Oliver Goldsmith

Edward Dowden, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:368-72.

The poems of Goldsmith make but a small fragment of his work; they are, however, more finely wrought and of a costlier material than the rest. "I cannot afford to court the draggle-tail Muses," he said, "they would let me starve." And so he turned to the booksellers' task-work, bestowing on that task-work a grace which was all his own; and, the drudgery ended, he took his wages and was light of heart But poetry belonged to his higher self; to his affections, to his imagination. Goldsmith could not have written The Deserted Village to the order of Griffiths or Newbery; and it is told — nor is the story incredible — that he went back with the note for one hundred pounds in his pocket, and insisted that his publisher should not ruin himself by paying "five shillings a couplet." The rustic maid Poetry whom he loved was not quite penniless; still Goldsmith felt that the attachment was imprudent, and she was none the less dear to his foolish heart on that account:

Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride,
Thou source of all my bliss and all my woe,
That found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so.

His poems won for Goldsmith friendships and fame, yet he felt truly that his was not a poetic age. The keenest intellects and the most powerful imaginations of the time found their proper utterance in prose. The high tragedy of that period is Clarissa; the broadest and brightest study of the "comedie humaine" is Tom Jones. Johnson in his essays had dignified the minor morals of Addison, and breathed into them the spirit of a courageous melancholy. Burke by breadth of vision and largeness of character was transforming the political pamphlet from a thing of party to a thing for mankind. Hume had shown how the facts of history may be artfully disposed, and their ragged edges smoothed away, until a graceful narrative emerges from the confusion. Gibbon was already projecting the lines of his Roman road through the centuries. It was the age of prose. The poets themselves had turned critics, making but timid experiments in verse; the more exquisite their culture, the less was their poetic courage. One or two indeed might appear more robust, but by a well-instructed eye their force was seen to be but turbulence. As for the rest they handed their verses around in manuscript; then perhaps contributed them to a poetical miscellany; finally, collected them in a tiny volume, or a quarto pamphlet of ample margin.

Goldsmith, whose genius slumbered late, was in no hurry to be a poet, and he looked carefully to make sure of himself and of his way. With a happy instinct he discerned his own gift, and it was his virtue, amid all his wanderings, and with all his seeming recklessness, to be faithful to that gift. Should he apply his humour to base uses and follow in the steps of Churchill? Goldsmith affected no airs of dignity in what he wrote, and did not fear that word of reproach in his day, low; but his gentle heart, his kindly wisdom, made it impossible for him to follow Churchill. He did not covet the reputation of a literary bully; his was no loud contentious voice; if he hated anything, he hated the rage of party spirit. But might he not accept Gray as a master? Goldsmith has left on record his estimate of Gray, and the words express a qualified enthusiasm, a certain official admiration as critic. But in truth, to please him poetry should address the heart, and he felt cold towards the fastidious flights of The Bard and The Progress of Poetry. He ventured to hint to Gray the advice that Isocrates used to give his scholars, "study the People." Pindar had been popular — Pan himself was seen dancing to his melody. The seeming obscurity, the sudden transitions, the hazardous epithet of that mighty master had been caught by Gray; the directness, the life, the native energy of classical poetry he had not discovered. And Gray's imitators, what did they produce but "tawdry things in writing which the poet sits down without any plan, and heaps up splendid images without any selection"? Last, there was the didactic essay or epistle in verse. Should Goldsmith become the successor of Akenside? Goldsmith highly esteemed the didactic poem; he looked on it as characteristic of England. But, at least, let it be written in our old rhymed couplet, not in pedantic blank-verse; and as for the pompous epithet, the licentious transposition, the unnatural construction, let these be reformed altogether. Why too should dulness be an essential of didactic poetry? Goldsmith could not endure its "disgusting solemnity of manner"; he loved innocent gaiety, and found much wisdom in that agreeable trifling which often "deceives us into instruction."

With such views, and at a time of life when all his powers were ripe and mellow, Goldsmith published his Traveller. Some fragments, perhaps a first sketch of the poem, had been sent from Switzerland to his brother Henry in 1755. The Traveller, as we know it, is an attempt to unite the didactic with the descriptive poem. But Goldsmith does not begin with theory, and proceed to illustrate his theory by a series of pictures. He begins with a sigh for kindred and for home. The poem is personal; the reflections, except perhaps the closing ones, which came from Johnson, are such as naturally arose in his mind in the days of his wandering. It would have been easy to have thrown The Traveller into the form of an Essay on the Happiness of Nations, or The Deserted Village into that of an Epistle on the Dangers of Luxury, and then the wanderer sounding his flute beside the Loire might have risen to the stature of a philosophic spectator with a classical name; sweet Auburn might have appeared as minor term of a syllogism concerned with the abuse of wealth. Goldsmith chose a simpler method, more wholesome and sweet. He had actually smiled at sight of the old dames of the province in their quaint French caps leading out the little boys and girls to foot it while he piped; he had turned away disappointed from the Carinthian peasant's inhospitable door; he had breasted the keen air with the Alpine herdsman; he had lazily stared from the towing-path at the Dutchman squat on his brown canal-boat. Seeking neither wealth, nor advancement, nor toilful learning, unencumbered by possessions of his own, he had looked on all with a sympathetic eye, an open heart, an innocent delight in human gladness, a kindly smile at human frailty, a sigh and a tear for human woe; and from all he had gathered a store of gentle wisdom, of dear remembrance. He needed only to select from his recollections whatever was most full of charm, what was gayest, tenderest, most pleasantly coloured, and with these to mingle some natural thoughts, some natural feelings. Surely an easy thing; and yet none except Goldsmith had the secret how to do this, to unite such various elements into a delightful whole, — description, reflection, mirth, sadness, memory and love. No one like Goldsmith could pass so tranquilly from grave to gay, still preserving the delicate harmony, of tone. No one like Goldsmith knew how to be at once natural and exquisite, innocent and wise, a man and still a child.

The naturalness and ease of his poetry are those of an accomplished craftsman. His verse, which flows towards the close of the period with such a gentle yet steady advance, is not less elaborated than that of Pope, and Goldsmith conceived his verse more in paragraphs than in couplets. His subdued brilliancy was perhaps harder to attain than the point and polish of The Rape of the Lock. His artless words were, each one, delicately chosen; his simple constructions were studiously sought. Cooke, Goldsmith's neighbour in the Temple, speaks of the Doctor's slowness in writing poetry "not from tardiness of fancy, but from the time he took in pointing the sentiment, and polishing the versification." In writing The Deserted Village the Doctor, as Cooke again tells us, "first sketched a part of his design in prose, in which he threw out his ideas as they occurred to him; he then sat down carefully to versify them, correct them, and add such other ideas as he thought better fitted to the subject; and if sometimes be would exceed his prose design by writing several verses impromptu, these he would take singular pains afterwards to revise, lest they should be found unconnected with his main design." When Cooke entered the Doctor's chamber one morning Goldsmith with some elation read aloud to him the ten lines beginning

Dear lovely bowers of innocence and else,
Seats of my when every sport could please.

"Come, let me tell you this is no bad morning's work," he said; "and now, my dear boy, if you are not better engaged, I should be glad to enjoy a Shoemaker's Holiday with you."

Whether The Traveller or The Deserted Village be the more admirable poem, whether Auburn be an English village or the Irish Lissoy, or both in one, whether Goldsmith's political economy be solid or sentimental, it is perhaps not necessary once more to discuss. Perhaps Auburn bordered on Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, and the doctrines concerning agricultural and commercial prosperity were suited to that neighbourhood. It would be pleasant to hear Jaques and Touchstone discuss them, taking opposite sides. Certainly Auburn is English, but certainly too Paddy Byrne kept school there, and Uncle Contarine or Henry Goldsmith occupied the rectory. In whatever shire or county situated, we know Auburn better than any other village; its sweet confusion of rural sounds is in our ears; we have seen its children hanging on the venerable preacher's gown; we have played truant from the stern schoolmaster, land trembled in his presence; we know the clicking of the ale-house clock, and have felt the old, plain pathos of the woodman's ballad! And we grieve that Auburn is departed. It may be a weak retreat into the age of sentiment and simplicity and Rousseau; perhaps we ought rather exult in the triumphs of modern civilisation and the progress of modern science. Still the flowers of an old garden-croft smell sweet, and the hawthorn bush is white under which lovers whisper.

The ballad of Edwin and Angelina, The Haunch of Venison, and Retaliation mark the extremes of Goldsmith's somewhat limited range in verse. Any reader of the ballad who pleases may make a wry face, along with Kenrick of Grub Street, at the insipidity of Dr. Goldsmith's negus, and may seek elsewhere some livelier liquor. We feel differently, for we have heard this ballad in the open air from Mr. Burchell's manly throat, while Sophia in her new ribbons languished in the hay. To us, the love-lorn stranger is an eighteenth-century cousin — and so perhaps a little modish — of Rosalind and Viola. Those earlier disguisers bore themselves no doubt more gallantly, with more of saucy archness; but none was more sweetly discovered than Goldsmith's pretty pilgrim by her mantling blush, and bashful glance, and rising breast. In The Haunch of Venison we have a miniature farce, and Goldsmith good-naturedly includes himself among the persons to be laughed at. Retaliation is the most mischievous, and the most playful, the friendliest and the faithfulest of satires. How much better we know Garrick because Goldsmith has shown him to us in his acting off the stage! And do we as often think of Reynolds in any attitude as in that of smiling non-listener to the critical coxcombs;

When they talked of their Raphaels, Correggios and stuff,
He shifted his trumpet and only took snuff.

Would that portraits of Johnson and Boswell had been added!