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sink of vice, but its hospitals and charitable institutions, whose turrets pierce the skies, like so many electrical conductors, avert the wrath of heaven."
How is this poor and friendless young Irishman, now in his twenty-third year, to get on in the vast metropolis? That was a question of life and death for him. Not much enamoured of the law, he set himself to live by literature. He published "The Sublime and Beautiful." It brought him favourably before the reading public. He started the "Annual Register" (A.D. 1758), for which he wrote the historical articles. The "Register" was far in advance of any similar publication of the day. Its writers began to be talked of their acquaintance sought-and thus scanty earnings came to the rescue, and extending notoriety prepared the way for Burke's future success.
I believe it is De Quincey, in his "Opium Eater," that warns the young against looking to literature as a profession by which to live. Burke tasted the evils of such a course. He had to work so hard as a literary drudge that he injured his health very much,1 and was obliged to sell his books, in 1756, to support himself. So much for his first six years of literary life in London,
At this time there were assembled in London some men of genius, who might aptly be designated as "The Poor Scholars." Foremost in the rank was Dr. Johnson. His poverty, and its effects upon his temper and manners, are most graphically described in Macaulay's biographies. He had gone to Oxford to study for his degree. "At Oxford, Johnson resided about three years. He was poor even to raggedness; and his appearance excited a mirth and a pity, which were equally intolerable to his haughty spirit. He was driven from the quadrangle of Christ Church by the sneering looks which the members of that aristocratical society cast at the holes in his shoes. Some charitable person placed a new pair at his door; but he spurned them away in a fury. Distress made him, not servile, but reckless and ungovernable."
"In the autumn of 1731, he was under the necessity of quitting the university without a degree. In the following winter his father died. The old man left but a pittance; and of that pittance almost the whole was appropriated to the support of his widow. The property to which Samuel succeeded amounted to no more than twenty pounds! His life, during the thirty years which followed, was one hard struggle
1 This delicacy led to his marriage. Dr. Nugent took him into his house at Bath; Miss Nugent was very attentive to the patient; he grew well-they got married. Dr. Nugent was an Irishman.
with poverty." Yet this poor scholar was, beyond all question, one of the most learned men, and most original thinkers, of the last century!
We read of him, in Boswell's pages, that he and some of his companions used to dine in the Strand, in London, at a cost of sixpence each, and that the waiter was specially civil to Johnson because he handed him one penny for himself, an amount of perquisite the other poor scholars seldom thought of bestowing.
Oliver Goldsmith was another genius who belonged to this poverty-stricken fraternity. He had travelled over most of the countries of Europe on foot, his only resources being a pair of stout legs to carry him, and a flute in his hand, with which he won the hearts and the alms of the humble peasants, for whom he played such strains of witching music as evoked tears and laughter by turns, and set many pairs of young people merrily dancing
"For mine is the lay that lightly floats,
And mine are the murmuring dying notes
And the passionate strain that, deeply going,
As the musk-wind over the water blowing,
Goldsmith has by this time settled down in London, and he meets, in that cheap chop-house in the Strand, with many kindred spirits. He devotes himself to literature with spasmodic fits, relieved by a good deal of sheer idleness. He criticises, with Johnson, current events--men, manners of the age, books-everything except politics.1 Burke, poor as any of them, joins in their gatherings.
1764-The Literary Club.2-This motley assemblage soon formed themselves into a Literary Club, and their conversation was so racy, so brilliant, and so attractive, that membership of the Club was speedily sought by many appreciative listeners. Mr. Reynolds, (afterwards Sir Joshua Reynolds) was then rising steadily into fame as a painter. Garrick was at this time the hero of the dramatic stage.
1 When Goldsmith landed at Dover in 1758, his finances were so low, that he with difficulty got to London, his whole stock of cash amounting to no more than a few pence.
Savage, Chatterton, Dermody, and Gerald Griffin, were great sufferers from want of funds.-See "Giles's Lectures," pp. 243, 244.
* In 1764 (the year of the formation of the Literary Club) Goldsmith had, as his residence in London, one room for which he paid three shillings per week! Forster's Life of Goldsmith, p. 197.
Garrick heard of the Club, yet thought he might compromise his dignity if he joined such a set of needy scribes. Hesitatingly he said to one of the members that "he thought he would join it!" Although the most natural and easy of men on the stage, in private life he was full of conceit and pedantry. Johnson was told of Garrick's patronising manner in allusion to his "probably becoming one of the body." He hated all sham, pedantry, and conceit. "He thinks he'll join us," scornfully grumbled out the Doctor, "will he be let?" That phrase decided Garrick's fate for the present; his impertinence was summarily rebuked, and for many a day he eat humble pie before Johnson consented to accept his humiliation.
It is pleasant now to recall the names of the great men who formed that Club, nine only in number at the beginning, yet gradually extending to thirty-five; extending upwards too, as Lord Charlemont and others of social rank were soon enrolled. Let us take a peep at their habits. Boswell, who became a member, and was a constant attendant, tells us :-"They met at the Turk's Head, Gerrard-street, Soho, one evening in every week at seven, and generally continued their conversation till a pretty late hour. After about ten years, instead of supping weekly, it was resolved to dine together once a fortnight during the meeting of Parliament."
There is an amusing inference suggested by the change from supper to dinner. When the original members began to meet there were some of them, at all events, who could not afford to pay for anything that might be called a dinner. But in ten years' time Goldsmith was earning and spending recklessly large sums of money.1 Burke, who had to sell his books through poverty, was now well to do. Johnson, indeed, was always poor, and, sad to relate, was put twice in prison for debt, the very year he published his famous Dictionary.
