Oliver Goldsmith: The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher


Letter XXIX.


A description of a club of authors.


From Lien Chi Altangi, to Fum Hoam, first president of the Ceremonial Academy at Pekin, in China.


Were we to estimate the learning of the English by the number of books that are every day published among them, perhaps no country, not even China itself could equal them in this particular. I have reckoned not less than twenty-three new books published in one day; which, upon computation, makes eight thousand three hundred and ninety-five in one year. Most of these are not confined to one single science, but embrace the whole circle. History, politics, poetry, mathematics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of nature are all comprized in a manual not larger than that in which our children are taught the letters. If then we suppose the learned of England to read but an eighth part of the works which daily come from the press, (and sure none can pretend to learning upon less easy terms) at this rate every scholar will read a thousand books in one year. From such a calculation you may conjecture what an amazing fund of literature a man must be possessed of, who thus reads three new books every day, not one of which but contains all the good things that ever were said or written.

And yet I know not how it happens, but the English are not in reality so learned as would seem from this calculation. We meet but few who know all arts and sciences to perfection; whether it is that the generality are incapable of such extensive knowledge, or that the authors of those books are not adequate instructors. In China the emperor himself takes cognisance of all the doctors in the kingdom who profess authorship. In England, every man may be an author that can write; for they have by law a liberty not only of saying what they please, but of being also as dull as they please.

Yesterday, I testified my surprize to the man in black, where writers could be found in sufficient number to throw off the books I daily saw crowding from the press. I at first imagined, that their learned seminaries might take this method of instructing the world. But to obviate this objection, my companion assured me, that the doctors of colleges never wrote, and that some of them had actually forgot their reading: but if you desire, continued he, to see a collection of authors, I fancy I can introduce you this evening to a club, which assembles every Saturday at seven, at the sign of the Broom near Islington, to talk over the business of the last, and the entertainment of the week ensuing. I accepted his invitation, we walked together, and entered the house some time before the usual hour for the company assembling.

My friend took this opportunity of letting me into the characters of the principal members of the club, not even the host excepted, who, it seems, was once an author himself, but preferred by a bookseller to this situation as a reward for his former services.

The first person, said he, of our society, is doctor Nonentity, a metaphysician. Most people think him a profound scholar; but as he seldom speaks, I cannot be positive in that particular; he generally spreads himself before the fire, sucks his pipe, talks little, drinks much, and is reckoned very good company. I'm told he writes indexes to perfection, he makes essays on the origin of evil, philosophical enquiries upon any subject, and draws up an answer to any book upon twenty-four hours warning. You may distinguish him from the rest of the company by his long grey wig, and the blue handkerchief round his neck.

The next to him in merit and esteem is Tim Syllabub, a drole creature; he sometimes shines as a star of the first magnitude among the choice spirits of the age; he is reckoned equally excellent at a rebus, a riddle, a bawdy song, and an hymn for the tabernacle. You'll know him by his shabby finery, his powdered wig, dirty shirt, and broken silk stockings.

After him succeeds Mr. Tibs, a very useful hand; he writes receipts for the bite of a mad dog, and throws off an eastern tale to perfection; he understands the business of an author as well as any man; for no bookseller alive can cheat him; you may distinguish him by the peculiar clumsiness of his figure and the coarseness of his coat: however, though it be coarse, (as he frequently tells the company) he has paid for it.

Lawyer Squint is the politician of the society; he makes speeches for parliament, writes addresses to his fellow subjects, and letters to noble commanders; he gives the history of every new play, and finds seasonable thoughts upon every occasion. – My companion was proceeding in his description, when the host came running in with terror on his countenance to tell us, that the door was beset with bailiffs. If that be the case then, says my companion, we had as good be going; for I am positive we shall not see one of the company this night. Wherefore disappointed we were both obliged to return home, he to enjoy the oddities which compose his character alone, and I to write as usual to my friend the occurrences of the day.





Letter XXX.


The proceedings of the club of authors.


From Lien Chi Altangi, to Fum Hoam, first president of the Ceremonial Academy at Pekin, in China.


