1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 4:127-31.



OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728-1774), whose writings range over every department of miscellaneous literature, challenges attention as a poet chiefly for the unaffected ease, grace, and tenderness of his descriptions of rural and domestic life, and for a certain vein of pensive philosophic reflection. His countryman Burke said of himself, that he had taken his ideas of liberty not too high, that they might last him through life. Goldsmith seems to have pitched his poetry in a subdued undertone, that he might luxuriate at will among those images of quiet beauty, comfort, benevolence, and simple pathos, which were most congenial to his own character, his hopes, or his experience. This popular poet was born at Pallas, a small village in the parish of Forney, county of Longford, Ireland, on the 10th of November 1728. He was the fourth of a family of seven children, and his father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, was a poor curate, who eked out time scanty funds which he derived from his profession, by renting and cultivating some land. The poet's father afterwards succeeded to the rectory of Kilkenny West, and removed to the house and farm of Lissoy, in his former parish. Here Goldsmith's youth was spent, and here he found the materials for his Deserted Village. Having been taught his letters by a maid-servant, Oliver was sent to the village-school, which was kept by an old soldier named Byrne, who had been a quarter-master in the wars of Queen Anne, and was fond of relating his adventures. Byrne had also a large store of Irish traditions, fairy tales, and ghost stories, which were eagerly listened to by his pupils, and are supposed to have had some effect in giving to Goldsmith that wandering unsettled disposition which marked him through life. A severe attack of small-pox, which left traces of its ravages on his face ever after, caused his removal from school. He was, however, placed at better seminaries of education, and in his seventeenth year was sent to Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar. The expense of his education was chiefly defrayed by his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarine, an excellent man, son to an Italian of the Contarini family at Venice, and a clergyman of the established church. At college the poet was thoughtless and irregular. His tutor was a man of fierce and brutal passions, and having struck him on one occasion before a party of friends, the poet left college, and wandered about the country for some time in the utmost poverty. His brother Henry clothed and carried him back to college, and on the 27th of February, 1749, he was admitted to the degree of B.A. Goldsmith now gladly left the university, and returned to Lissoy. His father was dead, hut he idled away two years among his relations. He afterwards became tutor in the family of a gentleman in Ireland, where he remained a year. His uncle then gave him 50 to study the law in Dublin, but he lost the whole in a gaming-house. A second contribution was raised, and the poet next proceeded to Edinburgh, where he continued a year and a half studying medicine. He then drew upon his uncle for 20, and embarked for Bordeaux. The vessel was driven into Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and whilst there, Goldsmith and his fellow-passengers were arrested and put into prison, where the poet was kept a fortnight. It appeared that his companions were Scotsmen in the French service, and had been in Scotland enlisting soldiers for the French army. Before he was released the ship sailed, and was wrecked at the mouth of the Garonne, the whole of the crew having perished. He embarked in a vessel bound for Rotterdam, and arriving there in nine days, travelled by land to Leyden. These particulars (which have a very apocryphal air) rest upon the authority of a letter written from Leyden by Goldsmith to his uncle, Contarine. At Leyden he appears to have remained, without making an effort for a degree, about a twelvemonth; and in February 1775, he set off on a continental tour, provided, it is said, with a guinea in his pocket, one shirt to file back, and a flute in his hand, he stopped some time at Louvain in Flanders, at Antwerp, and at Brussels. In France, he is said, like George Primrose in his Vicar of Wakefield, to have occasionally earned a night's lodging and food by playing on his flute.

How often have I led thy sportive choir,
With tuneless pipe beside the murmuring Loire!
Where shading elms along the margin grew,
And freshened from the wave the zephyr flew;
And haply, though my harsh touch, falt'ring still,
But mocked all time, and marred the dancer's skill,
Yet would the village praise my wondrous power,
And dance, forgetful of the noontide hour.
TRAVELLER.

Scenes of this kind formed an appropriate school for the poet. He brooded with delight over these pictures of humble happiness, and his imagination loved to invest them with the charms of poetry. Goldsmith afterwards visited Germany and the Rhine. From Switzerland he sent the first sketch of The Traveller to his brother. The loftier charms of nature in these Alpine scenes seem to have had no permanent effect on the character or direction of his genius. He visited Florence, Verona, Venice, and stopped at Padua some months, where he is supposed to have taken his medical degree. In 1756 the poet reached England, after one year of wandering, lonely, and in poverty, yet buoyed up by dreams of hope and fame. Many a hard struggle he had yet to encounter! He was some time assistant to a chemist in a shop at the corner of Monument Yard on Fish Street Hill. A college-friend, Dr. Sleigh, enabled him to commence practice as a humble physician in Bankside, Southwark, but this failed; and after serving for a short time as a render and corrector of the press to Richardson the novelist, he was engaged as usher in a school at Peckham, kept by Dr. Milner. At Milner's table he met Griffiths the bookseller, proprietor of the Monthly Review; and in April 1757, Goldsmith agreed to leave Dr. Milner's, to board and lodge with Griffiths, to have a small salary, and devote himself to the Review. Whatever he wrote is said to have been tampered with by Griffiths and his wife! In five months the engagement abruptly closed. For a short time he was again at Dr. Milner's as usher. In 1758 he presented himself at Surgeons' Hall for examination as an hospital mate, with the view of entering the army or navy; but he had the mortification of being rejected as unqualified. That he might appear before the examining surgeon suitably dressed, Goldsmith obtained a new suit of clothes, for which Griffiths became security. The clothes were immediately to be returned when the purpose was served, or the debt was to be discharged.

