1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:81-86.



OLIVER GOLDSMITH, son of the Reverend Charles Goldsmith, was born at Elphin, in the county of Roscommon in Ireland, in the year 1729. His father had four sons, of whom Oliver was the third. After being well-instructed in the classics at the school of Mr. Hughes, he was admitted a sizer of Trinity college, Dublin, on the 11th of June, 1744.

While at college he exhibited no specimens of that genius which his maturer years displayed. On the 27th of February, 1749, two years after the regular time, he obtained the degree of B.A. Soon after, he turned his thoughts to the profession of physic; and, after attending some courses of anatomy in Dublin, proceeded to Edinburgh, in the year 1751, where he studied the several branches of medicine under the different professors in that university. His beneficent disposition soon involved him in unexpected difficulties; and he was obliged precipitately to leave Scotland, in consequence of having engaged to pay a considerable sum of money for a fellow-student. A few days after, about the beginning of the year 1754, he arrived at Sunderland near Newcastle, where he was arrested at the suit of one Barclay, a tailor in Edinburgh, to whom he had given security for his friend. By the friendship of Mr. Laughlin Maclane and Dr. Sleigh, he was soon delivered out of the hands of the bailiff, and took his passage on board a Dutch ship to Rotterdam, whence, after a short stay, be proceeded to Brussels. He then visited great part of Flanders, and after passing some time at Strasburg and Louvain, where he obtained the degree of bachelor in physic, he accompanied an English gentleman to Geneva. Goldsmith made the greater part of his continental tour on foot. He had left England with very little money; but, possessing a body capable of sustaining any fatigue, and a heart not easily terrified by danger, he became an enthusiast to the design he had formed of seeing the manners of different countries. He had some knowledge of the French language, and of music, and he played tolerably well on the German flute, which, from amusement, became at times to him the means of subsistence. His learning produced him a hospitable reception at most of the religious houses that he visited, and his music made him welcome to the peasants of Flanders and Germany. "Whenever I approached a peasant's house towards nightfall," he used to say, "I played one of my most merry tunes, and that generally procured me not only a lodging, but subsistence for the next day; but, in truth" — his constant expression — "I must own, whenever I attempted to entertain persons of a higher rank, they always thought my performance odious, and never made me any return for my endeavour to please them."

On his arrival at Geneva, he was recommended as a proper person for a travelling tutor to a young man who had been unexpectedly left a considerable sum of money by his uncle. This youth, who was articled to an attorney, on receipt of his fortune determined to see the world; and, on his engaging with his preceptor, made a proviso that he should be permitted to govern himself; but our traveller soon found that his pupil understood the art of directing in money concerns extremely well, as avarice was his prevailing passion. During Goldsmith's continuance in Switzerland he assiduously cultivated his poetical talents, of the possession of which he had given some striking proofs at the college of Edinburgh. It was from hence he sent the first sketch of his delightful epistle called the Traveller, to his brother Henry, a clergyman in Ireland, who, giving up fame and fortune, had retired with an amiable wife to happiness and obscurity, on an income of only 40 a year. The great affection Goldsmith bore for his brother is beautifully expressed in the poem above-mentioned, and gives a striking picture of his situation:

Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow,
Or by the lazy Scheldt, or wandering Po;
Or onward, where the rude Carinthian boor,
Against the houseless stranger shuts the door;
Or where Campania's plain forsaken lies,
A weary waste expanding to the skies;
Where'er I roam, whatever realms I see,
My heart untravel'd fondly turns to thee:
Still to my brother turns, with ceaseless pain,
And drags at each remove a length'ning chain.
Eternal blessings crown my earliest friend,
And round his dwelling guardian saints attend!
Blest be that spot, where cheerful guests retire
To pause from toil, and trim their evening fire;
Blest that abode, where want and pain repair,
And every stranger finds a ready chair;
Blest be those feasts with simple plenty crown'd,
Where all the ruddy family around,
Laugh at the jest or pranks that never fail,
Or sigh with pity at some mournful tale;
O, press the bashful stranger to his food,
And learn the luxury of doing good!

From Geneva, Goldsmith and his pupil proceeded to the south of France, where the young man, upon some disagreement with his preceptor, paid him the small part of his salary which was due, and embarked at Marseilles for England. Our wanderer was now left once more upon the world, and encountered a number of hardships in traversing the greater part of France. At length his curiosity being gratified, he bent his course towards England, and arrived at Dover in the beginning of the winter of 1758.