By my last advices from Moscow, I find the caravan has not yet departed for China: I still continue to write, expecting that you may receive a large number of my letters at once. In them you will find rather a minute detail of English peculiarities, than a general picture of their manners or disposition. Happy it were for mankind if all travellers would thus, instead of characterising a people in general terms, lead us into a detail of those minute circumstances which first influenced their opinion; the genius of a country should be investigated with a kind of experimental enquiry: by this means we should have more precise and just notions of foreign nations, and detect travellers themselves when they happened to form wrong conclusions.

My friend and I repeated our visit to the club of authors; where, upon our entrance, we found the members all assembled and engaged in a loud debate. The poet, in shabby finery, holding a manuscript in his hand, was earnestly endeavouring to persuade the company to hear him read the first book of an heroic poem, which he had composed the day before. But against this, all the members very warmly objected. They knew no reason why any member of the club should be indulged with a particular hearing, when many of them had published whole volumes which had never been looked in. They insisted that the law should be observed, where reading in company was expressly noticed. It was in vain that the plaintiff pleaded the peculiar merit of his piece; he spoke to an assembly insensible to all his remonstrances; the book of laws was opened, and read by the secretary, where it was expressly enacted, »That whatsoever poet, speech-maker, critic, or historian, should presume to engage the company by reading his own works, he was to lay down sixpence previous to opening the manuscript, and should be charged one shilling an hour while he continued reading; the said shilling to be equally distributed among the company as a recompence for their trouble.«

Our poet seemed at first to shrink at the penalty, hesitating for some time whether he should deposit the fine, or shut up the poem; but looking round, and perceiving two strangers in the room, his love of fame out-weighed his prudence, and laying down the sum by law established, he insisted on his prerogative.

A profound silence ensuing, he began by explaining his design. Gentlemen, says he, the present piece is not one of your common epic poems, which come from the press like paper kites in summer; there are none of your Turnuses or Didos in it; it is an heroical description of nature. I only beg you'll endeavour to make your souls unison with mine, and hear with the same enthusiasm with which I have written. The poem begins with the description of an author's bed-chamber: the picture was sketched in my own apartment; for you must know, gentlemen, that I am myself the heroe. Then, putting himself into the attitude of an orator, with all the emphasis of voice and action, he proceeded.


Where the Red Lion flaring o'er the way,

Invites each passing stranger that can pay;

Where Calvert's butt, and Parson's black champaign,

Regale the drabs and bloods of Drury-lane;

There in a lonely room, from bailiffs snug,

The muse found Scroggen stretch'd beneath a rug,

A window patch'd with paper lent a ray,

That dimly shew'd the state in which he lay;

The sanded floor that grits beneath the tread;

The humid wall with paltry pictures spread:

The royal game of goose was there in view,

And the twelve rules the royal martyr drew;

The seasons fram'd with listing found a place,

And brave prince William shew'd his lamp-black face:

The morn was cold, he views with keen desire

The rusty grate unconscious of a fire:

With beer and milk arrears the frieze was scor'd,

And five crack'd tea cups dress'd the chimney board.

A night-cap deck'd his brows instead of bay,

A cap by night – a stocking all the day!


With this last line he seem'd so much elated, that he was unable to proceed; there gentlemen, cries he, there is a description for you; Rablais's bed-chamber is but a fool to it:


A cap by night – a stocking all the day!


There is sound and sense, and truth, and nature in the trifling compass of ten little syllables.

He was too much employed in self admiration to observe the company; who by nods, winks, shrugs, and stifled laughter, testified every mark of contempt. He turned severally to each for their opinion, and found all however ready to applaud. One swore it was inimitable; another said it was damn'd fine; and a third cried out in rapture Carissimo. At last addressing himself to the president, and pray Mr. Squint, says he, let us have your opinion. Mine, answered the president, (taking the manuscript out of the author's hands) may this glass suffocate me, but I think it equal to any thing I have seen; and I fancy (continued he, doubling up the poem, and forcing it into the author's pocket) that you will get great honour when it comes out; so I shall beg leave to put it in. We will not intrude upon your good nature, in desiring to hear more of it at present; ex ungue Herculem, we are satisfied, perfectly satisfied. The author made two or three attempts to pull it out a second time, and the president made as many to prevent him. Thus though with reluctance he was at last obliged to sit down, contented with the commendations for which he had paid.

