Page images




[ocr errors]

as surgeon to a factory on the Coromandel coast; but, for some unexplained reason, this hope of permanent employment came to nothing. As a last chance, he presented himself at Surgeons' Hall in a suit of clothes obtained on Griffiths' security, in order to pass as a surgeon's mate in the navy; but fortunately for the readers of the “ Vicar” and “Sweet Auburn,” he was plucked. This last hope broken in his eager grasp, he was driven to the pen once more. His rejection at 1758 Surgeons' Hall may thus be viewed as marking his real

A.D. entrance upon the literary profession.

A garret in a miserable, tottering square, called Green Arbour Court, which was approached by a flight of stone stairs, styled suggestively “Break-Neck-Steps," had lately become his home. This dirty rooin, furnished with a mean bed and a single wooden chair, witnessed the misery of the would-be surgeon's mate on the night of his rejection, and saw him, thoughtless of all but burning pity, go out, four days later, to pawn the clothes he had got on the bookseller's security, in order to help his poor landlady, whose husband had just been seized by bailiffs. There he wrote reviews and memoirs for Smollett's periodical. There he was visited by Percy of the “Reliques," who found him writing his first important work, An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning 1759 in Europe. He was soon engaged to write a three-penny

. periodical, which was to appear every Saturday under the title of The Bee. It was a blue book, utterly unlike the ponderous tomes so called now, for it was full of wit and graceful writing. But it did not take. Still the busy pen worked on. “ The British Magazine," edited by Smollett, was enriched with several Essays by Goldsmith. Among these we find some of his most charming shorter pieces; of which the Reverie in the Boar's Head at Eastcheap, and the story of the Shabby Actor, picked up in St. James's Park, are oftenest read and best liked. Soon in the “Public Ledger," a newly sprung paper, there appeared a series of Letters, describing a Chinaman's impressions of English life, which attracted considerable notice. These productions of Goldsmith's pen were afterwards published in a collected form as The Citizen of the




World. And if the back of Green Arbour Court had written no more than these Letters, contributed twice a week to the “Ledger” for a guinea apiece, he might, as the creator of Beau Tibbs and the Man in Black, claim a high place among our English classics.

The night of the 31st of May 1761 was memorable in Wine Office Court, where Goldsmith then lived; for on that night the great Johnson ate his first supper at Goldsmith's table. Percy brought about the meeting; and Johnson, in honour of the occasion, as well as to disabuse his entertainer's mind of the idea that he was a sloven, went through the unusual ceremonies of powdering his wig and putting on clean linen.

Another visit from Johnson to Goldsmith, in the country lodging at Islington, where the latter had taken refuge from the din and dinginess of Fleet Street, stands out in violent contrast to this social evening. It was three years later. The little Irishman and the big Englishman had grown to be firm friends. Many a Monday night at seven had they shaken hands at the Turk’s Head in Soho, where the

famous weekly suppers of the Literary Club had already 1764 begun. One morning in 1764 an urgent message arrived

from Goldsmith, begging Johnson to come to him as

soon as possible. Johnson sent him a guinea, and went out to Islington immediately afterwards.

He found that poor Goldsmith had been arrested by his landlady for the rent. A newly opened bottle of Madeira stood on the table, which Johnson wisely corked before he began to talk of what was to be done. Goldsmith producing a manuscript novel from his desk, down sat his friend to look over The Vicar of Wakefield. Struck at once with the merit of the work, Johnson went out and sold it to a bookseller for sixty pounds, with which the now triumphant Goldsmith discharged the debt he owed.

Fifteen months passed before an advertisement in the “ St. James's Chronicle” announced The Vicar of Wakefield in two duodecimo volumes. The interval between sale and publication had made its author famous ; for his beautiful poem of The Traveller had appeared not long after the distressful day at Islington. Johnson declared that it would not be easy to find anything equal


[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors]

to it since the death of Pope. The sister of Reynolds said, after hearing the poem read aloud, that she would never more think Dr. Goldsmith ugly. A simple saying, but very true, and very natural. The world has indorsed the utterance of that fussy, middleaged lady. The bull-dog face, with its rugged skin, and coarse, blunt features, shines with a beauty from within, above all loveliness of flesh and blood, as we close the pages of “The Traveller," “The Deserted Village,” or “The Vicar of Wakefield,” and think of the little man who wrote these works. We forget that he delighted to array his small person in sky-blue and bloom-coloured coats, and to exhibit himself, as if pinned through with a long sword, in the glittering crowds that filled the gardens at Vauxhall; or, if we remember these things, it is only to smile good-naturedly at the weakness of a great The Vicar of Wakefield needs no description. An exquisite naturalness is its prevailing charm. No bad man could write a book so full of the soft sunshine and tender beauty of domestic life,-60 sweetly wrought out of the gentle recollections of the old home at Lissoy. It was coloured with the hues of childhood's memory; and the central figure in the

group of shadows from the past, that came to cheer the poor London author in his lonely garret, was the image of his dead father. “For,” says John Forster in his Life of Goldsmith, not more truly than beautifully, “they who have loved, laughed, and wept with the Man in Black of the Citizen of the World, the Preacher of the Deserted Village, and Doctor Primrose in the Vicar of Wakefield, have given laughter, love, and tears to the Reverend Charles Goldsmith."

