1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

Alexander Chalmers, in Works of the English Poets (1810) 16:479-87.



The materials for a life of Dr. Goldsmith are very copious, although, not perhaps uniformly authentic. His acquaintance was extensive, and his memory so much respected, that his friends have been eager to accumulate anecdotes of his many peculiarities; but of all the regular accounts, that prefixed to the genuine edition of his Prose and Poetical Works, in 4 vols. 8vo. published by the London booksellers in 1801, and again in 1807, seems entitled to preference. The greater part, it is now no secret, was contributed by Dr. Percy, the present bishop of Dromore, and what follows is a mere abridgment of that very curious and entertaining memoir.

Oliver Goldsmith was born on Nov. 9, 1728, at a place called Pallas, in the parish of Forney, and county of Longford, in Ireland. His father, the rev. Charles Goldsmith, a native of the county of Roscommon, was a clergyman of the established church, and had been educated at Dublin College. He afterwards held the living of Kilkenny West, in the county of Westmeath. By his wife, Anne, the daughter of the rev. Oliver Jones, master of the diocesan school of Elphin, he had five sons, and two daughters. His eldest son, Henry, went into the church, and is the gentleman to whom our poet dedicated his Traveller. Oliver was the second son, and is supposed to have faithfully represented his father in the character of the Village Preacher in the Deserted Village.

Oliver was originally intended for some mercantile employment, as his father found his income too scanty for the expenses of the literary education which he had bestowed on his eldest son. With this view he was instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic, at a common school, the master of which was an old soldier, of a romantic turn, who entertained his pupil with marvellous stories of his travels and feats, and is supposed to have imparted somewhat of that wandering and unsettled turn which so much appears in his future life. It is certain that Oliver had not been long in this humble school before he proved that he was "no vulgar boy." He made some attempts in poetry when he was scarcely eight years old, and by the irregularities of his temper and conduct, betrayed a disposition more favourable to the flights of genius than the regularity of business. This after some time became so obvious, that his friends, who had at first pleaded for his being sent to the university, now determined to contribute towards the expense, and by their assistance he was placed at a school of reputation where he might be qualified to enter the college with the advantages of preparatory learning.

In June 1744, when in his fifteenth year, he was sent to Dublin College, and entered as a sizer, under the rev. Mr. Wilder, one of the fellows, but a man of harsh temper and violent passions, and consequently extremely unfit to win the affections and guide the disposition of a youth, simple, ingenuous, thoughtless and unguarded. His pupil, however, made some progress, although slow, in academical studies. In 1747, he was elected one of the exhibitioners on the foundation of Erasmus Smyth; and in 1749, two years after the regular time, he was admitted to the degree of bachelor of arts. His indolence and irregularities may in part account for this tardy advancement to the reputation of a scholar, but much may likewise be attributed to the unfeeling neglect of his tutor, who contended only for the preservation of certain rules of discipline, while he gave himself little trouble with the cultivation of the mind. On one occasion he thought proper to chastise Oliver before a party of young friends of both sexes, whom, with his usual imprudence, he was entertaining with a supper and dance in his rooms. Oliver immediately disposed of his books and clothes, left college, and commenced a wanderer, without any prospect, without friends, and without money. At length, after suffering such extremity of hunger, that a handful of grey peas, which a girl gave him at a wake, appeared a luxurious meal, he contrived to acquaint his brother with his situation, who immediately clothed him and car. vied him back to college, effecting at the same time a reconciliation between him and his tutor, which it may be supposed was more convenient than cordial on either side.

Soon after this event, his father died, and his friends wished him to prepare for holy orders; but this he declared his dislike; and finding himself equally uncomfortable as tutor in a private family to which he had been recommended, he again left the country with about thirty pounds in his pocket. After an absence of six weeks, be returned to his mother's house without a penny, having expended the whole in a series of whimsical adventures, of which the reader will find a very entertaining account in the Life above-mentioned. His mother and friends being reconciled to him, his uncle the rev. Thomas Contarine, resolved to send him to the Temple to study law; but in his way to London, he met, at Dublin with a sharper who tempted him to play, and stript him of fifty pounds, with which he had been furnished for his voyage and journey. His youth must furnish the only apology that can be made for this insensibility to the kindness of his friends, who could ill afford the money thus wantonly lost. Again, however, they received him into favour, and it being now decided that he should study physic, he was sent to Edinburgh for that purpose.

