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A STRANGE Combination of weakness and strength, of genius and folly. "Inspired idiot" is the terrific phrase with which Horace Walpole once described him. It is a gross caricature indeed, but having truth enough at bottom to be perpetuated. Goldsmith belonged to a literary club, the members of which occasionally dined together. Goldsmith was usually one of the last to arrive. While waiting for him one day, the company playfully composed a number of epitaphs on "the late Mr. Goldsmith." The epitaph by Garrick, the celebrated actor, has been preserved as a happy hit:
"Here lies poet Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel and talked like poor Poll."
There are other anecdotes illustrating Goldsmith's awkwardness in conversation. He greatly lacked self-confidence, and had a faculty for blundering. His friends sometimes took advantage of his weaknesses, and for amusement tricked him into saying and doing absurd things. He has suffered also from thick-headed critics, who have sometimes misunderstood his delicate humor. Boswell, who was no friendly critic, but who reported facts truthfully, says: "It has been generally circulated and believed that Goldsmith was a mere fool in conversation; but in truth, this has been greatly exaggerated." In spite of his deficiencies, he sometimes got the better of Dr. Johnson, the clearest and strongest talker of his time. Talking of fables once, Goldsmith remarked that the animals introduced seldom talked in character. "For instance," he said, "take the fable of the little fishes who saw birds fly over their heads, and envying them, petitioned Jupiter to be changed into birds.
The skill consists in making them talk like little fishes." Dr. Johnson took exception to the remark. “Ah, Doctor,” he replied, "this is not so easy as you may think; for if you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales."
But we turn to his life. Scarcely any other English author has put into his writings so much of his character and experience. Oliver Goldsmith was born at Pallas in the county of Longford, Ireland, in 1728, the son of a Protestant clergyman. About two years later his father moved to the village of Lissoy in the county of Westmeath, where he enjoyed a better living. An unusual interest is connected with that home. The amiable piety, learned simplicity, and guileless wisdom of his father are portrayed in the immortal "Vicar of Wakefield." It was a fireside where a Christian benevolence was inculcated and practised. The memories of this home never left Goldsmith; and years afterwards, in his "Deserted Village," he gave a famous description of "the village preacher's modest mansion:"
"A man he was to all the country dear,
Nor e'er had changed, nor wished to change his place."
At the age of six years Goldsmith was sent to the village school taught by Thomas Byrne, an old soldier with a large stock of stories. Of him also we have a portrait in the "Deserted Village: "
"A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew:
Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day's disasters in his morning face.
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
Full well the busy whisper circling round,
Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned."
As a pupil he was dull- a stupid blockhead he was thought to be; but his amiability and thoughtless generosity, which
characterized him all through life, made him popular with his schoolmates. An incident that occurred in his sixteenth year, not only throws light upon his character, but also shows the origin of his most famous comedy. He was returning home from Edgeworthstown, where he had been attending school. He had borrowed a horse for the journey, and received from a friend a guinea. He at once began to put on airs, and to affect the gentleman. Arriving in a village at night-fall, he inquired for the best house in the place, and was directed by a wag to the private house of a gentleman of fortune. Accordingly he rode up to what he supposed to be an inn, ordered his horse to be taken to the stable, walked into the parlor, seated himself by the fire, and demanded what he could have for supper. The gentleman of the house, discovering his mistake, concluded to humor him, and gave him the freedom of the house for the evening. He was highly elated. When supper was served, he insisted that the landlord, his wife, and daughter should eat with him, and ordered a bottle of wine to crown the repast. When next morning he discovered his blunder, his sense of humiliation can easily be imagined. With the literary instinct that turned all his experiences to account, he dramatized this incident many years afterwards in "She Stoops to Conquer; or, The Mistakes of a Night." Throughout his life, as in this case, the possession of money made a fool of him.
In his seventeenth year Goldsmith entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar. This relation was naturally repugnant to his timid and sensitive nature. His tutor was ill-tempered and harsh; some studies, especially mathematics and logic, were distasteful to him. His social nature betrayed him into a neglect of his studies, and his love of fun got him into trouble. Having once gained a prize of thirty shillings, he gave a dance at his room to some young men and women of the city. This was a violation of the college rules; and his tutor, attracted by the sound of the fiddle, rushed to the scene of festivity, gave Goldsmith a thrashing, and turned his guests out of doors.
An anecdote, belonging to this period, illustrates the ten
der heart and inconsiderate benevolence that characterized his whole life. He had been invited to breakfast by a college friend, and, failing to make his appearance, was visited at his There he was found in bed, buried in feathers up to his chin. The evening before, a woman with five children had told him a pitiful tale of her distress and need. It was too much for his sympathetic nature; and bringing the woman to the college gate, he gave her the blankets off his bed, and a part of his clothing to sell and buy bread. Getting cold in the night, he had ripped open his bed and buried himself in the feathers.
In due course he took his bachelor's degree, and returned to his home. It had been sadly changed by the death of his father. The next two or three years were spent in a desultory way; while ostensibly preparing to take orders, he was in reality spending his time in miscellaneous reading and rustic convivialities. He did dot like the clerical profession. "To be obliged to wear a long wig when I liked a short one," he says in explanation of his antipathy, "or a black coat when I generally dressed in brown, I thought such a restraint upon my liberty that I absolutely rejected the proposal."
His fondness for gay dress was a weakness throughout his life, and more than once exposed him to ridicule. When the time for his examination came, he appeared before the Bishop of Elphin arrayed in scarlet breeches. This silly breach of propriety cost him the good opinion of the bishop, and led to his rejection.
Then followed a succession of undertakings and failures without parallel. He became tutor in a good family, and lost his position on account of a quarrel at cards. He then resolved to emigrate to America, and left for Dublin mounted on a good horse and having thirty guineas in his pocket. In six weeks he returned to his mother's door in a condition not unlike that of the prodigal son. Every penny was gone. He explained that the ship on which he had engaged passage had sailed while he was at a party of pleasure. The ship had been