His finances were so low on his return to England, that he with difficulty got to the metropolis. On entering London, his whole stock of cash amounted to no more than a few halfpence! He applied to several apothecaries in hopes of being received in the capacity of a journeyman, but his broad Irish accent, and the uncouthness of his appearance, occasioned him to meet with insult from most of the medical profession. The next day, however, a chemist near Fish-street, struck with his forlorn condition, and the simplicity of his manner, took him into his laboratory, where he continued till he discovered that his old friend, Dr. Sleigh, was in London. That gentleman received him with the warmest affection, and liberally invited him to share his purse till some employment could be procured for him. Goldsmith, unwilling to be a burden to his friend, a short time after eagerly embraced an offer which was made him to assist Dr. Milner in his academy at Peckham. He acquitted himself greatly to the doctor's satisfaction for a time; but having obtained some reputation by the criticisms he had written in the Monthly Review, Mr. Griffeth, the principal proprietor, engaged him in the compilation of it; and, resolving to pursue the profession of writing, he returned to London as the mart where abilities of every kind were sure of meeting distinction and reward. At the close of the year 1759, he took lodgings in Green-arbour court in the Old Bailey, where he wrote several ingenious pieces. Newborn, at that time the great patron of men of literary abilities, took a fancy to our young author, and introduced him to the proprietors of the Public Ledger, in which his Citizen of the World originally appeared, under the title of Chinese Letters. During this time he wrote for the British Magazine — of which Dr. Smollett was then editor — most of those essays and tales which he afterwards collected and published in a separate volume. He also wrote occasionally for the Critical Review. It was the merit which he discovered in criticising a despicable translation of Ovid's Fasti by a pedantic schoolmaster, and his Enquiry into the Present State of Learning in Europe, which first introduced him to the acquaintance of Dr. Smollett.

Fortune now seemed to take some notice of a man she had long neglected. The simplicity of his character, the integrity of his heart, and the merit of his productions, made his company acceptable to a number of respectable persons; and, about the middle of the year 1762, he emerged from his mean apartments near the Old Bailey to the politer air of the Temple, where he took handsome lodgings and lived in a genteel style. The publication of his Traveller, his Vicar of Wakefield, and his History of England, was followed by the performance of his comedy of The Good-natured Man, at Covent-garden theatre. Our doctor, as he was universally called, had now a constant levee of his distressed countrymen gathered around him, whose wants, as far as he was able, he always relieved: he has often been known to leave himself without a guinea, in order to supply the necessities of others. Previous to the publication of his Deserted Village, the bookseller had given him a note for one hundred guineas for the copy. The doctor mentioned this a few hours after to one of his friends, who observed it was a very great sum for so short a performance. "In truth," replied Goldsmith, "I think so too; it is much more than the honest man can afford, or the piece is worth. I have not been easy since I received it; I will therefore go back and return him his note." This he actually did, and left it entirely to the bookseller to pay him according to the profits of the poem, which turned out very considerable. The doctor, however, did not reap a profit from his poetical labours equal to those of his prose. The earl of Lisburne one day at a dinner of the royal academicians, lamented his neglecting the muses, and inquired of him why he forsook poetry, in which he was sure of charming his readers, to compile histories and write novels? Goldsmith replied: "My lord, by courting the muses I shall starve; but, by my other labours, I eat, drink, have good clothes, and enjoy the luxuries of life."

During the last rehearsal of his comedy, entitled She Stoops to Conquer — which Mr. Colman thought would not succeed — on Goldsmith's objecting to the repetition of one of Tony Lumpkin's speeches, being apprehensive it might injure the play, the manager, with great keenness, replied: "Psha, my dear doctor, do not be fearful of squibs, when we have been sitting almost these two hours on a barrel of gunpowder!" The piece, however, contrary to Colman's expectation, was received with uncommon applause by the audience; and Goldsmith's pride was so hurt by the severity of the observation, that it entirely put an end to his acquaintance with the party who made it.

Notwithstanding the great success of his pieces — by some of which, it is asserted, upon good authority, that he cleared 1800 in one year — his circumstances were by no means in a prosperous situation, which might be partly owing to the liberality of his disposition, and partly to an unfortunate habit which he had contracted of gaming, with the arts of which he was very little acquainted, and consequently easily became the prey of those who were unprincipled enough to take advantage of his ignorance. Just before his death he had formed the design of executing a universal dictionary of arts and sciences, the prospectus of which he actually printed and distributed among his acquaintance. In this work several of his literary friends — particularly Sir Joshua Reynolds, Johnson, and Garrick — had promised to assist, and to furnish him with articles upon different subjects. He entertained the most sanguine expectations from the success of it. The undertaking, however, did not meet with that encouragement from the booksellers which he had imagined it would undoubtedly receive; and he used to lament this circumstance almost to the last hour of his existence. He had been for some years afflicted, at different times, with a violent strangury, which contributed not a little to imbitter the latter part of his life, and which, united with the vexations he suffered upon other occasions, brought on a kind of habitual despondency. In this unhappy condition he was attacked by a nervous fever, which terminated in his dissolution, on the 4th day of April, 1774, in the forty-fifth year of his age.