This appears to have taken place about the year 1752 or 1753; but still his thoughtless and eccentric disposition remained, and betrayed him into many ludicrous situations. He formally indeed attended the lectures of the medical professors, but his studies were neither regular nor profound. There was always something he liked better than stated application. Among his fellow-students he wished to recommend himself, and he was not unsuccessful, by his stories and songs, as a social companion, and a man of humour; and this ambition to shine in company by such means never wholly left him when he came to associate with men who are not charmed by noisy vivacity.

After he had gone through the usual course of lectures, his uncle, who appears to have borne the principal expenses of his education, equipped him for the medical school of Leyden, at which, however, he did not arrive without meeting with some of those incidents which have given an air of romance to his history. At Leyden he studied chemistry and anatomy for about a year; but a taste for gaining, which he appears to have caught very early, frequently stript him of his money, and plunged him into difficulties, without any of the benefits of experience. Even the money which he was compelled to borrow in order to enable him to leave Holland, was expended on some costly flowers which he bought of a Dutch florist, as a present to his uncle; and when he set out on his travels he "had only one clean shirt, and no money in his pocket."

Any other man would have laid his account with starving; but Goldsmith had "a knack of hoping," and, however miserably provided, determined to make the tour of Europe on foot. In what manner he performed this singular undertaking, he is supposed to have informed us in "The history of a philosophic Vagabond," in chap. xx. of the Vicar of Wakefield. He had some knowledge of music, and charmed the peasants so much as to procure a lodging, and a subsistence. He also entered the foreign universities and convents, where upon certain days theses are maintained against any adventitious disputant, for which, if the champion opposes with some dexterity, he may claim a gratuity in money, a dinner, and a bed for the night. At one time, he is said to have accompanied a young Englishman as a tutor; but his biographer doubts whether this part of the Philosophic Vagabond's story was not a fiction. It is certain, however, that in the manner above related, and with some assistance from his uncle, he contrived to travel through Flanders, and part of France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. It was probably at Padua that he took a medical degree, as he remained here about six months; but one of his earliest biographers thinks he took the degree of bachelor of medicine at Louvain. His generous uncle dying while he was in Italy, he was obliged to travel through France to England on foot, and landed at Dover in 1766.

He arrived in London in the extremity of distress, and first tried to be admitted as an usher in a school or academy, and having with difficulty obtained that situation, he remained for some time in it, submitting to mortifications of which he has given probably an exaggerated account, in the story of the Philosophic Vagabond. He next procured a situation in the shop of a chemist, and, while here, was found out by Dr. Sleigh, one of his fellow students at Edinburgh, who liberally shared his purse with him, and encouraged him to commence practitioner. With this view, he settled, if any measure of our poet deserves that epithet, in Bankside, Southwark; and afterwards removed to the Temple, or its neighbourhood. In either place his success as a physician is not known; his own account was, that he had plenty of patients, but got no fees.

About this time, however, he appears to have had recourse to his pen. His first attempt was a tragedy, which he probably never finished. In 1758, he obtained by means of Dr. Milner, a dissenting minister, who kept a school at Peckham, which our author superintended during the doctor's illness, an appointment to be physician to one of our factories in India. In order to procure the necessary expences for the voyage, he issued proposals for printing by subscription, the Present State of Polite Literature in Europe, with what success we are not told, nor why he gave up his appointment in India. In the same year, however, he wrote what he very properly calls a catchpenny Life of Voltaire, and engaged with Mr. Griffiths as a critic in the Monthly Review. The terms of this engagement were his board, lodging, and a handsome salary, all secured by a written agreement. Goldsmith declared he usually wrote for his employer every day from nine o'clock till two. But at the end of seven or eight months it was dissolved by mutual consent, and our poet took lodgings in Green-Arbour-court, in the Old Bailey, amidst the dwellings of indigence, where he completed his Present State of Polite Literature, printed for Dodsley, 1759, 12mo.

