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It was, I think, after I had left London in this year, that this Epitaph gave occasion to a remonstrance to the Monarch of Literature, for an account of which I am indebted to Sir William Forbes, of Pitsligo.
That my readers may have the subject more fully and clearly before them, I shall insert the Epitaph:
Natus in Hiberniâ Forniæ Longfordiensis,
Sir William Forbes writes to me thus: "I enclose the Round Robin. This jeu d'esprit took its rise one day at dinner at our friend Sir Joshua Reynolds's. All the company present, except myself, were friends and acquaintance of Dr. Goldsmith. The Epitaph written for him by Dr. Johnson became the subject of conversation, and various emendations were sug
(1) This was a mistake, which was not discovered till after Goldsmith's monument was put up in Westminster Abbey. He was born Nov. 29. 1728; and therefore, when he died, he was in his forty-sixth year.-M.
gested, which it was agreed should be submitted to the Doctor's consideration. But the question was, who should have the courage to propose them to him? At last it was hinted, that there could be no way so good as that of a Round Robin, as the sailors call it, which they make use of when they enter into a conspiracy, so as not to let it be known who puts his name first or last to the paper. This proposition was instantly assented to; and Dr. Barnard, Dean of Derry, now Bishop of Killaloe (1), drew up an address to Dr. Johnson on the occasion, replete with wit and humour, but which it was feared the Doctor might think treated the subject with too much levity. Mr. Burke then proposed the address as it stands in the paper in writing, to which I had the honour to officiate as clerk.
"Sir Joshua agreed to carry it to Dr. Johnson, who received it with much good humour (2), and
(1) This prelate, who was afterwards translated to the see of Limerick, died at Wimbledon, in Surrey, June 7. 1806, in his eightieth year. The original Round Robin remained in his possession; the paper which Sir William Forbes transmitted to Mr. Boswell being only a copy. - MALONE. The engraving published by Mr. Boswell was not an exact fac simile of the whole of this curious paper (which is of the size called foolscap, and too large to be folded into an ordinary volume), but of the signatures only; and, in later editions, even these have, by successive copying, lost some of their original accuracy. By the favour of the Earl of Balcarras (to whom the paper has descended from his aunt, Lady Anne, the widow of the son of Bishop Barnard) I have been enabled to present the reader with a fresh and more accurate fac simile of the signatures. — C.
(2) He, however, upon seeing Dr. Warton's name to the suggestion, that the epitaph should be in English, observed to Sir Joshua, "I wonder that Joe Warton, a scholar by profession, should be such a fool." He said too, "I should have thought Mund Burke would have had more sense," Mr. Langton, who
desired Sir Joshua to tell the gentlemen, that he would alter the Epitaph in any manner they pleased, as to the sense of it, but he would never consent to disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey, with an English inscription. (1)
"I consider this Round Robin as a species of literary curiosity worth preserving, as it marks, in a certain degree, Dr. Johnson's character."
was one of the company at Sir Joshua's, like a sturdy scholar, resolutely refused to sign the Round Robin. The epitaph is engraved upon Dr. Goldsmith's monument without any alteration. At another time, when somebody endeavoured to argue in favonr of its being in English, Johnson said, "The language of the country of which a learned man was a native is not the language fit for his epitaph, which should be in ancient and permanent language. Consider, Sir, how you should feel, were you to find at Rotterdam an epitaph upon Erasmus in Dutch!"* For my own part, I think it would be best to have epitaphs written both in a learned language and in the language of the country; so that they might have the advantage of being more universally understood, and at the same time be secured of classical stability. I cannot, however, but be of opinion, that it is not sufficiently discriminative. Applying to Goldsmith equally the epithets of" Poeta, Historici, Physici," is surely not right; for as to his claim to the last of those epithets, I have heard Johnson himself say, "Goldsmith, Sir, will give us a very fine book upon the subject; but if he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe, may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history." His book is, indeed, an excellent performance, though in some instances he appears to have trusted too much to Buffon, who, with all his theoretical ingenuity and extraordinary eloquence, I suspect had little actual information in the science on which he wrote so admirably. For instance, he tells us that the cow sheds her horns every two years; a most palpable error, which Goldsmith has faithfully transferred into his book. It is wonderful that Buffon, who lived so much in the country, at his noble seat, should have fallen into such a blunder. I suppose he has confounded the cow with the deer.
(1) See antè, Vol. IV. p. 164., on the subject of English inscriptions to English writers. — C.
* Not a case in point. Erasmus had not written in Dutch, C.
My readers are presented with a faithful transcript of a paper, which I doubt not of their being desirous
P. Metcalfe. (1)
[x E. Gibbon. x Jos. Warton. X Edm. Burke. X
"We the Circumscribers, having read with great pleasure an intended epitaph for the monument of Dr. Goldsmith; which, considered abstractedly, appears to be, for elegant composition, and masterly style, in every respect worthy of the pen of its learned author; are yet of opinion, that the character of the deceased as a writer, particularly as a poet, is, perhaps, not delineated with all the exactness which Dr. Johnson is capable of giving it. We, therefore, with deference to his superior judgment, humbly request that he would, at least, take the trouble of revising it; and of making such additions and alterations as he shall think proper on a further perusal. But if we might venture to express our wishes, they would lead us to request that he would write the epitaph in English, rather than in Latin; as we think the memory of so eminent an English writer ought to be perpetuated in the language to which his works are likely to be so lasting an ornament, which we also know to have been the opinion of the late Doctor H. himself."
R. B. Sheridan.
× W. Forbes. × J. Reynolds. x William Vachell. (1) ×]
Thos. Franklin. (2) x Ant. Chamier. (3) × Geo. Colman.
(1) See post, sub 3d Oct. 1782. C.
(2) There would be no doubt that this was Thomas Franklin, D.D. the translator of Sophocles and Lucian, but that the Biog. Dict., and indeed the Doctor's own title-pages, spell his name Francklin. He died in 1784.- -C.
(3) Anthony Chamier, Esq. M.P. for Tamworth, and UnderSecretary of State from 1775 till his death, 12th Oct. 1780.-C. (4) This gentleman was a friend of Sir Joshua's, and attended his funeral.
Sir William Forbes's observation is very just. The anecdote now related proves, in the strongest manner, the reverence and awe with which Johnson was regarded, by some of the most eminent men of his time, in various departments, and even by such of them as lived most with him; while it also confirms what I have again and again inculcated, that he was by no means of that ferocious and irascible character which has been ignorantly imagined. (1)
This hasty composition is also to be remarked as one of the thousand instances which evince the extraordinary promptitude of Mr. Burke; who, while he is equal to the greatest things, can adorn the least; can, with equal facility, embrace the vast and complicated speculations of politics, or the ingenious topics of literary investigation. (2)
LETTER 254. TO MRS. BOSWELL.
"May 16. 1776.
"MADAM, You must not think me uncivil in omitting to answer the letter with which you favoured me some time ago. I imagined it to have been written without Mr. Boswell's knowledge, and therefore supposed the answer to require, what I could not find, a private conveyance.
"The difference with Lord Auchinleck is now over; and since young Alexander has appeared, I hope no more difficulties will arise among you; for I sincerely wish you all happy. Do not teach the young ones to
(1) Most readers would draw a directly contrary conclusion.-C.
(2) Besides this Latin epitaph, Johnson honoured the memory of his friend Goldsmith with a short one in Greek. See antè, Vol. V. p. 189.