1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 522-26.



OLIVER GOLDSMITH was born at a place called Pallas, in the parish of Forney, and county of Longford, in Ireland. His father held the living of Kilkenny West, in the county of Westmeath. There was a tradition in the family, that they were descended from Juan Romeiro, a Spanish gentleman, who had settled in Ireland, in the sixteenth century, and had married a woman whose name of Goldsmith was adopted by their descendants. Oliver was instructed in reading and writing by Thomas Byrne, a schoolmaster in his father's parish, who had been a quarter-master in the wars of Queen Anne; and who, being fond of relating his adventures, is supposed to have communicated to the young mind of his pupil the romantic and wandering disposition which showed itself in his future years. He was next placed under the Rev. Mr. Griffin, schoolmaster of Elphin, and was received into the house of his father's brother, Mr. Goldsmith, of Ballyoughter. Some relations and friends of his uncle, who were met on a social party, happening to be struck with the sprightliness of Oliver's abilities, and knowing the narrow circumstances of his father, offered to join in defraying the expense of giving him a liberal education. The chief contributor was the Rev. Thomas Contarine, who had married our poet's aunt. He was accordingly sent, for some time, to the school of Athlone, and afterwards to an academy at Edgeworthstown, where he was fitted for the university. He was admitted a sizer or servitor of Trinity college, Dublin, in his sixteenth year, [11th June, 1745] a circumstance which denoted considerable proficiency; and three years afterwards was elected one of the exhibitioners on the foundation of Erasmus Smith. But though he occasionally distinguished himself by his translations from the classics, his general appearance at the university corresponded neither with the former promises, nor future development of his talents. He was, like Johnson, a lounger at the college-gate. He gained neither premiums nor a scholarship, and was not admitted to the degree of bachelor of arts till two years after the regular time. His backwardness, it would appear, was the effect of despair more than of wilful negligence. He had been placed under a savage tutor, named Theaker Wilder, who used to insult him at public examinations, and to treat his delinquencies with a ferocity that broke his spirit. On one occasion, poor Oliver was so imprudent as to invite a company of young people, of both sexes, to a dance and supper in his rooms; on receiving intelligence of which, Theaker grimly repaired to the place of revelry, belaboured him before his guests, and rudely broke up the assembly. The disgrace of this inhuman treatment drove him for a time from the university. He set out from Dublin, intending to sail from Cork for some other country, he knew not whither; but, after wandering about till he was reduced to such famine, that he thought a handful of gray peas, which a girl gave him at a wake, the sweetest repast he had ever tasted, he returned home, like the prodigal son, and matters were adjusted for his being received again at college.

About the time of his finally leaving the university his father died. His uncle Contarine, from whom he experienced the kindness of a father, wished him to have taken orders, and Oliver is said to have applied for them, but to have been rejected; though for what reason is not sufficiently known. He then accepted the situation of private tutor in a gentleman's family, and retained it long enough to save about 30, with which he bought a tolerable horse, and went forth upon his adventures. At the end of six weeks his friends, having heard nothing of him, concluded that he had left the kingdom, when he returned to his mother's house, without a penny, upon a poor little horse, which he called Fiddleback, and which was not worth more than twenty shillings. The account which he gave of himself was, that he had been at Cork, where he had sold his former horse, and paid his passage to America; but the ship happening to sail whilst he was viewing the curiosities of the city, he had just money enough left to purchase Fiddleback, and to reach the house of an old acquaintance on the road. This nominal friend, however, had received him very coldly; and, in order to evade his application for pecuniary relief, had advised him to sell his diminutive steed, and promised him another in its place, which should cost him nothing either for price or provender. To confirm this promise, he pulled out an oaken staff from beneath a bed. Just as this generous offer had been made, a neighbouring gentleman came in, and invited both the miser and Goldsmith to dine with him. Upon a short acquaintance, Oliver communicated his situation to the stranger, and was enabled, by his liberality, to proceed upon his journey. This was his story. His mother, it may be supposed, was looking rather gravely upon her prudent child, who had such adventures to relate, when he concluded them by saying, "and now, my dear mother, having struggled so hard to come home to you, I wonder that you are not more rejoiced to see me." Mr. Contarine next resolved to send him to the Temple; but on his way to London he was fleeced of all his money in gaming, and returned once more to his mother's house in disgrace and affliction. Again was his good uncle reconciled to him, and equipped him for Edinburgh, that he might pursue the study of medicine.