He afterwards removed to more decent lodgings in Wine-Office-court, Fleet-street, where he wrote his admirable novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, attended with the affecting circumstance of his being under arrest. When the knowledge of his situation was communicated to Dr. Johnson, he disposed of his manuscript for sixty pounds, to Mr. Newberry, and procured his enlargement. Although the money was then paid, the book was not published until some time after, when his excellent poem, The Traveller, had established his fame. His connection with Mr. Newberry was a source of regular supply, as he employed him in compiling or revising many of his publications, particularly the Art of Poetry, 2 vols. 12mo. the Life of Beau Nash, and Letters on the History of England, 2 vols. 12mo. which have been attributed to lord Lyttelton, the earl of Orrery and other noblemen, but were really written by Dr. Goldsmith. He had before this been employed by Wilkie, the bookseller, in conducting a Lady's Magazine, and published with him, a volume of essays, entitled The Bee. To the Public Ledger, a newspaper, of which Kelly was at that time the editor, he contributed those letters which have since been published under the title of The Citizen of the World.

In 1765, he published The Traveller, which at once established his fame. The outline of this he formed when in Switzerland, and polished it with great care, before he submitted it to the public. It soon made him known and admired, but his roving disposition had not yet left him. He had for some time been musing on a design of penetrating into the internal parts of Asia, and investigating the remains of ancient grandeur, learning, and manners. When he was told of lord Bute's liberality to men of genius, he applied to that nobleman for a salary to enable him to execute his favourite plan, but his application was unnoticed, as his name had not then been made known by his Traveller; this poem, however, having procured him the unsolicited friendship of lord Nugent, afterwards earl of Clare, he obtained an introduction to the earl of Northumberland, then lord lieutenant of Ireland, who invited our poet to an interview. Goldsmith prepared a complimentary address for his excellency, which, by mistake, he delivered to the groom of the chambers, and when the lord lieutenant appeared, was so confused that he came away without being able to explain the object of his wishes. Sir John Hawkins relates that when the lord lieutenant said he should be glad to do him any kindness, Goldsmith answered that he had a brother in Ireland, a clergyman, that stood in need of help: "as for himself, he had no dependence on the promises of great men: he looked to the booksellers: they were his best friends, and he was not inclined to forsake them for others." This was very characteristic of Goldsmith, who, as sir John Hawkins adds, was "an ideot in the affairs of the world;" but yet his affectionate remembrance of his brother on such an occasion merits a less harsh epithet. Goldsmith was grateful for the kindness he had received from this brother, and nothing probably would have given him greater pleasure than if he had succeeded in transferring the earl's patronage to him. From this time, however, although he sometimes talked about it, he appears to have relinquished the project of going to Asia. "Of all men," says Dr. Johnson, "Goldsmith is the most unfit to go out upon such an inquiry; for he is utterly ignorant of such arts as we already possess, and consequently could not know what would be accessions to our present stock of mechanical knowledge. He would bring home a grinding-barrow, and think that he had furnished a wonderful improvement."

In 1764, Goldsmith fixed his abode in the Temple, where he ever afterwards resided, first in the library staircase, afterwards in the King's Bench Walks, and ultimately at No. 2 in Brick-court, where he had chambers on the first floor elegantly furnished, and where he was visited by literary friends of the most distinguished merit. When Dr. Johnson's literary club was founded, he was one of the first members, and his associates were those whose conversations have given such interest to Boswell's Life of Johnson.

Having now acquired considerable fame as a critic, a novelist, and a descriptive poet, he was induced to court the dramatic Muse. His first attempt was the comedy of the Good-Natured Man, which Garrick, after much delay, declined; and it was produced at Covent Garden theatre, in 1768, where it kept possession of the stage for nine nights, but did not obtain the applause which his friends thought it merited. Between this period and the appearance of his next celebrated poem, he compiled the Roman History in 2 vols. 8vo. and afterwards an abridgement of it, and the History of England in 4 vols. 8vo. both elegantly written, and highly calculated to attract and interest young readers; although it must be owned, he is frequently superficial and inaccurate. His pen was also occasionally employed in introductions and prefaces to books compiled by other persons: as Guthrie's History of the World, and Dr. Brooks's System of Natural History. In this last preface, he so far excelled his author in the graces of a captivating style, that the booksellers engaged him to write a History of the Earth and Animated Nature, which he executed with much elegance, but with no very deep knowledge of the subject. He also drew up a life of Dr. Parnell, prefixed to an edition of his poems, which afforded Dr. Johnson an opportunity of paying an affectionate tribute to his memory, when he came to write the life of Parnell for the English poets. He wrote also a life of Bolingbroke, originally prefixed to the Dissertation on Parties, and afterwards to Bolingbroke's works. In one of his compilations he was peculiarly unfortunate. Being desired by Griffin, the bookseller, to make a selection of elegant poems from our best English classics, for the use of boarding schools, he carelessly marked for the printer one of the most indecent tales of Prior. His biographer adds, "without reading it;" but this was not the case, as he introduces it with a criticism. These various publications have not been noticed in their regular order, but as their dates are not connected with any particulars in our author's history, this will appear a matter of little consequence.