The members, however, who were by this time, generally speaking, well circumstanced, met weekly to dine and to enjoy each other's highly intellectual company. Their conversation was probably the most brilliant, witty, and attractive that ever was listened to. It is so happily described by Macaulay, that I give the passage at considerable length.
In his biographical notice of Johnson, the head of the Club, Macaulay writes:-"The influence exercised by his conversation directly upon those with whom he lived, and indirectly upon the whole literary world, was altogether without a parallel.
1 Dr. Johnson, having read the MS. of the "Vicar of Wakefield," took it at once to a publisher, and brought back a cheque for £60, far more than Goldsmith, then unknown, expected for it. Goldsmith was at the time under arrest for debt in his odgings.-Forster, p. 205.
His colloquial talents were indeed of the highest order. He had strong sense, quick discernment, wit, humour, immense knowledge of literature and of life, and an infinite store of curious anecdotes. To discuss questions of taste, of learning, of casuistry, in language so exact and so forcible, that it might have been printed without the alteration of a word, was to him no exertion but a pleasure. He loved, as he said, to fold his legs and have his talk out. He was ready to bestow the overflowings of his full mind on anybody who would start a subject, on a fellow-passenger in a stage-coach, or on the person who sate at the same table with him in an eating-house. But his conversation was nowhere so brilliant and striking as when he was surrounded by a few friends whose abilities and knowledge enabled them, as he once expressed it, to send him back every ball that he threw. Some of these, in 1764, formed themselves into a club, which gradually became a formidable power in the commonwealth of letters. The verdicts pronounced by this conclave on new books were speedily known over all London, and were sufficient to sell off a whole edition in a day, or to condemn the sheets to the service of the trunk-maker or the pastrycook. Nor shall we think this strange when we consider what great and various talents and acquirements met in the little fraternity. Goldsmith was the representative of poetry and light literature; Reynolds, of the arts; Burke, of political eloquence and political philosophy. There were Gibbon, the greatest historian, and Jones, the greatest linguist of the age. Garrick brought to the meetings his inexhaustible pleasantry, his incomparable mimicry, and his consummate knowledge of stage effect. To predominate over such a society was not easy, yet even over such a society Johnson predominated. Burke might indeed have disputed the supremacy to which others were under the necessity of submitting; but Burke, though not generally a very patient listener, was content to take the second part when Johnson was present, and the Club itself, consisting of so many eminent men, is to this day popularly designated as Johnson's Club." We take leave of this famous society with the lines of Lytton Bulwer:
"Immortal conclave, learning, genius, wit,
And all, by stars that moved in concord lit—
And so we close this part of Burke's social career, seeing him now known in London to the most remarkable men in the intellectual society of the metropolis. Up to this time his life has been almost exclusively that of a private individual. He has not come before the public in any other capacity than that of a writer of some singularly able articles and essays. Official life has just opened upon him. Through the influence of Lord Charlemont he was appointed private secretary, at a salary of £300 a year, to single-speech Hamilton, who became Chief Secretary to Ireland in 1761, three years before the regular formation of the Literary Club. Thus we retrace our steps for a few years, and begin with Burke as a public man.2
1761.-Burke as a Public Man.-Had Burke remained in London, satisfied to live upon the scanty proceeds of his literary exertions, and to rest contented with the social and intellectual intercourse of his friends, we, the Catholics of Ireland, would have lost a great expounder of our wrongs. In that society there was scarce one Catholic. "The Papists," as they were contemptuously styled, were nowhere. Hence their cause was that of an inferior caste, with whom it was a chivalrous thing to have any sympathy. None of the members of that proscribed Creed presented themselves in London society: they were to that society like a mere abstract idea, having no local habitation," and no
As the early training of the delicate child had thrown Burke entirely into the hands of his Catholic relatives in Cork, so his first official experience of public life withdrew him from
1 Hamilton made one speech only in the English Parliament, and one only in the Irish House of Commons. He was content with the fame he got from one able performance in each place.
Great Conversationalists.-Byron, Curran, and Coleridge were probably as brilliant conversationalists as any in the Literary Club. It was said that Coleridge's talk was worth many guineas a sheet. Shelley tells us, in the preface to the poem entitled “Julian and Madalo,” under which latter name Byron was designated, that "His more serious conversation is a sort of intoxication; men are held by it as by a spell."
In Moore's "Life of Byron," a letter from Byron is printed. In it Byron describes his meeting for the first time with Curran :-"I have met Curran at Holland House; he beats everybody; his imagination is beyond human, and his humour (it is difficult to define wit), perfect. Then he has fifty faces, and twice as many voices when he mimics. I never met his equal."
Giles, the eloquent and philosophical lecturer, who has charmed his Irish fellow-countrymen in America by his essays on many distinguished Irishmen, says of Curran-"Throughout life Curran's conversation seems to have given to all that heard it the pleasure of constant enchantment and surprise." However, they formed no club, nor did Coleridge ever meet Byron in society. Byron had lashed him as one of the lake poets in his "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." Byron, however, was intimate with another great conversationalist, R. B. Sheridan. He writes of him, "Poor dear Sherry! I shall never forget the day he and Rogers and Moore and I passed together; when he (Sheridan) talked and we listened without one yawn from six o'clock p.m. till one in the morning."