On his arrival at Edinburgh, in the autumn of 1752, he took lodgings, and sallied forth to take a view of the city; but, at a late hour, he recollected that he had omitted to inform himself of the name and address of his landlady; and would not have found his way back, if he had not fortunately met with the porter who had carried his luggage. After attending two winter courses of medical lectures at Edinburgh, he was permitted, by his uncle, to repair to Leyden, for the sake of finishing his studies, when his departure was accelerated by a debt, which he had contracted by becoming security for an acquaintance, and from the arrest attending which, he was only saved by the interference of a friend. If Leyden, however, was his object, he with the usual eccentricity of his motions, set out to reach it by way of Bordeaux, and embarked in a ship which was bound thither from Leith; but which was driven, by stress of weather, into Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His fellow-passengers were some Scotchmen, who had been employed in raising men in their own country for the service of the king of France. They were arrested, by orders from government, at Newcastle; and Goldsmith, who had been committed to prison with them, was not liberated till after a fortnight's confinement. By this accident, however, he was eventually saved from an early death. This vessel sailed during his imprisonment, and was wrecked at the mouth of the Garonne, where every soul on board perished.

On being released, he took shipping for Holland, and arrived at Leyden, where he continued about a twelvemonth, and studied chemistry and anatomy. At the end of that time, having exhausted his last farthing at the gaming-table, and expended the greater part of a supply, which a friend lent him, in purchasing some costly Dutch flower-roots, which he intended for a present to his uncle, he set out to make the tour of Europe on foot, unencumbered at least by the weight of his money. The manner in which he occasionally subsisted, during his travels, by playing his flute among the peasantry, and by disputing at the different universities, has been innumerable times repeated. In the last, and most authentic account of his life, the circumstance of his having ever been a travelling tutor is called in question. Assistance from his uncle must have reached him, as he remained for six months at Padua, after having traversed parts of Flanders, France, Germany, and Switzerland, in the last of which countries he wrote the first sketch of his Traveller.

His uncle having died while he was in Italy, he was obliged to travel on foot through France to England, and arrived in London in extreme distress. He was for a short time usher in an academy, and was afterwards found and relieved, by his old friend Dr. Sleigh, in the situation of journeyman to a chemist. By his friend's assistance he was enabled to take lodgings in the city, and endeavoured to establish himself in medical practice. In this attempt he was unsuccessful; but through the interest of Dr. Milner, a dissenting clergyman, he obtained the appointment of a physician to one of the factories in India; and, in order to defray the expense of getting thither, prepared to publish, by subscription, his Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Literature in Europe. For some unknown reason his appointment to India was dropped; and we find him, in April 1757, writing in Dr. Griffiths' Monthly Review, for a salary, and his board and lodging in the proprietor's house. Leaving this employment, he went into private lodgings, and finished his Enquiry into the State of Literature, which was published in 1759. The rest of his history from this period becomes chiefly that of his well-known works. His principal literary employments, previous to his raising himself into notice by his poetry, were conducting the Lady's Magazine, writing a volume of essays, called The Bee, Letters on English History, Letters of a Citizen of the World, and the Vicar of Wakefield. Boswell has related the affecting circumstances in which Dr. Johnson found poor Goldsmith in lodgings at Wine-office court, Fleetstreet, where he had finished the Vicar of Wakefield, immured by bailiffs from without, and threatened with expulsion by his landlady from within. The sale of the novel for 60 brought him present relief; and within a few years from that time, he emerged from his obscurity to the best society and literary distinction. But whatever change of public estimation he experienced, the man was not to be altered; and he continued to exhibit a personal character which was neither much reformed by experience, nor dignified by reputation. It is but too well known, that with all his original and refined faculties, he was often the butt of witlings, and the dupe of impostors. He threw away his money at the gaming-table, and might also be said to be a losing gambler in conversation, for he aimed in all societies at being brilliant and argumentative; but generally chose to dispute on the subjects which he least understood, and contrived to forfeit as much credit for common sense as could be got rid of in colloquial intercourse. After losing his appointment to India, he applied to Lord Bute for a salary, to be enabled to travel into the interior of Asia. The petition was neglected, because he was then unknown. The same boon, however, or some adequate provision, might have been obtained for him afterwards, when he was recommended to the Earl of Northumberland, at that time lord-lieutenant of Ireland. But when he waited on the earl, he threw away his prepared compliments on his lordship's steward, and then retrieved the mistake by telling the nobleman, for whom he had meditated a courtly speech, that he had no confidence in the patronage of the great, but would rather rely upon the booksellers. There must have been something, however, with all his peculiarities, still endearing in his personal character. Burke was known to recal his memory with tears of affection in his eyes. It cannot be believed that the better genius of his writings was always absent from his conversation. One may conceive graces of his spirit to have been drawn forth by Burke or Reynolds, which neither Johnson nor Garrick had the sensibility to appreciate.

