Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Oliver Goldsmith (1730?–1774)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Mills Gayley (1858–1932)
OLIVER GOLDSMITH was born at Pallas, County Longford, Ireland. Goldsmith’s father was a clergyman of the Established Church. The family removed to Lissoy, a better living than that of Pallas. Oliver’s school days in and around Westmeath were unsatisfactory; so also his course at Trinity, 1744 to 1749. For the next two years he loafed at Ballymahon, living on his mother, then a widow, and making vain attempts to take orders, to teach, to enter a law course, to sail for America. He was a bad sixpence. Finally his uncle Contarine, who saw good stuff in the awkward, ugly, humorous, and reckless youth, got him off to Edinburgh, where he studied medicine till 1754.  1
  In 1754 he is studying, or pretending to study, at Leyden. In 1755 and 1756 he is singing, fluting, and otherwise “beating” his way through Europe, whence he returns with a mythical M. B. degree. From 1756 to 1759 he is in London, teaching, serving an apothecary, practicing medicine, reading proof, writing as a hack, planning to practice surgery in Coromandel, failing to qualify as a hospital mate, and in general only not starving. In 1759 Dr. Percy finds him in Green Arbor Court amid a colony of washerwomen, writing an ‘Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe.’ Next follows the appearance of that work, and his acquaintance with publishers and men of letters. In 1761, with Percy, comes Johnson to visit him. In 1764 Goldsmith is one of the members of the famous Literary Club, where he counts among his friends, besides Percy and Johnson, Reynolds, Boswell, Garrick, Burke, and others who shone with their own or reflected light. The rest of his life, spent principally in or near London, is associated with his literary career. He died April 4th, 1774, and was buried near the Temple Church.  2
  Goldsmith was an essayist and critic, a story-writer, a poet, a comic dramatist, and a literary drudge: the last all the time, the others “between whiles.” His drudgery produced such works as the ‘Memoirs of Voltaire,’ the ‘Life of Nash,’ two Histories of England, Histories of Rome and Greece, Lives of Parnell and Bolingbroke. The ‘History of Animated Nature’ was undertaken as an industry, but it reads, as Johnson said, “like a Persian tale,”—and of course, the more Persian the less like nature. For the prose of Goldsmith writing for a suit of clothes or for immortality is all of a piece, inimitable. “Nothing,” says he, in his ‘Essay on Taste,’ “has been so often explained, and yet so little understood, as simplicity in writing…. It is no other than beautiful nature, without affectation or extraneous ornament.”  3
  This ingenuous elegance is the accent of Goldsmith’s work in verse and prose. It is nature improved, not from without but by exquisite and esoteric art, the better to prove its innate virtue and display its artless charm. Such a style is based upon a delicate “sensibility to the graces of natural and moral beauty and decorum.” Hence the ideographic power, the directness, the sympathy, the lambent humor that characterize the ‘Essays,’ the ‘Vicar,’ the ‘Deserted Village,’ and ‘She Stoops to Conquer.’ This is the “plain language of ancient faith and sincerity” that, pretending to no novelty, renovated the prose of the eighteenth century, knocked the stilts from under Addison and Steele, tipped half the Latinity out of Johnson, and readjusted his ballast. Goldsmith goes without sprawling or tiptoeing; he sails without rolling. He borrows the carelessness but not the ostentation of the Spectator; the dignity but not the ponderosity of ‘Rasselas’; and produces the prose of natural ease, the sweetest English of the century. It in turn prefaced the way for Charles Lamb, Hunt, and Sydney Smith. “It were to be wished that we no longer found pleasure with the inflated style,” writes Goldsmith in his ‘Polite Learning.’ “We should dispense with loaded epithet and dressing up trifles with dignity…. Let us, instead of writing finely, try to write naturally; not hunt after lofty expressions to deliver mean ideas, nor be forever gaping when we only mean to deliver a whisper.”  4
  Just this naturalness constitutes the charm of the essay on ‘The Bee’ (1759), and of the essays collected in 1765. We do not read him for information: whether he knows more or less of his subject, whether he writes of Charles XII., or Dress, the Opera, Poetry, or Education, we read him for simplicity and humor. Still, his critical estimates, while they may not always square with ours, evince not only good sense and æsthetic principle, but a range of reading not at all ordinary. When he condemns Hamlet’s great soliloquy we may smile, but in judicial respect for the father of our drama he yields to none of his contemporaries. The selections that he includes in his ‘Beauties of English Poetry’ would argue a conventional taste; but in his ‘Essay on Poetry Distinguished from the Other Arts,’ he not only defines poetry in terms that might content the Wordsworthians, he also to a certain extent anticipates Wordsworth’s estimate of poetic figures.  5
  While he makes no violent breach with the classical school, he prophesies the critical doctrine of the nineteenth century. He calls for the “energetic language of simple nature, which is now grown into disrepute.” “If the production does not keep nature in view, it will be destitute of truth and probability, without which the beauties of imitation cannot subsist.” Still he by no means falls into the quagmire of realism. For, continues he, “if on the other hand the imitation is so close as to be mistaken for nature, the pleasure will then cease, because the [Greek], or imitation, no longer appears.”  6
  Even when wrong, Goldsmith is generally half-way right; and this is especially true of the critical judgments contained in his first published book. The impudence of ‘The Enquiry’ (1759) is delicious. What this young Irishman, fluting it through Europe some five years before, had not learned about the ‘Condition of Polite Learning’ in its principal countries, might fill a ponderous folio. What he did learn, eked out with harmless misstatement, flashes of inspiration, and a clever argument to prove that criticism has always been the foe of letters, managed to fill a respectable duodecimo, and brought him to the notice of publishers and scholars.  7
  The essay has catholicity, independence, and wit, and it carries itself with whimsical ease. Every sentence steps out sprightly. Of the French Encyclopédies: “Wits and dunces contribute their share, and Diderot as well as Desmaretz are candidates for oblivion. The genius of the first supplies the gale of favor, and the latter adds the useful ballast of stupidity.” Of the Germans: “They write through volumes, while they do not think through a page…. Were angels to write books, they never would write folios.” And again: “If criticism could have improved the taste of a people, the Germans would have been the most polite nation alive.” That settles the Encyclopedias and the Germans. So each nationality is sententiously reviewed and dismissed with an epigram that even to-day sounds not altogether unjust, rather amusing and urbane than acrimonious.  8
  But it was not until Goldsmith began the series of letters in the Public Ledger (1760), that was afterwards published as ‘The Citizen of the World,’ that he took London. These letters purport to be from a philosophic Chinaman in Europe to his friends at home. Grave, gay, serene, ironical, they were at once an amusing image and a genial censor of current manners and morals. They are no less creative than critical; equally classic for the characters they contain: the Gentleman in Black, Beau Tibbs and his wife, the pawnbroker’s widow, Tim Syllabub, and the procession of minor personages, romantic or ridiculous, but unique,—equally classic for these characters and for the satire of the conception. These are Goldsmith’s best sketches. Though the prose is not always precise, it seems to be clear, and is simple. The writer cares more for the judicious than the sublime; for the quaint, the comic, and the agreeable than the pathetic. He chuckles with sly laughter—genial, sympathetic; he looses his arrow phosphorescent with wit, but not barbed, dipped in something subacid,—straight for the heart. Not Irving alone, but Thackeray, stands in line of descent from the Goldsmith of the ‘Citizen.’  9
  ‘The Traveller,’ polished ad unguem, appeared in 1764, and placed Goldsmith in the first rank of poets then living; but of that later. There is good reason for believing that his masterpiece in prose, ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ had been written as early as 1762, although it was not published until 1766. It made Goldsmith’s mark as a storyteller. One can readily imagine how, after the grim humor of Smollett, the broad and risqué realism of Fielding, the loitering of Sterne, and the moralizing of Richardson, the public would seize with a sense of relief upon this unpretentious chronicle of a country clergyman’s life: his peaceful home, its ruin, its restoration. Not because the narrative was quieter and simpler, shorter and more direct than other narratives, but because to its humor, realism, grace, and depth it added the charity of First Corinthians Thirteenth. England soon discovered that the borders of the humanities had been extended; that the Vicar and his “durable” wife, Moses, Olivia with the prenatal tendency to romance, Sophia, the graceless Jenkinson,—the habit and temper of the whole,—were a new province. The prose idyl, with all its beauty and charity, does not entitle Goldsmith to rank with the great novelists; but of its kind, in spite of faults of inaccuracy, improbability, and impossibility, it is first and best. Goethe read and re-read it with moral and æsthetic benefit; and the spirit of Goldsmith is not far to seek in ‘Hermann and Dorothea.’ ‘The Vicar’ is perhaps the most popular of English classics in foreign lands.  10
  In poetry, if Goldsmith did not write much, it was for lack of opportunity. What he did write is good, nearly all of it. The philosophy of ‘The Traveller’ (1764) and the political economy of ‘The Deserted Village’ (1770) may be dubious, but the poetry is true. There is in both a heartiness which discards the formalized emotion, prefers the touch of nature and the homely adjective. The characteristic is almost feminine in the description of Auburn: “Dear lovely bowers”; it is inevitable, artless, in ‘The Traveller’: “His first, best country ever is at home.” But on the other hand, the curiosa felicitas marks every line, the nice selection of just the word or phrase richest in association, redolent of tradition, harmonious, classically proper, but still natural, true, and apt. “My heart untravell’d fondly turns to thee”—not a word but is hearty; and for all that, the line is stamped with the academic authority of centuries: “Cœlum, non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt.” Both poems are characterized by the infrequency of epithet and figure,—the infrequency that marks sincerity and that heightens pleasure,—and by a cunning in the use of proper names, resonant, remote, suggestive: “On Idra’s cliffs or Arno’s shelvy side,”—the cunning of a musical poem. Both poems vibrate with personality, recall the experience of the writer. It would be hard to choose between them; but ‘The Deserted Village’ strikes the homelier chord, comes nearer, with its natural pathos, its sidelong smile, and its perennial novelty, to the heart of him who knows.  11
  Goldsmith is less eloquent but more natural than Dryden, less precise but more simple than Pope. In poetic sensibility he has the advantage of both. Were the volume of his verse not so slight, were his conceptions more sublime, and their embodiment more epic or dramatic, he might rank with the greatest of his century. As it is, in imaginative insight he has no superior in the eighteenth century; in observation, pathos, representative power, no equal: Dryden, Pope, Gray, Thomson, Young,—none but Collins approaches him. The reflective or descriptive poem can of course not compete with the drama, epic, or even lyric of corresponding merit in its respective kind. But Goldsmith’s poems are the best of their kind, better than all but the best in other kinds. His conception of life is more generous and direct, hence truer and gentler, than that of the Augustan age. Raising no revolt against classical principles, he rejects the artifices of decadent classicism, returns to nature, and expresses it simply. He is consequently in this respect the harbinger of Cowper, Crabbe, Bloomfield, Clare, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. In technique also he breaks away from Pope. His larger movement, his easier modulation, his richer tone, his rarer epithet and epigram, his metaphor “glowing from the heart,” mark the defection from the poetry of cold conceit.  12
  For lack of space we can only refer to the romantic quality of his ballad ‘Edwin and Angelina’ (1765), the spontaneous humor of ‘The Haunch of Venison,’ and the exquisite satire of ‘Retaliation’ (1774).  13
  To appreciate the historical position of Goldsmith’s comedies, one must regard them as a reaction against the school that had held the stage since the beginning of the century—a “genteel” and “sentimental” school, fearing to expose vice or ridicule absurdity. But Goldsmith felt that absurdity was the comic poet’s game. Reverting therefore to Farquhar and the Comedy of Manners, he revived that species, at the same time infusing a strain of the “humors” of the tribe of Ben. Hence the approbation that welcomed his first comedy, and the applause that greeted the second. For ‘The Good-natured Man’ (1768) and ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ (1773) did by example what Hugh Kelly’s ‘Piety in Pattens’ aimed to do by ridicule,—ousted the hybrid comedy (tradesman’s tragedy, Voltaire called it) of which ‘The Conscious Lovers’ had been the most tolerable specimen, and ‘The School for Lovers’ the most decorous and dull.  14
  But “Goldy” had not only the gift of weighing the times, he had the gift of the popular dramatist. His dramatis personæ are on the one hand nearly all legitimate descendants of the national comedy, though none is a copy from dramatic predecessors; on the other hand, they are in every instance “imitations” of real life, more than once of some aspect of his own life; but none is so close an imitation as to detract from the pleasure which fiction should afford. The former quality makes his characters look familiar; the latter, true. So he accomplishes the feat most difficult for the dramatist: while idealizing the individual in order to realize the type, he does not for a moment lose the sympathy of his audience.  15
  Even in his earlier comedy these two characteristics are manifest. In the world of drama, young Honeywood is the legitimate descendant of Massinger’s Wellborn on the one side, and of Congreve’s Valentine Legend on the other, with a more distant collateral resemblance to Ben Jonson’s Younger Knowell. But in the field of experience this “Good-natured Man” is that aspect of “Goldy” himself which, when he was poorest, made him not so poor but that Irishmen poorer still could live on him; that aspect of the glorious “idiot in affairs” which could make to the Earl of Northumberland, willing to be kind, no other suggestion of his wants than that he had a brother in Ireland, “poor, a clergyman, and much in need of help.” Similarly might those rare creations Croaker and Jack Lofty be traced to their predecessors in the field of drama, even though remote. That they had their analogies in the life of Goldsmith, and have them in the lives of others, it is unnecessary to prove. But graphic as these characters are, they cannot make of ‘The Good-natured Man’ more than a passable second to ‘She Stoops to Conquer.’ For the premises of the plot are absurd, if not impossible; the complication is not much more natural than that of a Punch-and-Judy show, and the dénouement but one shade less improbable than that of ‘The Vicar of Wakefield.’ The value of the play is principally historical, not æsthetic.  16
  Congreve’s ‘Love for Love,’ Vanbrugh’s ‘Relapse,’ Farquhar’s ‘Beaux’ Stratagem,’ Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ and Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal,’ are the best comedies written since Jonson, Fletcher, and Massinger held the stage. In plot and diction ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ is equaled by Congreve; in character-drawing by Vanbrugh; in dramatic ease by Farquhar, in observation and wit by Sheridan: but by none is it equaled in humor, and in naturalness of dialogue it is facile princeps. Here again the characterization presents the twofold charm of universality and reality. Young Marlow is the traditional lover of the type of Young Bellair, Mirabell, and Aimwell, suggesting each in turn but different from all; he is also, in his combination of embarrassment and impudence, not altogether unlike the lad Oliver who, years ago, on a journey back to school, had mistaken Squire Featherstone’s house in Ardagh for an inn.  17
  A similar adjustment of dramatic type and historic individual contributes to the durability of Tony Lumpkin. In his dramatis persona he is a practical joker of the family of Diccon and Truewit, and first cousin on the Blenkinsop side to that horse-flesh Sir Harry Beagle. But Anthony is more than the practical joker or the squire booby: he is a near relative of Captain O’Blunder and that whole countryside of generous, touch-and-go Irishmen; while in reality, in propria persona, he is that aspect of Noll Goldsmith that “lived the buckeen” in Ballymahon. Of the other characters of the play, Hardcastle, Mrs. Hardcastle, and Kate have a like prerogative of immortality. They are royally descended and personally unique.  18
  The comedy has been absurdly called farcical. There is much less of the farcical than in many a so-called “legitimate” comedy. None of the circumstances are purely fortuitous; none unnecessary. Humor and caprice tend steadily to complicate the action, and by natural interaction prepare the way for the dénouement. The misunderstandings are the more piquant because of their manifest irony and their ephemeral character. Indeed, if any fault is to be found with the play, it is that Goldsmith did not let it resolve itself without the assistance of Sir Charles Marlow.  19
  One peculiarity not yet mentioned is illustrative of Goldsmith’s method. A system of mutual borrowing characterizes his works. The same thought, in the same or nearly the same language, occurs in half a dozen. ‘The Enquiry’ lends a phrase to ‘The Citizen,’ who passes it on to the ‘Vicar,’ who, thinking it too good to keep, hands it over to the ‘Good-natured Man,’ whence it is borrowed by ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ and turned to look like new,—like a large family of sisters with a small wardrobe in common. This habit does not indicate poverty of invention in Goldsmith, but associative imagination and artistic conservatism.  20
