herald

Sunday 22 October 2017

Con Houlihan: The write stuff

the 18th century was a period of renaissance for literature and the arts in england and men such as samuel johnson and oliver goldsmith were at the forefronT

'A goose is more than enough for two but not enough for three." This nugget of wisdom was uttered on the train between Kingsbridge and Roscommon about 20 years ago. The pilgrims were on their way to Hyde Park (not in London) to watch Mayo and Leitrim do battle in the Connacht Football Final.

It came from the Mayo group and seemed to me to be the essence of wisdom. Then I wondered where I had met it before. Some time that night it dawned on me: it had been encountered in the works of Dr Samuel Johnson. Because it came from him, it greatly impressed me until I remembered it all depended on the size of the goose and the size of the men. It is now over two centuries since the good doctor went around London dropping one-liners, but some of his nuggets are still remembered. The most familiar occurs in his famous dictionary in which he defined "oats" as food for horses in England and people in Scotland.

Samuel Johnson's early years were lost in obscurity. We know he was born in Staffordshire and that he went to Oxford but didn't take a degree. With another young man, David Garrick, he set out for London on foot. Folklore tells us they had only the clothes on their backs. Garrick's ambition was to be an actor, Johnson's to be a writer.

They were both lucky in their times, especially Garrick. The theatre had been suppressed in the Puritan years that followed the Cromwellian takeover and now it was more popular than ever. Garrick was good-looking and charming and he quickly made his name on the stage. Johnson was not as attractive physically. He was a big clumsy man, but his intellect was powerful and he soon began to make a living as a writer.

People were becoming more literate and this newfound skill in reading created a demand for magazines and other periodicals. It was the age of the freelance journalist -- and setting out to be a freelance is about the most hazardous journey known to civilised man -- but Samuel Johnson began to make a name for himself, often by writing about subjects of which he was totally ignorant.

Oliver Goldsmith was pursuing the same trade: his book on nature is one of the most comical volumes in the English language because he wrote confidently about things he didn't understand. Like Johnson, however, he got by until he was able to establish a reputation as a journalist and a novelist and a playwright.

Johnson became famous by a dictionary that is still a treasury of the English language. He had got it published by subscriptions from various lords, and their generosity was well rewarded.

Eventually, Garrick and Johnson and Goldsmith became part of a little group that met now and then in a public house called The Cheshire Cheese. It is still there, or at least it was when I was last in London. Two other regular members of the little party were Joshua Reynolds, already established as a portrait painter, and James Boswell -- he was both a Scot and a lawyer, a combination that made him safe from poverty.

Goldsmith's background was as obscure as Johnson's: he was a clergyman's son and, therefore, it is hard to understand why the date and place of his birth weren't well known. He claimed to have been refused ordination because he wouldn't be allowed to wear green britches for the ceremony. That, of course, was fantasy. In truth, he failed his finals. He claimed he'd studied as a doctor, but nobody believed him. Johnson used to say: "Oliver do me a favour -- prescribe only for thine enemies."

The little group in the Cheshire Cheese liked throwing arrows at each other. Goldsmith had a speech impediment and Garrick wrote a couplet about him:

Here lies Oliver Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll

Who wrote like an angel but spoke like poor Poll.

James Boswell was adept at recording Johnson's one-liners. My favourite came after he had been on a voyage to the Shetland Islands: "Being on a boat is like being in prison with the chance of being drowned thrown in for good measure." And he said: "The best thing about Scotland is the high road to England."

Oliver Goldsmith was very fond of fancy clothes and of women, and thus he was often short of cash. When he died, Johnson discovered he was his executor, and as the bills came flying in for fancy clothes and fine wine, he said, "Was ever a poet so trusted?" The good doctor wrote the epitaph for Goldsmith's tomb: "He touched nothing that he didn't adorn."

Four of those five friends are very much alive in their work. Garrick came too soon for recording. Johnson is well remembered by his dictionary and several books of essays and by The Lives Of The Poets, a book still in print and well worth acquiring. Joshua Reynolds' paintings can be seen in many galleries and Boswell's biography of Johnson helped to make them both immortal.

You can hardly have a quiet drink now without hearing a quotation from Goldsmith's Deserted Village or an example of Johnson's one-liners -- and so they are both immortal in the popular sense. Johnson, like Goldsmith, was never a doctor but he was a very honest man: once when asked what were the happiest hours of his life, he said -- "The hours I spent in bed in the morning when I should have been at work." His last words are well authenticated. As he was dying, somebody asked him "Are you happy?" And he said "By God I am not."

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