For the last ten years of his life he lived in the Temple. He was one of the earliest members of the Literary Club. At the institution of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds procured for him the honorary appointment of professor of ancient history. Many tributes, both of envy and respect, were paid to his celebrity; among the latter, an address is preserved, which was sent to him as a public character, by the since celebrated Thomas Paine. Paine was at that time an officer of excise, and was the principal promoter of an application to parliament for increasing the salaries of excisemen. He had written a pamphlet on the subject which he sent to Goldsmith, and solicited an interview for the sake of interesting him farther in the scheme. In the year 1770 he visited France; but there is nothing in his correspondence to authenticate any interesting particulars of his journey.

The three important eras of his literary life were those of his appearance as a novelist, a poet, and a dramatic writer. The Vicar of Wakefield was finished in 1763; but was not printed till three years after, when his Traveller, in 1764, had established his fame. The ballad of Edwin and Angelina, came out in the following year; and in 1768 the appearance of his Good Natured Man made a bold and happy change in the reigning fashion of comedy, by substituting merriment for insipid sentiment. His Deserted Village appeared in 1770; and his second comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773. At intervals between those works he wrote his Roman and English Histories, besides biographies and introductions to books. These were all executed as tasks for the booksellers; but with a grace which no other man could give to task-work. His History of the Earth and Animated Nature was the last, and most amusing of these prose undertakings. In the mean time he had consumed more than the gains of all his labours by imprudent management, and had injured his health by occasional excesses of application. His debts amounted to 4000. "Was ever poet," said Dr. Johnson, "so trusted before?" To retrieve his finances, he contracted for new works to the booksellers, engaged to write comedies for both the theatres, and projected a Universal Dictionary of the Sciences. But his labours were terminated by a death not wholly unimputable to the imprudence which had pervaded his life. In a fever, induced by strangury and distress of wind, he made use of Dr. James's powders, under circumstances which he was warned would render them dangerous. The symptoms of his disease grew immediately more alarming, and he expired at the end of a few days, in his forty-sixth year.

Goldsmith's poetry enjoys a calm and steady popularity. It inspires us, indeed, with no admiration of daring design, or of fertile invention; but it presents, within its narrow limits, a distinct and unbroken view of poetical delightfulness. His descriptions and sentiments have the pure zest of nature. He is refined without false delicacy, and correct without insipidity. Perhaps there is an intellectual composure in his manner, which may, in some passages, be said to approach to the reserved and prosaic; but he unbends from this graver strain of reflection to tenderness, and even to playfulness, with an ease and grace almost exclusively his own; and connects extensive views of the happiness and interests of society, with pictures of life, that touch the heart by their familiarity. His language is certainly simple, though it is not cast in a rugged or careless mould. He is no disciple of the gaunt and famished school of simplicity. Deliberately as he wrote, he cannot be accused of wanting natural and idiomatic expression; but still it is select and refined expression. He uses the ornaments which must always distinguish true poetry from prose; and when he adopts colloquial plainness, it is with the utmost care and skill to avoid a vulgar humility. There is more of this sustained simplicity, of this chaste oeconomy and choice of words in Goldsmith, than in any modern poet, or perhaps than would be attainable or desirable as a standard for every writer of rhyme. In extensive narrative poems such a style would be too difficult. There is a noble propriety even in the careless strength of great poems. as in the roughness of castle walls; and, generally speaking, where there is a long course of story, or observation of life to be pursued, such exquisite touches as those of Goldsmith would be too costly materials for sustaining it. But let us not imagine that the serene graces of this poet were not admirably adapted to his subjects. His poetry is not that of impetuous, but of contemplative sensibility; of a spirit breathing its regrets and recollections, in a tone that has no dissonance with the calm of philosophical reflection.

He takes rather elevated speculative views of the causes of good and evil in society; at the same time the objects which are most endeared to his imagination are those of familiar and simple interest; and the domestic affections may be said to be the only genii of his romance. The tendency towards abstracted observation in his poetry agrees peculiarly with the compendious form of expression which he studied; whilst the homefelt joys, on which his fancy loved to repose, required at once the chastest and sweetest colours of language to make them harmonise with the dignity of a philosophical poem. His whole manner has a still depth of feeling and reflection, which gives back the image of nature unruffled and minutely. He has no redundant thoughts or false transports; but seems, on every occasion, to have weighed the impulse to which he surrendered himself. Whatever ardour or casual felicities he may have thus sacrificed, he gained a high degree of purity and self possession. His chaste pathos makes him an insinuating moralist, and throws a charm of Claude-like softness over his descriptions of homely objects that would seem only fit to be the subjects of Dutch painting. But his quiet enthusiasm leads the affections to humble things without a vulgar association; and he inspires us with a fondness to trace the simplest recollections of Auburn, till we count the furniture of its ale-house and listen to "The varnish'd clock that click'd behind the door." He betrays so little effort to make us visionary by the usual and palpable fictions of his art; he keeps apparently so close to realities, and draws certain conclusions, respecting the radical interests of man, so boldly and decidedly, that we pay him a compliment, not always extended to the tuneful tribe, that of judging his sentiments by their strict and logical interpretation. In thus judging him by the test of his philosophical spirit, I am not prepared to say that he is a purely impartial theorist. He advances general positions respecting the happiness of society, founded on limited views of truth, and under the bias of local feelings. He contemplates only one side of the question. It must be always thus in poetry. Let the mind be ever so tranquilly disposed to reflection, yet if it retains poetical sensation, it will embrace only those speculative opinions that fall in with the tone of the imagination. Yet I am not disposed to consider his principles as absurd, or his representations of life as the mere reveries of fancy.