  Goldsmith was the only Irish story-writer and poet of his century. Four Irishmen adorned the prose of the period: Goldsmith is as eminent in the natural style as Swift in the satiric, or Steele in the polished, or Burke in the grand. In comedy the Irish led; but Steele, Macklin, Murphy, Kelly, do not compare with Farquhar, Sheridan, and Goldsmith. The worst work of these is good, and their best is the best of the century.  21
  Turning to Goldsmith the man, what the “draggle-tail Muses” paid him we find him spending on dress and rooms and jovial magnificence, on relatives or countrymen or the unknown poor, with such freedom that he is never relieved of the necessity of drudgery. Still, sensitive, good-natured, improvident, Irish,—and a genius,—Goldsmith lived as happy a life as his disposition would allow. He had the companionship of congenial friends, the love of men like Johnson and Reynolds, the final assurance that his art was appreciated by the public. To be sure, he was never out of debt, but that was his own fault; he was never out of credit either. “Was there ever poet so trusted?” exclaimed Johnson, after this poet had got beyond reach of his creditors. His difficulties however affected him as they affect most Irishmen,—only by cataclysms. He was serene or wretched, but generally the former: he packed noctes cœnæque deûm by the dozen into his life. “There is no man,” said Reynolds, “whose company is more liked.” But maybe that was because his naïveté, his brogue, his absent-mindedness, and his blunders (real or apparent) made him a ready butt for ridicule, not at the hands of Reynolds or Johnson, but of Beauclerk and the rest. For though his humor was sly, and his wit inimitable, Goldsmith’s conversation was queer. It seemed to go by contraries. If permitted, he would ramble along in his hesitating, inconsequential fashion, on any subject under heaven—“too eager,” thought Johnson, “to get on without knowing how he should get off.” But if ignored, he would sit silent and apart,—sulking, thought Boswell. In fact, both the Dictator and laird of Auchinleck were of a mind that he tried too much to shine in conversation, for which he had no temper. But “Goldy’s” bons-mots—such as the “Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis” to Johnson, as they passed under the heads on Temple Bar,—make it evident that Garrick, with his
  “Here lies Poet Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll,”
and most of the members of the Literary Club, did not understand their Irishman. A timidity born of rough experience may have occasionally oppressed, a sensitiveness to ridicule or indifference may have confused him, a desire for approbation may frequently have led him to speak when silence had been golden; but that his conversation was “foolish” is the judgment of Philistines who make conversation an industry, not an amusement or an art.
  Boswell himself recounts more witty sayings than incomprehensible. And the “incomprehensible” are so only to Boswells and Hawkinses, who can hardly be expected to appreciate a humor, the vein of which is a mockery of their own solemn stupidity. Probably Goldsmith did say unconsidered things; he liked to think aloud in company, to “rattle on” for diversion. Keenly alive to the riches of language, he was the more likely to feel the embarrassment of impromptu selection; and while he was too much of a genius to keep count of every pearl, he was too considerate of his fellows to cast pearls only. But most of his fellows (Reynolds excepted) appreciated neither his drollery nor his unselfishness,—had not been educated up to the type of Irishman that with an artistic love of fun, is ever ready to promote the gayety of nations by sacrificing itself in the interest of laughter. For none but an artist can, without cracking a smile, offer up his wit on the altar of his humor.  23
  Prior describes Goldsmith as something under the middle size, sturdy, active, apparently capable of endurance; pale, forehead and upper lip rather projecting, face round, pitted with small-pox, and marked with strong lines of thinking. But Reynolds’s painting idealizes and therefore best expresses the man, his twofold nature: on the one hand, self-depreciatory, generous, and improvident; on the other, aspiring, hungry for approval, laborious. Just such a man as would gild poverty with a smile, decline patronage and force his last sixpence on a street-singer, pile Pelion on Ossa for his publishers and turn out cameos for art.  24

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.