When this tempest of poetry and praise was blown over, one of the company changed the subject, by wondering how any man could be so dull as to write poetry at present, since prose itself would hardly pay. Would you think it, gentlemen, continued he, I have actually written last week sixteen prayers, twelve bawdy jests, and three sermons, all at the rate of sixpence a-piece; and what is still more extraordinary, the bookseller has lost by the bargain. Such sermons would once have gained me a prebend's stall; but now alas we have neither piety, taste, nor humour among us. Positively if this season does not turn out better than it has begun, unless the ministry commit some blunders to furnish us with a new topic of abuse, I shall resume my old business of working at the press, instead of finding it employment.

The whole club seemed to join in condemning the season, as one of the worst that had come for some time; a gentleman particularly observed that the nobility were never known to subscribe worse than at present. I know not how it happens, said he, though I follow them up as close as possible, yet I can hardly get a single subscription in a week. The houses of the great are as inaccessible as a frontier garrison at mid- night. I never see a nobleman's door half opened that some surly porter or footman does not stand full in the breach. I was yesterday to wait with a subscription proposal upon my lord Squash the creolian. I had posted myself at his door the whole morning, and just as he was getting into his coach, thrust my proposal snugg into his hand folded up in the form of a letter from myself. He just glanced at the superscription, and, not knowing the hand, consigned it to his valet de chambre; this respectable personage treated it as his master, and put it into the hands of the porter. The porter grasped my proposal frowning; and, measuring my figure from top to toe, put it back into my own hands unopened.

To the devil I pitch all the nobility, cries a little man, in a peculiar accent, I am sure they have of late used me most scurvily. You must know, gentlemen, some time ago, upon the arrival of a certain noble duke from his travels, I set myself down, and vamp'd up a fine flaunting, poetical panegyric, which I had written in such a strain, that I fancied it would have even wheedled milk from a mouse. In this I represented the whole kingdom welcoming his grace to his native soil, not forgetting the loss France and Italy would sustain in their arts by his departure. I expected to touch, for a bank bill at least; so folding up my verses in gilt paper, I gave my last half crown to a genteel servant to be the bearer. My letter was safely conveyed to his grace, and the servant after four hours absence, during which time I led the life of a fiend, returned with a letter four times as big as mine. Guess my extasy at the prospect of so fine a return. I eagerly took the pacquet into my hands, that trembled to receive it. I kept it some time unopened before me, brooding over the expected treasure it contained, when opening it, as I hope to be saved, gentlemen, his grace had sent me in payment for my poem no Bank bills, but six copies of verse, each longer than mine, addressed to him upon the same occasion.

A nobleman, cries a member, who had hitherto been silent, is created as much for the confusion of us authors as the catch-pole. I'll tell you a story, gentlemen, which is as true as that this pipe is made of clay. When I was delivered of my first book, I owed my taylor for a suit of cloaths, but that is nothing new, you know, and may be any man's case as well as mine. Well, owing him for a suit of cloaths, and hearing that my book took very well, he sent for his money, and insisted upon being paid immediately: though I was at that time rich in fame, for my book run like wild-fire, yet I was very short in money, and being unable to satisfy his demand, prudently resolved to keep my chamber, preferring a prison of my own chusing at home, to one of my taylor's chusing abroad. In vain the bailiffs used all their arts to decoy me from my citadel, in vain they sent to let me know that a gentleman wanted to speak with me at the next tavern, in vain they came with an urgent message from my aunt in the country; in vain I was told that a particular friend was at the point of death, and desired to take his last farewell; I was deaf, insensible, rock, adamant, the bailiffs could make no impression on my hard heart, for I effectually kept my liberty by never stirring out of the room.

