The citizen of the world: or, letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the east. ... [pt.1]
Goldsmith, Oliver, 1730?-1774.
Page  227

LETTER L.

To the same.

IN all other countries, my dear Fum Hoam, the rich are distinguished by their dress. In Persia, China, and most parts of Europe, those who are possessed of much gold and silver, put some of it upon their cloaths; but in England, those who carry much up∣on their cloaths, are remarked for having but little in their pockets. A tawdry outside is regarded as a badge of poverty, and those who can sit at home, and glote over their thousands in silent satisfaction, are general∣ly found to do it in plain cloaths.

This diversity of thinking from the rest of the world which prevails here, I was first at a loss to account for; but am since informed that it was introduced by an inter∣course between them and their neighbours the French; who, whenever they came in order to pay those islanders a visit, were generally very well dressed, and very poor, daubed with lace, but all the gilding on the outside. By this means laced cloaths have been brought so much into contempt, that at present even their Man∣darines are ashamed of finery.

I must own myself a convert to English simplicity; I am no more for oftentation of wealth than of learn∣ing; the person who in company should pretend to be wiser than others, I am apt to regard as illiterate and ill bred; the person whose cloaths are extremely fine, I am too apt to consider as not being possessed of any superiority of fortune, but resembling those Indians Page  228 who are found to wear all the gold they have in the world in a bob at the nose.

I was lately introduced into a company of the best dressed men I have seen since my arrival. Upon en∣tering the room, I was struck with awe at the gran∣deur of the different dresses. That personage, thought I, in blue and gold, must be some Emperor's son; that, in green and silver, a Prince of the blood; he, in embroidered scarlet, a prime minister; all first rate no∣blemen, I suppose, and well looking noblemen too. I sate for some time with that uneasiness with conscious inferiority produces in the ingenuous mind, all atten∣tion to their discourse. However, I found their conver∣sation more vulgar than I could have expected from per∣sonages of such distinction: if these, thought I to my∣self, be Princes, they are the most stupid Princes I have ever conversed with: yet still I continued to venerate their dress; for dress has a kind of mechanical influ∣ence on the mind.

My friend in black indeed did not behave with the same deference, but contradicted the finest of them all in the most peremptory tones of contempt. But I had carce time to wonder at the imprudence of his con∣duct, when I found occasion to be equally surprized at the absurdity of theirs; for upon the entry of a middle-aged man, dressed in a cap, dirty shirt and boots, the whole circle seemed diminished of their former im∣portance, and contended who should be first to pay their obeysance to the stranger. They somewhat re∣sembled a circle of Kalmucs offering incense to a bear.

Eager to know the cause of so much seeming con∣tradiction, I whispered my friend out of the room, and Page  229 found that the august company consisted of no other than a dancing master, two fiddlers, and a third rate actor, all assembled in order to make a set at country dances, as the middle-aged gentleman whom I saw en∣ter was a squire from the country, and desirous of learn∣ing the new manner of footing and smoothing up the rudiments of his rural minuet.

I was no longer surprized at the authority which my friend assumed among them, nay, was even displeased (pardon my eastern education) that he had not kicked every creature of them down stairs. "What, said I, shall a set of such paltry fellows dress themselves up like sons of kings, and claim even the transitory re∣spect of half an hour. There should be some law to re∣strain so manifest a breach of privilege; they should go from house to house, as in China, with the instru∣ments of their profession strung round their necks; by this means we might be able to distinguish and treat them in a stile of becoming contempt." Hold, my friend, replied my companion, were your reformation to take place, as dancing masters and fiddlers now mimic gen∣tlemen in appearance, we should then find our fine gen∣tlemen conforming to theirs. A beau might be intro∣duced to a lady of fashion with a fiddle case hanging at his neck by a red ribbon; and, instead of a cane, might carry a fiddle stick. Tho' to be as dull as a first rate dancing master might be used with proverbial justice; yet, dull as he is, many a fine gentleman sets him up as the proper standard of politeness, copies not only the pert vivacity of his air, but the flat insipidity of his con∣versation. In short, if you make a law against danc∣ing masters imitating the fine gentleman, you should Page  230 with as much reason enact, that no fine gentleman shall imitate the dancing master.

After I had left my friend, I made towards home, reflecting as I went upon the difficulty of distinguish∣ing men by their appearance. Invited, however, by the freshness of the evening, I did not return directly, but went to ruminate on what had passed in a pub∣lic garden belonging to the city. Here, as I sate up∣on one of the benches, and felt the pleasing sym∣pathy which nature in bloom inspires, a disconsolate figure, who sate on the other end of the feat, seem∣ed no way to enjoy the serenity of the season.

His dress was miserable beyond description: a thread∣bare coat of the rudest materials; a shirt, though clean, yet extremely coarse; hair that seemed to have been long unconscious of the comb; and all the rest of his equipage impressed with the marks of genuine poverty.

As he continued to sigh, and testify every symptom of despair, I was naturally led, from a motive of hu∣manity, to offer comfort and assistance. You know my heart; and that all who are miserable may claim a place there. The pensive stranger at first declined any conversation; but at last perceiving a peculiarity in my accent and manner of thinking, he began to unfold himself by degrees.

I now found that he was not so very miserable as he at first appeared; upon my offering him a small piece of money, he refused my favour, yet without appear∣ing displeased at my intended generosity. It is true he sometimes interrupted the conversation with a sigh, and Page  231 talked pathetically of neglected merit; yet still I could perceive a serenity in his countenance, that, upon a closer inspection, bespoke inward content.

Upon a pause in the conversation I was going to take my leave, when he begged I would favour him with my company home to supper. I was surprized at such a demand from a person of his appearance; but willing to indulge curiosity, I accepted his invitation; and though I felt some repugnance at being seen with one who appeared so very wretched, went along with seeming alacrity.

Still as he approached nearer home, his good hu∣mour proportionably seemed to encrease. At last he stopped, not at the gate of an hovel, but of a magni∣ficent palace! When I cast my eyes upon all the sump∣tuous elegance which every where presented upon en∣tering, and then when I looked at my seeming misera∣ble conductor, I could scarce think that all this finery belonged to him; yet in fact it did. Numerous ser∣vants ran through the apartments with silent assiduity; several ladies of beauty and magnificently dressed came to welcome his return; a most elegant supper was provided; in short, I found the person, whom a little before I had sincerely pitied, to be in reality a most refined epicure; One who courted contempt abroad, in order to feel with keener gust the pleasure of pre-emi∣nence at home.

Adieu.