, but he was more successful in his next enterprise. To the “Public Ledger,” of which the first number appeared January 12th, 1760, Goldsmith contributed one hundred and twenty-three letters, which were afterwards collected as the “Citizen of the World.”
The last day of May, 1761, was memorable in his life, as witnessing the commencement of his intimacy with Johnson. His miscellaneous productions in 1762–4 included a “Life of Richard Nash, of Bath,” an “Introduction to Natural History,” an “Abridgment of Plutarch,” a “History of England,” and the “Traveller.” For the poem he received only twenty guineas, but the applause of its readers was loud and unanimous. “I was glad,” said Sir Joshua, “to hear Sir Charles Fox say it was one of the finest poems in the English language.” A fourth edition was required within eight months, and the Author lived to see the ninth. In 1764, he wrote the “Captivity,” for which the sum of ten guineas was paid by Dodsley.
Poetry kept him poor, and we still see him writing for bread in a garret, and expecting to be “dunned for a milk score.” However, he cleared and warmed the future with the hopefulness of his genial nature, and comforted himself by the recollection that while Addison wrote the “Campaign” in a third storey, he had only got to the second. Reckless improvidence multiplied his difficulties. “Those who knew him,” he told a correspondent, “knew his principles to differ from those of the rest of mankind, and while none regarded the interest of his friend more, none regarded his own less.”
Among his disappointments, at this period, are to be numbered an unsuccessful application for a Gresham Lectureship, and Garrick’s refusal of the “Good-Natured Man.” But Colman put the drama on the stage, January 29th, 1768, and the Professorship of Ancient History in the Royal Academy was agreeably bestowed. His “Roman History,” published in 1769, was received with favour; and in the May of 1770, the “Deserted Village” appeared.
In that year, Gray travelled through a part of England and South Wales, and Mr. Norton Nichols was with him at Malvern when he received the new poem, which he desired his friend to read to him. He listened with fixed attention, and soon exclaimed, “This man is a Poet.” In twelve days the poem was reprinted, and before the 5th of August the public admiration exhausted a fifth impression. His comedy, the “Mistakes of a Night” (represented March 15th, 1773), obtained a success, of its kind, not inferior. Johnson said that it answered the great end of a comedy—“making an audience merry.” For an impertinent letter in the “London Packet,” Goldsmith caned the editor; having found, was the remark of a friend, a new pleasure, for he believed that it was the “first time he had beat,” though “he may have been beaten before.”
I may add, that the Ballad of “Edwin and Angelina,” having been privately printed for the amusement of the Countess of Northumberland, was inserted in the “Vicar of Wakefield,” when that charming fiction first came out, March 27th, 1766, to delight the young by its adventures, and the old by its wisdom. For two years the manuscript had lain in the desk of the Publisher, until the fame of the “Traveller” encouraged him to send it to the press.
He was now engaged in the compilation of the “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” for which he was to receive eight hundred guineas; and about this time, according to Percy, he wrote “the ‘Haunch of Venison,’ ‘Retaliation,’ and some other little sportive sallies, which were not printed until after his death.” Mr. Peter Cunningham1 has, for the first time, related the true story of “Retaliation,” in the original words of Garrick:—A party of friends, at the St. James’s Coffee House, were diverting themselves with the peculiar oddities of Goldsmith, who insisted upon trying his epigrammatic powers with Garrick. Each was to write the other’s epitaph. Garrick immediately spoke the following lines: