1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Oliver Goldsmith

Senex, "Thoughts on Poets: Goldsmith" Saturday Evening Post [Philadelphia] (17 April 1830).



Goldsmith is one among those few writers whose compositions can be very repeatedly perused without any diminution of pleasure, and without fear of producing satiety. To me, his efforts have ever been characterized by a genuine simplicity of style, and a sweetness of expression, unequalled by his predecessors in the field of literature, as they are unattainable by his many imitators of the present day.

It is true, he does not possess the comprehensive, all grasping energy of Pope; nor the glowing richness of the more modern, and exquisitively luxurious Moore; but he has that which neither could boast of, and which, to the general reader, is infinitely more valuable; — I mean the agreeable and captivating familiarity so conspicuous throughout his productions, and which render their perusal a pleasing relaxation, rather than a tedious philosophical examination. Indeed, in reference to the two illustrious compeers spoken of, his muse may be, not inaptly, represented by a plain, but agreeable woman, whom any sensible person would prefer to the dignified, and queen-like appearance of the former, or the coquettish and wanton habits of the latter. But, in poetry, as in life, our judgments are often imposed upon by our passions, and we frequently applaud as pre-eminent, that which, divested of its gaudy externals, and the excitements of the moment, we might pronounce puerile, or condemn as beneath even mediocrity.

Who can read the Deserted Village and not sympathise with him in the miseries which he so feelingly describes? — The rustic picture which he draws is not the less pleasing that its characters are humble; nor do we experience the less delight because he execrates, as productive of evil, that which the majority are taught to look upon as the summit of earthly bliss; i.e. the possession of superfluous wealth. We are alternately elated by his lively exhibition of former happiness, and melted into tears by its striking contrast with present desolation; and, gratified by the effect, we care not how it was originated, nor seek we to know by what means it is produced.

In like manner, it is almost impossible for a mind of any susceptibility, to rise from the perusal of his Traveller, without finding itself freed from the ordinary trammels of national or local prejudice; without having its judgments more humanized; and without feeling itself more disposed to contemplate humanity, as brothers whom peculiar circumstances have made to differ, but who, in form and feature, still preserve the good lineaments of their common parent.

The following extract from his Traveller, in the harmony of its proportions, conciseness, and in the strength of its diction, will, doubtless, remind the reader of Pope, whom he most resembled.

But where to find that happiest spot below,
Who can direct, when all pretend to know?
The shuddering tenant of the frigid zone,
Boldly proclaims that happy spot his own;
Extols the treasures of his stormy seas,
And his long nights of revelry and ease.

The next, equally as good, is from his Deserted Village:—

A time there was, ere England's griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained a man;
To him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more;
His best companions, innocence and health,
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.

What can exceed the beauty of the ideas contained in the last couplet? and yet, without hyperbole, it as but a single jewel, taken without discrimination, from amid a mine of precious materials. Indeed, such was the versatility of his talent, that we know not which most to admire, the impression of his serious moments, or the more lively sallies and delicate humour exhibited in his Retaliation, Haunch of Venison, Epilogues, &c. Altogether, however, they afford an agreeable variety, highly pleasing to the ordinary reader, and suffice to make interesting, portions that would otherwise be esteemed monotonous and wearisome.

Of his character as a man, we have but little acquaintance. It is seldom, indeed, that men of genius can be found, whose actions, in the best, correspond with the purity or propriety of their writings. They seem to imagine themselves exonerated, by the possession of talents, from obedience to the duties of morality; and exempted from the necessity of paying that deference to the acknowledged obligations of society which others, less favored, are obliged rigorously to adhere to. Can it be, that they suppose themselves privileged to set at defiance the opinions of their fellows, and to revel in all the disgusting elements of debauchery, without becoming obnoxious, by their conduct, to the community? What a strange perversion of intellect! Whom can the aspiring youth look up to, — toward whom can the aged parent, just tottering upon the verge of the grave, direct the ardent passions of his offspring, as an example for their imitation, but to those whom the noble voice has exalted to the pinnacle of fame? And should those examples then, not only deviate from the paths of conscious rectitude, but justify their deviation with all the fascinating answers of that eloquence which they can so persuasively command; I ask, are they not guilty of moral treason? and as such they should suffer the penalty inflicted by an injured public — consignment to oblivion.

But I am digressing. The only picture of Goldsmith's private character extant, is, I believe, that prefixed to his poems. He was, it appears, generous to a degree bordering upon folly; so credulous as to be frequently imposed upon, even by the same person; and, to crown his description, as reduced in circumstances, as a man possessing such extreme good-nature and simplicity, could possibly be. As to his faults, they were few; and those of a very harmless and pardonable kind; unless Garrick, in his exaggerating manner, can be relied upon, when he represents him as composed of all that is most vile, and all that is most amiable.

I shall conclude with this pleasant effusion of Garrick, presuming, however, that it was probably written in a moment of exhilaration, when the author was less inclined to spare the feelings of the poet, than to please his auditory or gratify himself.

Here Hermes, says Jove, who with nectar was mellow,
Go fetch me some clay, — I will make an odd-fellow;
Right and wrong shall be jumbled — much gold and some dross;
Without cause be he pleas'd, without cause be he cross:
Be sure, as I work, to throw in contradictions,
A great love of truth, yet a mind turn'd to fictions;
Now mix these ingredients, which warm'd in the baking,
Turn'd to learning, and gaming, religion, and raking,...

That the rake and the poet o'er all may prevail,
Set fire to the head, and set fire to the tail,
For the joy of each sex on the word I'll bestow it,
This scholar, rake, christian, dupe, gamester, and poet:
Though a mixture so odd, he shall merit great fame,
And among brother mortals, be Goldsmith his name. &c.

SENEX.
Philadelphia, March, 1830.