This was very well for a fortnight; when one morning I received a most splendid message from the earl of Doomsday, importing, that he had read my book, and was in raptures with every line of it; he impatiently longed to see the author, and had some designs which might turn out greatly to my advantage. I paused upon the contents of this message, and found there could be no deceit, for the card was gilt at the edges, and the bearer, I was told, had quite the looks of a gentleman. Witness ye powers, how my heart triumphed at my own importance, I saw a long perspective of felicity before me, I applauded the taste of the times, which never saw genius forsaken; I had prepared a set introductory speech for the occasion, five glaring compliments for his lordship, and two more modest for myself. The next morning therefore, in order to be punctual to my appointment, I took coach, and ordered the fellow to drive to the street and house mentioned in his lordship's address. I had the precaution to pull up the windows as I went along to keep off the busy part of mankind, and big with expectation, fancied the coach never went fast enough. At length, however, the wish'd for moment of its stopping arrived; this for some time I impatiently expected, and letting down the door in a transport, in order to take a previous view of his lordship's magnificent palace and situation, I found – poison to my sight! I found myself, not in an elegant street, but a paltry lane, not at a nobleman's door, but the door of a spunging-house; I found the coachman had all this while been driving me to jail, and I saw the bailiff with a devil's face, coming out to secure me.

To a philosopher, no circumstance, however trifling, is too minute; he finds instruction and entertainment in occurrences, which are passed over by the rest of mankind as low, trite, and indifferent; it is from the number of these particulars, which, to many, appear insignificant, that he is at last enabled to form general conclusions: this, therefore, must be my excuse for sending so far as China accounts of manners and follies, which, though minute in their own nature, serve more truly to characterise this people than histories of their public treaties, courts, ministers, negotiations, and ambassadors.





Letter LI.


A Bookseller's visit to the Chinese.


From Lien Chi Altangi, to Fum Hoam, first president of the Ceremonial Academy at Pekin, in China.


As I was yesterday seated at breakfast over a pensive dish of tea, my meditations were interrupted by my old friend and companion, who introduced a stranger, dressed pretty much like himself. The gentleman made several apologies for his visit, begged of me to impute his intrusion to the sincerity of his respect, and the warmth of his curiosity.

As I am very suspicious of my company, when I find them very civil, without any apparent reason, I answered the stranger's caresses at first with reserve, which my friend perceiving, instantly let me into my visitant's trade and character, asking Mr. Fudge whether he had lately published any thing new? I now conjectured that my guest was no other than a bookseller, and his answer confirmed my suspicions.

Excuse me Sir, says he, it is not the season, books have their time as well as cucumbers; I would no more bring out a new work in summer, than I would sell pork in the dog days. Nothing in my way goes off in summer, except very light goods indeed. A review, a magazine, or a sessions paper, may amuse a summer reader; but all our stock of value we reserve for a spring and winter trade. I must confess Sir, says I, a curiosity to know what you call a valuable stock, which can only bear a winter perusal. Sir, reply'd the bookseller, it is not my way to cry up my own goods, but without exaggeration I will venture to shew with any of the trade, my books at least have the peculiar advantage of being always new; and it is my way to clear off my old to the trunkmakers every season. I have ten new title pages now about me, which only want books to be added to make them the finest things in nature. Others may pretend to direct the vulgar, but that is not my way; I always let the vulgar direct me; wherever popular clamour arises, I always eccho the million. For instance, should the people in general say that such a man is a rogue, I instantly give orders to set him down in print a villain; thus every man buys the book, not to learn new sentiments, but to have the pleasure of seeing his own reflected. But Sir, interrupted I, you speak as if you yourself wrote the books you publish; may I be so bold as to ask a sight of some of those intended publications which are shortly to surprize the world. As to that, Sir, reply'd the talkative bookseller, I only draw out the plans myself; and though I am very cautious of communicating them to any, yet as in the end I have a favour to ask, you shall see a few of them. Here, Sir, here they are diamonds of the first water, I assure you. Imprimis, a translation of several medical precepts for the use of such physicians as do not understand Latin. Item, the young clergyman's art of placing patches regularly, with a dissertation on the different manner of smiling without distorting the face. Item, the whole art of love made perfectly easy, by a broker of 'Change Alley. Item, the proper manner of cutting black-lead pencils, and making crayons; by the Right Hon. the Earl of ***. Item, the muster master General, or the review of reviews – Sir, cry'd I, interrupting him, my curiosity with regard to title pages is satisfied, I should be glad to see some longer manuscript, an history, or an epic poem. – Bless me, cries the man of industry, now you speak of an epic poem, you shall see an excellent farce. Here it is, dip into it where you will, it will be found replete with true modern humour. Strokes, Sir, it is fill'd with strokes of wit and satire in every line. Do you call these dashes of the pen strokes, reply'd I, for I must confess I can see no other? And pray Sir, returned he, what do you call them? Do you see any thing good now a-days that is not filled with strokes – and dashes? – Sir, a well placed dash makes half the wit of our writers of modern humour. I bought last season, a piece that had no other merit upon earth than nine hundred and ninety-five breaks, seventy-two ha ha's, three good things and a garter. And yet it play'd off, and bounced, and cracked, and made more sport than a fire-work. I fancy then, Sir, you were a considerable gainer? It must be owned the piece did pay; but upon the whole I can't much boast of last winter's success; I gain'd by two murders, but then I lost by an ill timed charity sermon. I was a considerable sufferer by my direct road to an estate, but the infernal guide brought me up again. Ah, Sir, that was a piece touch'd off by the hand of a master, filled with good things from one end to the other. The author had nothing but the jest in view; no dull moral lurking beneath, nor ill-natured satyr to sour the readers good humour; he wisely considered that moral and humour at the same time were quite over doing the business. To what purpose was the book then published, cried I? Sir, the book was published in order to be sold; and no book sold better, except the criticisms upon it, which came out soon after. Of all kinds of writing that goes off best at present, and I generally fasten a criticism upon every selling book that is published.