Still the busy pen worked on, for the wolf was always at the door. Among the minor tasks of the quondam usher we find an English Grammar, written for five guineas; and in later days some School Histories, abridgments of his larger volumes. But more famous works claim our notice.

His comedy of The Good-Natured Man, acted in 1768, brought him nearly £500; which, with the true Grub Street improvidence, he scattered to the winds at once. He bought 1.768 those chambers in Brick Court, Middle Temple, where




[ocr errors]

the last act of his life-drama was played out. He furnished them in mahogany and blue moreen. He gave frequent dinners and suppers, startling all the quiet barristers round him with noisy games at blind-man's buff and the choruses of jovial songs. He was constantly in society with Johnson, Burke, and Reynolds, and lived far beyond his means. In May 1770 appeared his finest poem, The Deserted Village.

Before August closed, a fifth edition was nearly ex1770 hausted. The village, “sweet Auburn,” whose present

desolation strikes the heart more painfully from the lovely

pictures of vanished joy the poet sets before us, was that hamlet of Lissoy where his boyhood had been spent. The soft features of the landscape,--the evening sports of the village train, -the various noises of life rising from the cottage homes,—the meek and earnest country preacher,-the buzzing school,—the white-washed ale-house,-attract by turns our admiration as we read this exquisite poem. And not least touching is this yearning utterance, spoken from the literary toiler's deep and solitary heart :


In all my wanderings round this world of care,
In all my griefs—and God has given my share-
I still had hopes my latest hours to crown,
Amidst these humble bowers to lay me down;
To husband out life's taper at the close,
And keep the flame from wasting by repose :
I still had hopes, for pride attends us still,
Amidst the swains to show my book-learned skill,
Around my fire an evening group to draw,
And tell of all I felt, and all I saw;
And as a hare whom hounds and horns pursue,
Pants to the place from whence at first he flew,
I still had hopes, my long vexations past,
Here to return--and die at home at last.

The emphatic words of poor dying Gray, who heard "The Deserted Village” read at Malvern, where he spent his last summer in a vain search for health, must be echoed by every feeling heart,“ That man is a poet.”

Debt now had Goldsmith fast in its terrible talons. He worked on, but was forced to trade upon his future,—to draw heavy ad



vances from his booksellers in order to meet the pressing wants of the hour. He undertook a History of England, in four volumes; a Historyof the Earth and Animated Nature, largely a translation from Buffon; Histories of Greece and Rome; and wrote a second successful comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, which was first acted in 1773.

The last flash of his genius was the short poem, Retaliation, written in reply to some jibing epitaphs, which were composed on him by the company met one day at dinner in the St. James's Coffee-house. Garrick's couplet ran thus :

“Here lies poet Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,

Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll." And certainly in the reply poor Garrick suffers for his unkindness; for never with so light but so perfect a touch was the skin peeled from any character.

With hands yet full of unfinished work, Goldsmith lay down to die. An old illness seized him. Low fever set in. He took powders against the advice of his doctors, and died, after nine days' sickness, on the 4th of April 1774. “Is your mind at ease ?” asked the doctor by his bed-side. “ No, 1774 it is not,” was the sad reply. At last the spendthrift author A.D. had lost “his knack of hoping,” as he used to call the unthinking joyousness of his nature. His debts and the memory of his reckless life cast heavy shadows on his dying bed. In the spirit of that sublime prayer, which we learn to say at our mother's knee in the season of life when, in truth, “we take no thought for the morrow,” let us hope that the gentle, thoughtless, erring nature, which gave and forgave so much on earth, found in Heaven that mercy which every human spirit needs.

[ocr errors]



(FROM THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD.") My wife and daughters, happening to return a visit at neighbour Flamborough's, found that family had lately got their pictures drawn by a limner, who travelled the country, and took likenesses for fifteen shillings a head. As this family and ours had long a sort of rivalry in point of taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us, and, notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was resolved that we should have our pictures done too. Having, therefore,

« PreviousContinue »