In The Deserted Village he is an advocate for the agricultural, in preference to the commercial prosperity of a nation; and he pleads for the blessings of the simpler state, not with the vague predilection for the country which is common to poets, but with an earnestness that professes to challenge our soberest belief. Between Rousseau's celebrated letter on the influence of the sciences, and this popular poem, it will not be difficult to discover some resemblance of principles. They arrive at the same conclusions against luxury: the one from contemplating the ruins of a village, and the other from reviewing the downfall of empires. But the English poet is more moderate in his sentiments than the philosopher of Geneva; he neither stretches them to such obvious paradox, nor involves them in so many details of sophistry: nor does he blaspheme all philosophy and knowledge in pronouncing a malediction on luxury. Rousseau is the advocate of savageness, Goldsmith only of simplicity. Still, however, his theory is adverse to trade, and wealth, and arts. He delineates their evils, and disdains their vaunted benefits. This is certainly not philosophical neutrality; but a neutral balancing of arguments would have frozen the spirit of poetry. We must consider him as a pleader on that side of the question, which accorded with the predominant state of his heart; and, considered in that light, he is the poetical advocate of many truths. He revisits a spot consecrated by his earliest and tenderest recollections; he misses the bloomy flush of life, which had marked its once busy, but now depopulated scenes; he beholds the inroads of monopolising wealth, which had driven the peasant to emigration; and tracing the sources of the evil to "Trade's proud empire," which has so often proved a transient glory, and an enervating good, he laments the state of society, "where wealth accumulates and men decay." Undoubtedly, counter views of the subject might have presented themselves, both to the poet and philosopher. The imagination of either might have contemplated, in remote perspective, the replenishing of empires beyond the deep, and the diffusion of civilised existence, as eventual consolations of futurity, for the present sufferings of emigration. But those distant and cold calculations of optimism would have been wholly foreign to the tone and subject of the poem. It was meant to fix our patriotic sympathy on an innocent and suffering class of the community, to refresh our recollections of the simple joys, the sacred and strong local attachments, and all the manly virtues of rustic life. Of such virtues the very remembrance is by degrees obliterated in the breasts of a commercial people. It was meant to rebuke the luxurious and selfish spirit of opulence, which, imitating the pomp and solitude of feudal abodes, without their hospitality and protection, surrounded itself with monotonous pleasure grounds, which indignantly "spurned the cottage from the green."

On the subject of those mis-named improvements, by the way, in which

Along the lawn, where scatter'd hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,

the possessors themselves of those places have not been always destitute of compunctions similar to the sentiments of the poet. Mr. Potter, in his Observations on the Poor Laws, has recorded an instance of it. "When the late Earl of Leicester was complimented upon the completion of his great design at Holkham, he replied, 'It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one's country. I look round, not a house is to be seen but mine. I am the Giant of Giant Castle; and have eat up all my neighbours.'"

Although Goldsmith has not examined all the points and bearings of the question suggested by the changes in society which were passing before his eyes, he has strongly and affectingly pointed out the immediate evils with which those changes were pregnant. Nor while the picture of Auburn delights the fancy, does it make a useless appeal to our moral sentiments. It may be well sometimes that society, in the very pride and triumph of its improvement, should be taught to pause and look back upon its former steps: to count the virtues that have been lost, or the victims that have been sacrificed by its changes. Whatever may be the calculations of the political economist as to ultimate effects, the circumstance of agricultural wealth being thrown into large masses, and of the small farmer exiled from his scanty domain, foreboded a baneful influence on the independent character of the peasantry, which it is by no means clear that subsequent events have proved to be either slight or imaginary.

Pleasing as Goldsmith is, it is impossible to ascribe variety to his poetical character; and Dr. Johnson has justly remarked something of an echoing resemblance of tone and sentiment between The Traveller and Deserted Village. But the latter is certainly an improvement on its predecessor. The field of contemplation in The Traveller is rather desultory. The other poem has an endearing locality, and introduces us to beings with whom the imagination contracts an intimate friendship. Fiction in poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanted resemblance; and this ideal beauty of nature has been seldom united with so much sober fidelity as in the groups and scenery of The Deserted Village.