His friends, who were very numerous and respectable, had determined to bury him in Westminster abbey; his pall was to have been supported by Lord Shelburne, Lord Louth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Hon. Mr. Beauclerc, Mr. Edmund Burke, and Mr. Garrick; but from some unaccountable circumstances this design was dropped, and his remains were privately deposited in the Temple burial ground.

Goldsmith's character is strongly illustrated by Pope in one line: "In wit a man, simplicity a child." The learned leisure he loved to enjoy was too often interrupted by distresses which arose from the openness of his temper, and which sometimes threw him into loud fits of passion; but this impetuosity was corrected upon a moment's reflection, and his servants have been known upon these occasions purposely to throw themselves in his way, that they might profit by it immediately after; for he who had the good fortune to have been reproved was sure of being rewarded for it when the fit of penitence came on. His disappointments at other times made him peevish and sullen, and he had often left a party of convivial friends abruptly in the evening, in order to go home and brood over his misfortunes. As a poet, he was a studious and correct observer of nature, happy in the selections of his images, in the choice of his subjects, and in the harmony of his versification; and, though his embarrassed situation often prevented him from putting the last hand to many of his productions, his Hermit, his Traveller, and his Deserted Village, bid fair to claim a place among the most finished pieces in the English language. The last work of this ingenious author was A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, in eight vols. 8vo, for which production his bookseller paid him 850. The doctor seems to have considered alternatively the works of several authors who have wrote on this subject. If there should not be a great deal of discovery or new matter, yet a judicious selection from abundant materials is no small praise; and if the experiments and discoveries of other writers are laid open in an agreeable dress, so pleasing as to allure the young reader into a pursuit of this sort of knowledge, we owe no small obligations to the writer. Our author professes to have had a taste rather classical than scientific, and it was in the study of the classics that he first caught the desire of attaining a knowledge of nature. Pliny first inspired him, and he resolved to translate that agreeable writer, and by the help of a commentary to make his translation acceptable to the public. The appearance of Buffon's work, however, induced the doctor to change his plan, and instead of translating an ancient writer, he resolved to imitate the last and best of the modern, who had written on natural history. The result was one of the most popular if not most scientific works on this branch of science.

Boswell, in his life of Johnson, has given us a vivid sketch of Goldsmith: "No man," says he, "had the art of displaying with more advantage as a writer whatever literary acquisitions he made. 'Nihil quod tetigit non ornavit.' His mind resembled a fertile but thin soil. There was a quick, but not a strong vegetation, of whatever chanced to be thrown upon it. No deep root could be struck. The oak of the forest did not grow there; but the elegant shrubbery and the fragrant parterre appeared in gay succession. It has been generally circulated and believed that he was a mere fool in conversation; but in truth, this has been greatly exaggerated. He had, no doubt, a more than common share of that hurry of ideas which we often find in his countrymen, and which sometimes produces a laughable confusion in expressing them. He was very much what the French call un etourdi, and from vanity and an eager desire of being conspicuous wherever he was, he frequently talked carelessly, without knowledge of the subject, or even without thought. His person was short, his countenance coarse and vulgar, his deportment that of a scholar awkwardly affecting the easy gentleman. Those who were in any way distinguished, excited envy in him to so ridiculous an excess, that the instances of it are hardly credible. When accompanying two beautiful young ladies with their mother on a tour in France, he was seriously angry that more attention was paid to them than to him; and once at the exhibition of the Fantoccini in London, when those who sat next him observed with what dexterity a puppet was made to toss a pike, he could not bear that it should have such praise, and exclaimed, with some warmth, 'Pshaw! I can do it better myself.' He, I am afraid, had no settled system of any sort, so that his conduct must not be strictly scrutinized; but his affections were social and generous, and when he had money he gave it away very liberally. His desire of imaginary consequence predominated over his attention to truth. When he began to rise into notice, he said he had a brother who was dean of Durham, a fiction so easily detected that it was wonderful how he should have been so inconsiderate as to hazard it. He boasted to me at this time of the power of his pen in commanding money, which I believe was true in a certain degree, though in the instance he gave he was by no means correct. He told me that he had sold a novel for four hundred pounds. This was his Vicar of Wakefield. But Johnson informed me that he had made the bargain for Goldsmith, and the price was sixty pounds. 'And, Sir,' said he, 'a sufficient price too, when it was sold; for then the fame of Goldsmith had not been elevated, as it afterwards was, by his Traveller; and the bookseller had such faint hopes of profit by his bargain, that he kept the manuscript by him a long time, and did not publish it till after the Traveller had appeared. Then, to be sure, it was accidentally worth more money.'"