Goldsmith appears to enjoy as large a share of critical veneration as any writer of his age. His laurels, indeed, grow brighter with time, and his power to instruct and amuse will probably increase as years roll on, and one generation follows another.
It is very remarkable, that though his productions are exceedingly voluminous, the greater part of them, and those, to the subject of which vulgar apprehensions annex the greatest dignity and value, are of little importance, and will probably disappear from our libraries in a few years. Natural and civil history are two of the most important departments of human pursuit; and yet the History of Animated Nature, and the History of England, of Rome, and of Greece, by Goldsmith, have never deserved or obtained any lasting regard. These various themes afford the noblest opportunities for the display of wisdom and eloquence, but Goldsmith's genius was unsuited to them. In his Natural History he has done no more than copy servilely, and paraphrase tamely. In his civil histories he has produced nothing but trite, common-place, and school-boy abridgments. The latter works were intended for the use of the young, but they are equally unqualified for affording instruction to age, or entertainment to youth.
Goldsmith's reputation and usefulness are founded on a very small part of his works. First, on tales and essays, which convey the most pleasing morality in the most captivating style, or arrayed in incidents which reflect, with admirable fidelity and truth, the picture of human life and manners; and, secondly, on two poems, which, though they will scarcely bear a comparison with the works of our eminent poets as to quantity, will not shrink from the comparison as to intrinsic value. No themes of poetry are nobler than those of Goldsmith, and no genius ever poured out on such themes, richer and more polished strains.
It is worthy of notice, that the fame of Johnson rests upon foundations nearly similar to that of Goldsmith. They have both produced many moral disquisitions; many fictitious narratives; together with didactic and dramatic poetry. In addition, however, to these, Johnson was a critic and biographer. Goldsmith's taste and judgment was probably superior, but at least was equal, to those qualities in Johnson; but his excellence, in these respects, can only be inferred from the perfection of his own performances, as we have little or no criticism from his pen.
Johnson's attempts at pourtraying life and manners, as they existed around him, were remarkably unfortunate. His eastern tales have all the merit compatible with plans so wild, grotesque, and unnatural; but no man of just taste, in morals or in composition, can hesitate a moment in preferring, not only the moral spirit, but the taste and genius which display themselves in Goldsmith's simple and natural tales, to those which animate the pompous and gloomy fictions of Johnson. Their essays breathe a temper and spirit nearly the reverse of each other, and Goldsmith is, in this particular, as benign, cheerful, and agreeable, as Johnson is morose and melancholy.
If we separate style and language from character, incident, and sentiment, no one will hesitate in deciding to which the palm of poetical superiority is due. In prose they differ as widely as modes of excellence can differ. In the manner of expression, in the choice and arrangement of words, Johnson differs not only from Goldsmith, but from every other. Goldsmith occupies a sphere by no means so much his own, so peculiar to himself. When the merit of each, in his own way, is so great, it is presumptuous to decide on their comparative merit. In Goldsmith's compositions, elegance is wedded to simplicity. Wit, playful and benign, strews every where her sweetest flowers, and the graces mark every sentence for their own.
If this be the style of Goldsmith, it must surely be excellent. Whatever praise the style of Johnson may merit, his greatest admirers would never dream of clothing their applause in these terms; but since this is the highest praise which any human composition can merit, the style which does not claim it must occupy a rank lower than that which does.