The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 8. Medical and literary efforts in London: the parting of the ways
His vocation was still as visionary as were his means of subsistence. He is supposed to have tried strolling, and was certainly anxious to play “Scrub” in later years. For a season, he was an apothecary’s assistant on Fish street hill. Hence, with some assistance from an Edinburgh friend, Dr. Sleigh, he “proceeded” a poor physician in the Bankside, Southwark—the region afterwards remembered in An Elegy on Mrs. Mary Blaize. He is next found as corrector of the press to Richardson, at Salisbury court. Then, drifting insensibly towards literature, to which he seems never to have intentionally shaped his course, he is (again like his own George Primrose) an usher at the “classical Academy” of Dr. Milner of Peckham. He had already submitted a manuscript tragedy to the author of Clarissa; and, at Milner’s table, he encountered the bookseller Ralph Griffiths, proprietor of The Monthly Review. Struck by some remark on the part of Milner’s latest assistant, and seeking for new blood to aid him in his campaign against Hamilton’s Critical Review, Griffiths asked Goldsmith whether he could furnish some “specimens of criticism.” An arrangement followed under which, released from the drudgery of Peckham, Goldsmith was to receive, with bed and board, a salary which Percy calls “handsome,” Prior “adequate” and Forster “small.” For this, he was to labour daily from nine till two (or later) on copy-of-all-work for his master’s magazine.
This, in effect, was Goldsmith’s turning-point; and he had reached it by accident rather than design. Divinity, law, physic—he had tried them all; but, at letters, he had never aimed. With his duties “at the Sign of the Dunciad,” in Paternoster row, began his definite bondage to the “antiqua Mater of Grub Street”; and we may pause for a moment to examine his qualifications for his difficult career. They were more considerable than one would imagine from his vagrant, aimless past. He was a fair classical scholar, more advanced than might be supposed from his own modest admission to Malone, that he could “turn an ode of Horace into English better than any of them”; and, as that sound critic and Goldsmithian, the late Sidney Irwin, remarked, it is not necessary to make him responsible for the graceless Greek of Mr. Ephraim Jenkinson. In English poetry, he was far seen, especially in Dryden, Swift, Prior, Johnson, Pope and Gay. He had a good knowledge of Shakespeare; and was familiar with the comic dramatists, particularly his compatriot Farquhar. French he had acquired before he left Ireland, and he had closely studied Molière, La Fontaine and the different collections of ana. For Voltaire, he had a sincere admiration; and, whether he actually met him abroad or not, it is probable his own native style, clear and perspicuous as it was from the first, had been developed and perfected by the example of the wonderful writer by whom the adjective was regarded as the enemy of the noun. Finally, he had enjoyed considerable experience of humanity, though mostly in the rough; and, albeit his standpoint as a pedestrian had, of necessity, limited his horizon, he had “observed the face” of the countries through which he had travelled, making his own deductions. On what he had seen, he had reflected, and, when he sat down to the “desk’s dead wood” in Paternoster row, his initial equipment as a critic, apart from his individual genius, must have been superior, in variety and extent, at all events, to that of most of the literary gentlemen, not exclusively hacks, who did Griffiths’s notices in The Monthly Review.