Poor Goldsmith, having failed in his object, and probably distressed by urgent want, "pawned the clothes." The publisher threatened, and the poet replied: "I know of no misery but a jail, to which my own imprudences and your letter seem to point. I have seen it inevitable these three or four weeks, and, by heavens! request it as a favour — as a favour that may prevent somewhat more fatal. I have been some years struggling with a wretched being — with all that contempt and indigence brings with it — with all those strong passions which make contempt insupportable. What, then, has a jail that is formidable!" Such was the almost hopeless condition, time deep despair, of this imprudent but amiable author, who has added to the delight of millions, and to the glory of English literature.

Henceforward the life of Goldsmith was that of a man of letters. He lived solely by his pen. Besides numerous contributions to the Monthly and Critical Reviews; the Lady's Magazine, the British Magazine, &c. he published anonymously an Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759), his admirable Chinese Letters (contributed to Newbery's Public Ledger, and for which he was paid a guinea each), afterwards published with the title of The Citizen of the World; a Life of Beau Nash, and a History of England (1762), in a series of letters from a nobleman to his son. The latter was highly successful, and was popularly attributed to Lord Lyttelton. In December 1764 appeared his poem of the Traveller, or Prospect of Society, the chief corner-stone of his fame, "without one bad line," as has been said; "without one of Dryden's careless verses." Charles Fox pronounced it one of the finest poems in the English language; and Dr. Johnson — then numbered among Goldsmith's friends — said that the merit of the Traveller was so well established, that Mr. Fox's praise could not augment it, nor his censure diminish it. The periodical critics were unanimous in its praise.

In 1766 appeared his exquisite novel, the Vicar of Wakefield, which had been written two years before, and sold to Newbery, the bookseller, to discharge a pressing debt. Goldsmith's landlady had called in a sheriff's officer to enforce payment of her bill. In this extremity he sent a messenger to Johnson, who forwarded a guinea, and followed himself shortly after. He found Goldsmith railing at the landlady over a bottle of Madeira (the guinea having been changed), and on his inquiring how money could be procured, the poor debtor produced the manuscript of his novel, which Johnson took to the bookseller and sold for 60. Yet Newbery did not venture to publish it until the Traveller had rendered the name of the author popular. Goldsmith's comedy of the Good-natured Man was produced in 1768, his Roman History next year, and the Deserted Village in 1770. The latter was as popular as the Traveller, and speedily ran through a number of editions. Goldsmith was now at the summit of his fame and popularity. The march had been long and toilsome, and he was often nearly fainting by the way; but his success was at length complete. His name stood among the foremost of his contemporaries: the booksellers courted him, and his works brought him in large sums. Difficulty and distress, however, still clung to him: poetry had found him poor at first, and kept him so. From heedless profusion and extravagance, chiefly in dress, and from a benevolence — which knew no limit while his funds lasted, Goldsmith was scarcely ever free from debt. The gaming-table also presented irresistible attractions. He hung loosely on society, without wife or domestic tie; and his early habits and experience were ill calculated to teach him strict conscientiousness or regularity. He continued to write task-work for the booksellers, and produced (1771) a History of England in four volumes.

In 1773 his comedy of She Stoops to Conquer was brought out at Covent Garden Theatre with immense applause. The same year appeared his History of Greece in two volumes, for which he was paid 20. He had contracted to write a History of Animated Nature in eight volumes, at the rate of a hundred guineas for each volume; but this work he did not live to complete, though the greater part was finished in his own attractive and easy manner. In March 1774, he was attacked by a painful complaint (strangury) caused by close study, which was succeeded by a nervous fever. Contrary to the advice of his apothecary, he persisted in the use of James's powders, a medicine to which he had often had recourse; and gradually getting worse, he expired in convulsions on the morning of the 4th of April. His last words were melancholy. "Your pulse," said his physician, "is in greater disorder than it should be from the degree of fever which you have: is your mind at ease?" "No, it is not," was the sad reply. The death of so popular an author, at the age of forty-six, was a shock equally to his friends and the public. The former knew his sterling worth, and loved him with all his foibles — his undisguised vanity, his national proneness to blundering, his thoughtless extravagance, his credulity, and his frequent absurdities. Under these ran a current of generous benevolence, of enlightened zeal for the happiness and improvement of mankind, and of manly independent feeling. He died 2000 in debt: "Was ever poet so trusted before!" exclaimed Johnson. His remains were interred in the Temple burying-ground, and a monument erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, next the grave of Gay, whom he somewhat resembled in character, and far surpassed in genius. The fame of Goldsmith has been constantly on the increase, and two copious lives of him have been produced — one by Prior, in 1837, and another, the Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith, by John Forster, in 1848, and since enlarged. The latter is a valuable and interesting work.