1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:58-61.



OLIVER GOLDSMITH, 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 under tone, that he might luxuriate at will among those images of quiet beauty, comfort, benevolence, and simple pathos, that 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 sixth of a family of nine children, and his father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, was a poor curate, who eked out the 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." After a good country education, Oliver was admitted a sizer of Trinity college, Dublin, June 11, 1745. The expense of his education was chiefly defrayed by his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarini, 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, and always in want. 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, but 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. Having overcome this most innocent of all his misfortunes, he is represented as having immediately proceeded to Leyden; but this part of his biography has lately got a new turn from the inquiries of a gentleman whose book is quoted below, according to which it would appear to have been now, instead of four years later, that Goldsmith acted as usher of Dr Milner's school at Peckham, in the neighbourhood of London [author's note: Collections Illustrative of the Geology, History, Antiquities, and Associations of Camberwell. By Douglas Allport. Camberwell: 1841]. The tradition of the school is, that he was extremely good-natured and playful, and advanced his pupils more by conversation than by book-tasks. On the supposition of this being the true account of Goldsmith's 25th year, we may presume that he next went to Leyden, and there made the resolution to travel over the Continent in spite of all pecuniary deficiencies. 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, faltering still,
But mocked all tune, 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 primitive 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 seems 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 two years of wandering, lonely, and in poverty, yet buoyed up by dreams of hope and fame. Many a hard struggle he bad yet to encounter! His biographers represent him as now becoming usher at Dr Milner's school, a portion of his history which we have seen reason to place at an earlier period. However this may be, he is soon after found contributing to the Monthly Review. He was also some time assistant to a chemist. A college friend, Dr Sleigh, enabled him to commence practice as a humble physician Bankside, Southwark; but his chief support arose from contributions to the periodical literature of the day. 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, publisher of the Monthly Review, became security. The clothes were immediately to be returned when time 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 gaol, 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 gaol that is formidable?" Such was the almost hopeless condition, the deep despair, of this imprudent but amiable anther, who has added to time 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 an "Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe" (1759), his admirable Chinese Letters, afterwards published with the title of "The Citizen of the World," a "Life of Beau Nash," and the "History of England" in a series of letters from a nobleman to his son. The latter was highly successful, and was popularly attributed to Lord Chesterfield. In December 1764 appeared his poem of "The Traveller," the chief cornerstone 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 time 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 he published his exquisite novel, "The Vicar of Wakefield," which had been written two years before, and sold to Newberry the bookseller, to discharge a pressing debt. His comedy of "The Good-Natured Man" was produced in 1767, 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. In 1773, Goldsmith's comedy, "She Stoops to Conquer," was brought out at Covent Garden theatre with immense applause. He 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; his works brought him in from £1000 to £1800 per annum. Difficulty and distress, however, still clung to him: poetry had found him poor at first, and she 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 a "History of England" in four volumes. This was succeeded by a "History of Greece" in two volumes, for which he was paid £250. 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 (dysuria) 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 strong convulsions on the 4th of April. The death of so popular an author, at the age of forty-five, 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 plan of "The Traveller" is simple, yet comprehensive and philosophical. The poet represents himself as sitting among Alpine solitudes, looking down on a hundred realms—

Lakes, forests, cities, plains extending wide,
The pomp of kings, the shepherd's humbler pride.

He views the whole with delight, yet sighs to think that the hoard of human bliss is so small, and he wishes to find some spot consigned to real happiness, where his "worn soul" "Might gather bliss to see his fellows blessed." But where is such a spot to be found? The natives of each country think their own the best — the patriot boasts — "His first, best country, ever is at home." If nations are compared, the amount of happiness in each is found to be about the same; and to illustrate this position, the poet describes the state of manners and government in Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland, and England. In general correctness and beauty of expression, these sketches have never been surpassed. The politician may think that the poet ascribes too little importance to the influence of government on the happiness of mankind, seeing that in a despotic state the whole must depend on the individual character of the governor; yet in the cases cited by Goldsmith, it is difficult to resist his conclusions; while his short sententious reasoning is relieved and elevated by bursts of true poetry. His character of the men of England used to draw tears from Dr. Johnson:—

Stern o'er each bosom reason holds her state,
With daring aims irregularly great.
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by;
Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,
By forms unfashioned, fresh from nature's hand.
Fierce in their native hardiness of soul,
True to imagined right, above control,
While even the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.

Goldsmith was a master of the art of contrast in heightening the effect of his pictures. In the following quotation [omitted], the rich scenery of Italy, and effeminate character of its population, are placed striking juxtaposition with the rugged mountains of Switzerland and their hardy natives....

The "Deserted Village" is limited in design, but exhibits the same correctness of outline, and the same beauty of colouring, as "The Traveller." The poet drew upon his recollections of Lissoy for most of the landscape, as well as the characters introduced. His father sat for the village pastor, and such a portrait might well have cancelled, with Oliver's relations, all the follies and irregularities of his youth. Perhaps there is no poem in the English language more universally popular than the "Deserted Village." Its best passages are learned in youth, and never quit the memory. Its delineations of rustic life accord with those ideas of romantic purity, seclusion, and happiness, which the young mind associates with the country and all its charms, before modern manners and oppression had driven them thence — "To pamper luxury, and thin mankind." Political economists may dispute the axiom, that luxury is hurtful to nations; and curious speculators, like Mandeville, may even argue that private vices are public benefits; but Goldsmith has a surer advocate in the feelings of the heart, which yield a spontaneous ascent to the principles he inculcates, when teaching by examples, with all the efficacy of apparent truth, and all the effect of poetical beauty and excellence.