I once had an author who never left the least opening for the critics: close was the word, always very right, and very dull, ever on the safe side of an argument; yet, with all his qualifications, incapable of coming into favour. I soon perceived that his bent was for criticism; and as he was good for nothing else, supplied him with pens and paper, and planted him at the beginning of every month as a censor on the works of others. In short, I found him a treasure, no merit could escape him, but what is most remarkable of all, he ever wrote best and bitterest when drunk. But are there not some works, interrupted I, that from the very manner of their composition must be exempt from criticism, particularly such as profess to disregard its laws. There is no work whatsoever but he can criticise, replied the bookseller; even though you wrote in Chinese he would have a pluck at you. Suppose you should take it into your head to publish a book, let it be a volume of Chinese letters for instance; write how you will, he shall shew the world you could have written better. Should you, with the most local exactness, stick to the manners and customs of the country from whence you come; should you confine yourself to the narrow limits of eastern knowledge, and be perfectly simple, and perfectly natural, he has then the strongest reason to exclaim. He may with a sneer send you back to China for readers. He may observe, that after the first or second letter the iteration of the same simplicity is insupportably tedious; but the worst of all is, the public in such a case will anticipate his censures, and leave you with all your uninstructive simplicity to be mauled at discretion.

Yes, cried I, but, in order to avoid his indignation, and what I should fear more, that of the public, I would in such a case write with all the knowledge I was master of. As I am not possessed of much learning, at least I would not supress what little I had, nor would I appear more stupid than nature made me. Here then, cried the bookseller, we should have you entirely in our power, unnatural, uneastern, quite out of character; erroneously sensible would be the whole cry; Sir, we should then hunt you down like a rat. Head of my father! said I, sure there are but the two ways; the door must either be shut, or it must be open. I must either be natural or be unnatural. Be what you will, we shall criticise you, returned the bookseller, and prove you a dunce in spite of your teeth. But, Sir, it is time that I should come to business. I have just now in the press an history of China; and if you will but put your name to it as the author, I shall repay the obligation with gratitude. What, Sir, replied I, put my name to a work which I have not written. Never while I retain a proper respect for the public and myself. The bluntness of my reply quite abated the ardour of the bookseller's conversation; and, after about half an hour's disagreeable reserve, he with some ceremony took his leave and withdrew.





Letter XCVII.


Almost every subject of literature, has been already exhausted.


From Lien Chi Altangi, to Fum Hoam, first president of the Ceremonial Academy at Pekin, in China.


