Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 6. Wanderings at home and abroad

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IX. Oliver Goldsmith

§ 6. Wanderings at home and abroad

What was to happen next? For a Goldsmith of the Goldsmiths, there was no career but the church; and he was too young to be ordained. Thereupon ensued an easy, irresponsible time, which the new B.A. spent very much to his own satisfaction. He was supposed to be qualifying for orders; but he had never any great leaning that way. “To be obliged to wear a long wig, when he liked a short one, or a black coat, when he generally dressed in brown,” observes one of his characters in The Citizen of the World, was “a restraint upon his liberty.” Hence, as his biographer Prior sagaciously says, “there is reason to believe that at this time he followed no systematic plan of study,” On the contrary, he passed his time wandering, like Addison’s Will Wimble, from one relative to another, fishing and otter-hunting in the isleted river Inny, playing the flute to his cousin Jane Contarine’s harpsichord, or presiding at the “free and easys” held periodically at George Conway’s inn at Ballymahon, where, for the benefit of posterity, he doubtless made acquaintance with Jack Slang the horse-doctor, Dick Muggins the exciseman and that other genteel and punctilious humourist who never “danced his bear” except to Arne’s “Water parted” or the favourite minuet in Ariadne. But these “violent delights” could have only one sequel. When, in 1751, he presented himself to Dr. Synge, bishop of Elphin, for ordination, he was rejected. Whether his college reputation had preceded him; whether, as on a later occasion, he was found “not qualified,” or whether (as legend has it) he pushed his aversion from clerical costume so far as to appear in flaming scarlet smallclothes—these questions are still debated. That another calling must be chosen was the only certain outcome of this mishap. He first turned to the next refuge of lettered unemployment, tuition. Having, in this way, accumulated some thirty pounds, he bought a horse, and once more started for America. Before six weeks were over, he had returned penniless, on an animal only fit for the knacker’s yard, and seemed naïvely surprised that his friends were not rejoiced to see him. Law was next thought of; and, to this end, his uncle Contarine equipped him with fifty pounds. But he was cozened by a sharper on his way to London, and once more came back—in bitter self-abasement. In 1752, his long suffering uncle for the last time fitted him out, this time to study physic at Edinburgh, which place, wonderful to relate, he safely reached. But he never saw Ireland, or his kind relative, again.