1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 674.



OLIVER GOLDSMITH, an eminent poet, and a miscellaneous writer, was born in 1729, according to one account, at Elphin; according to another, at Pallas, in the county of Longford, Ireland. From his father, who was a clergyman, he received a literary education, and was sent at an early period to Dublin College. Thence he was removed as a medical student to the University of Edinburgh, where he continued from 1751 to the beginning of 1754. From the slight tincture of science which he seems to have acquired, it is probable that he paid little attention to the studies of the place; and his necessity for quitting Edinburgh to avoid paying a debt, said to have been contracted by a fellow-student, augurs but little for his moral character. With these unfavourable beginnings, in the midst of penury, he resolved to indulge his curiosity in a visit to the continent of Europe; and after a long ramble, and various fortune, he found means to get back to England in 1758. For a considerable time he supported himself by his pen, in an obscure situation, when, in 1765, he suddenly blazed out as a poet, in his Traveller; or, A Prospect of Society. It was at the instigation of Dr. Johnson that he enlarged this piece, and finished it for publication; and that eminent critic liberally and justly said of it, that "there had not been so fine a poem since Pope's time." It was equally well received by the public; and conferred upon Goldsmith a celebrity which introduced him to some of the most distinguished literary characters of the time.

The poet continued to pursue his career, and in 1766 was published his novel of the Vicar of Wakefield, which was received with deserved applause, and has ever since borne a distinguished rank among similar compositions. Some of his most pleasing and successful works in prose were given to the world about this time; and he paid his respects to the Theatre, by a comedy entitled The Good-Natured Man, acted at Covent-Garden in 1768, which, however, defects of plot, and ignorance of dramatic effect, rendered not very successful. His poetical fame reached its summit in 1770, by the publication of The Deserted Village, a delightful piece, which obtained general admiration. The price offered by the bookseller, amounting to nearly five shillings a couplet, appeared to Goldsmith so enormous, that he at first refused to take it, but the sale of the poem convinced him that he might fairly appropriate to himself that sum out of the profits. In 1772 he produced another comedy, entitled She Stoops to Conquer; or, The Mistakes of a Night; and though in character and plot it made a near approach to farce, yet such were its comic powers that the audience received it with uncommon favour. Although this was gainful year to him, yet thoughtless profusion, and a habit of gaming, left him at its close considerably in debt. In the two succeeding years he supplied the booksellers with a Grecian History, and A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, the last chiefly taken from Buffon. He had planned some other works, but these were cut off by his untimely death. In March 1774 he was attack with the symptoms of a low fever; and having taken, upon his own judgment, an overdose of a powerful medicine, he sunk under the disease, or the remedy, and died on the tenth day, April 4th. He was buried, with little attendance, in the Temple Church; but a monument has since been raised to his memory, with a Latin inscription by Dr. Johnson.

Goldsmith was a man of little correctness either in his conduct or his opinions, and is rather admired for his genius, and beloved for his benevolence, than solidly esteemed. The best part of his character was a warmth of sensibility, which made him ready to share his purse with the indigent, and in his writings rendered him the constant advocate of the poor and oppressed. The worst feature was a malignant envy and jealousy of successful rivals, which he often displayed in a manner not less ridiculous than offensive. He was one of those who are happier in the use of the pen than the tongue; his conversation being generally confused, and not seldom absurd; so that the wits with whom he kept company seem rather to have made him their butt, than to have listened to him as an equal. Yet, perhaps, no writer of his time was possessed of more true humour, or was capable of more poignancy in marking the foibles of individuals. This talent he has displayed in a very amusing manner in his unfinished poem of Retaliation, written as a kind of retort to the jocular attacks made upon him in the Literary Club. Under the mask of Epitaphs, he has given masterly sketches of some of the principal members, with a mixture of serious praise and good-humoured raillery. It may indeed be said that the latter sometimes verges into tartness, which is particularly the case with his delineation of Garrick.

On the whole, his literary fame must be considered as rising the highest in the character of a poet, for it would be difficult, in the compass of English verse, to find pieces which are read with more gratification than his Traveller and his Deserted Village. There are, besides, his elegant ballad of The Hermit, his stanzas on Woman, and some short humorous and miscellaneous pieces, which are never without interest.