It is usual for the booksellers here, when a book has given universal pleasure upon one subject, to bring out several more upon the same plan, which are sure to have purchasers and readers, from that desire which all men have to view a pleasing object on every side. The first performance serves rather to awake than satisfy attention; and when that is once moved, the slightest effort serves to continue its progression; the merit of the first diffuses a light sufficient to illuminate the succeeding efforts; and no other subject can be relished, till that is exhausted. A stupid work coming thus immediately in the train of an applauded performance, weans the mind from the object of its pleasure; and resembles the sponge thrust into the mouth of a discharged culverin, in order to adapt it for a new explosion.

This manner however of drawing off a subject, or a peculiar mode of writing to the dregs, effectually precludes a revival of that subject or manner for some time for the future; the sated reader turns from it with a kind of literary nausea; and though the titles of books are the part of them most read, yet he has scarce perseverance enough to wade through the title- page.

Of this number I own myself one; I am now grown callous to several subjects, and different kinds of composition: whether such originally pleased, I will not take upon me to determine; but at present I spurn a new book merely upon seeing its name in an advertisement; nor have the smallest curiosity to look beyond the first leaf, even though in the second the author promises his own face neatly engraved on copper.

I am become a perfect Epicure in reading, plain beef or solid mutton will never do. I'm for a Chinese dish of bear's claws and bird's nests. I am for sauce strong with assafœtida, or fuming with garlic. For this reason there are an hundred very wise, learned, virtuous, well intended productions, that have no charms for me. Thus, for the soul of me, I could never find courage nor grace enough to wade above two pages deep into Thoughts upon God and Nature, or Thoughts upon Providence, or Thoughts upon free Grace, or indeed into thoughts upon any thing at all. I can no longer meditate with Meditations for every day in the year; essays upon divers subjects can't allure me, though never so interesting; and as for funeral sermons, or even thanksgiving sermons, I can neither weep with the one, nor rejoice with the other.

But it is chiefly in gentle poetry, where I seldom look farther than the title. The truth is, I take up books to be told something new, but here as it is now managed the reader is told nothing. He opens the book, and there finds very good words, truly, and much exactness of rhyme, but no information. A parcel of gaudy images pass on before his imagination like the figures in a dream, but curiosity, induction, reason, and the whole train of affections are fast asleep. The jucunda et idonea vitæ, those sallies which mend the heart while they amuse the fancy, are quite forgotten; so that a reader who would take up some modern applauded performances of this kind, must, in order to be pleased, first leave his good sense behind him, take for his recompence and guide bloated and compound epithet, and dwell on paintings, just, indeed, because laboured with minute exactness.

If we examine, however, our internal sensations, we shall find ourselves but little pleased with such laboured vanities; we shall find that our applause rather proceeds from a kind of contagion caught up from others, and which we contribute to diffuse, than from what we privately feel. There are some subjects of which almost all the world perceive the futility, yet all combine in imposing upon each other, as worthy of praise. But chiefly this imposition obtains in literature, where men publicly contemn what they relish with rapture in private, and approve abroad what has given them disgust at home. The truth is, we deliver those criticisms in public which are supposed to be best calculated not to do justice to the author, but to impress others with an opinion of our superior discernment.

But let works of this kind, which have already come off with such applause, enjoy it all. It is neither my wish to diminish, as I was never considerable enough to add to their fame. But for the future I fear there are many poems, of which I shall find spirits to read but the title. In the first place all odes upon winter, or summer, or autumn, in short all odes, epodes, and monodies whatsoever, shall hereafter be deemed too polite, classical, obscure, and refined, to be read, and entirely above human comprehension. Pastorals are pretty enough –– for those that like them, –– but to me Thyrsis is one of the most insipid fellows I ever conversed with; and as for Corridon I don't chuse his company. Elegies and epistles are very fine to those to whom they are addressed; and as for epic poems, I am generally able to discover the whole plan in reading the two first pages.

Tragedies however, as they are now made, are good instructive moral sermons enough, and it would be a fault not to be pleased with good things. There I learn several great truths, as that it is impossible to see into the ways of futurity, that punishment always attends the villain, that love is the fond soother of the human breast, that we should not resist heaven's will, for in resisting heaven's will, heaven's will is resisted; with several other sentiments equally new, delicate and striking. Every new tragedy therefore I shall go to see; for reflections of this nature make a tolerable harmony, when mixed up with a proper quantity of drum, trumpet, thunder, lightening, or the scene shifter's whistle.



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