In 1769, he produced his admirable poem The Deserted Village, which he touched and retouched with the greatest care before publication. How much it added to his reputation it is unnecessary to mention. No poem since the days of Pope has been so repeatedly read, admired, and quoted.

At the establishment of the Royal Academy of Painting in 1779, his friend sir Joshua Reynolds procured for him the appointment of professor of ancient history, a complimentary distinction attended neither with emolument nor trouble, but which entitled him to a seat at some of the meetings of the society. His situation in life was now comfortable at least, and might have been independent had he mixed a little prudence with his general conduct; but it is much to his honour that his errours were almost always on the right side. He was kind and benevolent, wherever he had it in his power, and although frequently duped by artful men, his heart was never hardened against the application of the unhappy. And such was the celebrity of his writings, that he was even looked up to as a patron and promoter of schemes of public utility. His biographer has published a very curious letter from the notorious Thomas Paine, in which he solicits Goldsmith's interest in procuring as, addition to the pay of excisemen.

In the month of March 1773, his second comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, was presented at Covent Garden, and received with the highest applause, contrary to the opinion of the manager, Mr. Colman. It is founded on an incident which, his biographer informs us, happened to the author in his younger days, when he mistook a gentleman's house for an inn. In the same year, he appeared before the public in a different character. A scurrilous letter, probably written by Kenrick, was inserted in the London Packet, a paper then published by the late Mr. Thomas Evans, bookseller in Paternoster Row. Goldsmith resented no part of the abuse but that which reflected on a young lady of his acquaintance. Accompanied by one of his countrymen, he waited on Mr. Evans, and stated the nature of his complaint. — Mr. Evans, who had no concern in the paper but as publisher, went to examine the file, and while stooping for it, Goldsmith was advised by his friend to take that opportunity of caning him, which he immediately began to do: but Evans, a stout and high-blooded Welshman, returned the blow with so much advantage, that Goldsmith's friend fled, and left him in a shocking plight. Dr. Kenrick, who was then in the house, came forwards, and affecting great compassion for Goldsmith, conducted him home in a coach. This foolish quarrel afforded considerable sport for the newspapers before it was finally made up.

One of his last publications was the History of the Earth and Animated Nature, before mentioned, in 8 volumes octavo, for which he received the sum of 85O, and during the time he was engaged in this undertaking, he had received the copy money for his comedy, and the profits of his third nights; but his biographer informs us, "he was so liberal in his donations, and profuse in his disbursements, he was unfortunately so attached to the pernicious practice of gaming; and from his unsettled habits of life, his supplies being precarious and uncertain, he had been so little accustomed to regulate his expenses by any system of economy, that his debts far exceeded his resources; and he was obliged to take up money in advance from the managers of the two theatres, for comedies which he engaged to furnish to each; and from the booksellers, for publications which he was to finish for the press. All these engagements he fully intended, and doubtless would have been able to fulfil with the strictest honour, as he had done on former occasions in similar exigences; but his premature death unhappily prevented the execution of his plans, and gave occasion to malignity to impute these failures to deliberate intention, which were merely the result of inevitable mortality."

Some time before his death, although they were not printed until after that event, he wrote his poems, The Haunch of Venison, Retaliation, and some of the smaller pieces admitted into his works. But the chief project he had at heart was an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, in the execution of which it is said he had engaged all his literary friends and the members of the literary club, but this was prevented by his death, which is thus related by his biographer:

"He was subject to severe fits of the strangury, owing probably to the intemperate manner in which he confined himself to the desk, when he was employed in his compilations, often indeed for several weeks successively without taking exercise. On such occasions he usually hired lodgings in some farm-house a few miles from London, and wrote without cessation till he had finished his task. He then carried his copy to the bookseller, received his compensation, and gave himself up perhaps for months without interruption, to the gaieties, amusements, and societies of London.

"And here it may be observed, once for all, that his elegant and enchanting style in prose flowed from him with such facility, that in whole quires of his histories, Animated Nature, &c. he had seldom occasion to correct or alter a single word; but in his verses, especially his two great ethic poems, nothing could exceed the patient and incessant revisal which he bestowed upon them. To save himself the trouble of transcription, he wrote the lines in his first copy very wide, and would so fill up the intermediate space with reiterated corrections, that scarcely a word of his first effusions was left unaltered.

"In the spring of 1774, being embarrassed in his circumstances, and attacked with his usual malady, his indisposition, aggravated too by mental distress, terminated in a fever, which on the 25th of March had become exceedingly violent, when he called in medical assistance. Although he had then taken ipecacuanha to promote a vomit, he would proceed to the use of James's fever powder, contrary to the advice of the medical gentlemen who attended him. From the application of these powders he had received the greatest benefit in a similar attack nearly two years before, but then they were administered by Dr. James himself in person. This happened in September 1772, but now the progress of the disease was as unfavourable as possible; for from the time above mentioned every symptom became more and more alarming, till Monday, April 4th, when he died, aged forty-five."

His remains were privately interred in the Temple burial-ground, on Saturday, April 9th; but afterwards, by a subscription raised among his friends, and chiefly by his brethren of the club, a marble monument was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, with an inscription by Dr. Johnson, the history of which the reader may find in Boswell's Life, where are likewise many curious traits of our poet's variegated character.

"He was," adds his biographer, "generous in the extreme, and so strongly affected by compassion, that he has been known at midnight to abandon his rest, in order to procure relief and an asylum for a poor dying object who was left destitute in the streets. Nor was there ever a mind whose general feelings were more benevolent and friendly. He is however supposed to have been often soured by jealousy or envy, and many little instances are mentioned of this tendency in his character: but whatever appeared of this kind was a mere momentary sensation, which he knew not how like other men to conceal: it was never the result of principle, or the suggestion of reflection: it never embittered his heart, nor influenced his conduct. Nothing could be more amiable than the general features of his mind: those of his person were not perhaps so engaging.

"His stature was under the middle size, his body strongly built, and his limbs more sturdy than elegant; his complexion was pale, his forehead low, his face almost round and pitted with the small-pox, but marked with strong lines of thinking. His first appearance was not captivating: but when he grew easy and cheerful in company, he relaxed into such a display of good-humour as soon removed every unfavourable impression.

"Yet it must he acknowledged that in company he did not appear to so much advantage as might have been expected from his genius and talents. He was too apt to speak without reflection, and without a sufficient knowledge of the subject: which made Johnson observe of him, "No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had." Indeed with all his defects, (to conclude nearly in the words of that great critic) "as a writer he was of the most distinguished abilities. Whatever he composed he did it better than any other man could. And whether we consider him as a poet, as a comic writer, or as an historian (so far as regards his powers of composition), he was one of the first writers of his time, and will ever stand in the foremost class."

Although this character may be thought in some respects exaggerated, it cannot be denied that the indelible stamp of genius rests on his Vicar of Wakefield; and on his poems, The Traveller, Deserted Village, and Edwin and Augelina. In description, pathos, and even sublimity, he has not been exceeded by any of the poets of his age, except that in the latter quality he must yield to Gray. But it is unnecessary to enter into a minute examination of poems whose popularity for so many years has known no abatement. Those who wish to ascertain his precise rank among English poets will find many valuable remarks in an Essay on the poetry of Goldsmith, by Dr. Aikin, prefixed to a beautiful edition of his poems published in 1804; and in a Critical Life of Dr. Goldsmith, by Mr. Egerton Brydges, in the fifth volume of his Censura Literaria.

The present edition of his poems is copied from the octavo principally, with the addition of the Threnodia Augustalis, a piece which has hitherto escaped the researches of his editors. It is now printed from a copy given by the author to his friend Joseph Cradock, esq. of Gumley, author of Zobeide, &c. and obligingly lent to me by Mr. Nichols, if it adds little to his fame, it exhibits a curious instance of the facility with which he gratified his employers on a very short notice.