Goldsmith - PA Criticism Archive

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ONE of the most pleasing novels of a modern cast is The Vicar of Wakefield. Its author, Oliver Goldsmith, was born in the year 1731, at Pallas in the county of Longford in Ireland, according to his epitaph in Westminster Abbey; but another account mentions Elphin as his birth-place. His character was eccentric; his pursuits were desultory. His father, who was a clergyman, gave him a classical education, and sent him from school to Dublin college. Like Swift, he is said to have exhibited no peculiar marks of quickness in this period of his life, and he did not take his bachelor's degree till two years after the usual time.

As he was intended for the study of physic, he removed to the university of Edinburgh in 1751, where he staid three years; but he seems not to have brought with him to this seminary much steadiness of application or ardour for professional studies, and he was obliged to quit it clandestinely on account of a debt he had contracted;—it is said, for a fellow-student, but probably the consequence of that mutual accommodation which often subsists between young

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and thoughtless companions. He was pursued, and arrested at Sunderland; but was released through the friendship of two fellow-students. The world was now all before him, [2]  and he therefore resolved to see it, and accordingly embarked immediately for Holland; and poor as he was, and struggling with difficulties of every kind, performed a tour, mostly on foot, through that country, Flanders, and part of Germany. He passed some time at the universities of Paris and Louvain, and took a bachelor's degree of physic at the latter of these seminaries. He thence accompanied an English gentlemen to Geneva and was there recommended as a travelling tutor to a man of fortune.

An eccentric genius is but ill calculated for a guide: our author scarcely possessed one qualification for the office, natural taste excepted; and probably the youth, who had just succeeded to a large fortune, was as impatient of being guided, as his tutor was unused to guide. Be that as it may, their connexion was soon dissolved by a disagreement, and poor Goldsmith was left alone in the south of France, friendless and destitute in a foreign country, to find his way home, or pursue his tour as he could. Uncomfortable as many circumstances in this excursion must have been, it was here that the young poet laid in those images which afterwards produced his beautiful poem of The Traveller, great part of which was written in the countries which he describes; and, though no doubt a melancholy thought would sometimes intrude, as he found himself,

"Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow," [3] 


wandering on foot by the banks of the Scheldt or the Po, his mode of travelling was incontestably more favourable to reflection, and gave more opportunity to the ideas to sink leisurely into his mind, than if he had been borne along through half Europe by the rattling wheels of a postchaise.

As a literary man, he was received by the convents with that hospitality which they so laudably practised; and he tells his readers no more than the literal truth, when, in his Traveller, he represents himself as leading "with tuneless pipe the sportive choir" [4]  of the French peasants; for to the little knowledge which he had of the German flute he was often obliged for a lodging and a dinner.

When Goldsmith returned to England, a few pence in his pocket were the whole of his finances; he knew no one, and had no recommendations; and in this manner was he launched upon the great metropolis, with his pressing wants, and only his talents to provide for them. Without introduction, and of no promising appearance as to externals, he offered himself as journeyman to several apothecaries without success, and was at length obliged to accept of employment in the laboratory of a chemist near Fish-Street-Hill.

It was not long before he found out one of his old college friends, the same who had assisted in liberating him from the arrest, who, though he with difficulty recognised him through the forlorn appearance he made, generously shared his purse with him while he staid in London.

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Goldsmith did not remain long in a situation so little adapted to his education and talents: he was recommended by the chemist as assistant to Dr. Milner, who kept an academy at Peckham. The office of usher in a school has been the resource, at one time or other of their lives, of a great portion of men eminent for literature; but it cannot be said that their gratitude has led them to any partiality for that mode of life; as, on the contrary, they have generally taken care to show the disgust they had conceived against the employment, by painting in pretty strong colours, as Goldsmith has done in his Vicar of Wakefield, the disagreeable circumstances attending it.

He soon quitted this situation; and having become acquainted with the booksellers, and being employed by them, he took lodgings in London, and became author by profession. He was at first employed in the Monthly Review, and in a set of essays for a newspaper, which were afterwards collected in his works under the title of The Citizen of the World. He also published a weekly paper called The Bee, and other pieces. But he was still amongst the drudges of literature, working in obscurity, and his name was unknown to the public, till he suddenly emerged into light by the publication of his Traveller, in 1765, which at once lifted him to an eminent station amongst the English poets. Both the character and scenery of different countries are touched in this poem with a rapid but masterly hand. Those of Holland and Switzerland are particularly striking. The moral and


political reflections that are introduced seem rather suggested by the necessity of finding a cement to bind the separate parts together, than by any spirit of philosophical research. The charming descriptions dwell upon the mind, but the moral is forgotten; or, if remembered, it is only to awaken the mind to the fallacy of the maxim, that every form of civil society is equal in its influence on human happiness.

Goldsmith at this period seems to have had thoughts of practising as a physician. He dressed in the professional costume then in use, assumed airs of dignity, and left off those places of vulgar resort where he used to laugh and amuse himself. He went on, however, with his literary schemes; and in the next year The Vicar of Wakefield made its appearance. This delightful little novel had indeed been written some time before, and by the intervention of Dr. Johnson sold for sixty pounds, which went to discharge the author's rent. But booksellers are not always judges of their own goods, and the manuscript was kept back through diffidence of its success, till the author had acquired a name by his poem. Thus he had the ill-luck to dispose of both works as the first productions of an unknown author.

His fame as a writer was now established, and from this time he was employed in a variety of works, from which he drew a very comfortable subsistence. The furniture of his mind was various, but his knowledge was superficial. Taste supplied in him the deficiencies of science: his style was easy and flowing, and every thing

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he wrote, whether in verse or prose, bore the impression of his talent. Even to those publications which he compiled for booksellers, he communicated something of the charm of his own genius; and Dr. Johnson said of him with equal felicity and truth, "Nullum fere scribendi genus non tetigit, nullum quod tetigit non ornavit." [5] 

Goldsmith now took rooms in the Temple, and, along with a friend, a country-house on the Edgeware road. Here he wrote his History of England, in Letters from a Nobleman to his Son. These were long attributed to Lord Lyttleton. Probably the booksellers were in no haste to undeceive the public. It is still in great credit as an introductory book for youth. He also produced, at different times, a Roman History, a History of Greece, and a Life of Bolingbroke, and of Parnell, prefixed to editions of their works.

In 1768 he tried a new walk, and ventured upon the stage with his comedy of The Goodnatured Man, but without much success, though it possessed a good share of comic merit and originality. The public taste was at that time very much for sentimental comedy—la comédie larmoyante, [6] — and False Delicacy, a play of Kelly's, was acted with great applause at the other house. [7]  It is said that poor Goldsmith could never forgive Kelly his success. He however made 500l. by the piece; and if he had lost any popularity by it, it was amply regained by his Deserted Village, which he published in 1770, and of which he seems hardly to have been sen-


sible of the merit; for he refused at first to take the hundred pounds which the bookseller offered for it, saying, it was five shillings a couplet—more than the sale of a poem could ever repay. It may be thought, perhaps, that authors and booksellers understand one another better at this period.

There is scarcely any poem in the English language, in which harmony, beautiful description, and pathos are united with greater effect than in this piece. The plan of it is an expansion of the concluding lines of The Traveller, and displays the same prejudice, if it be prejudice, against commercial opulence. Many inquiries were made at the time, where the village of "sweet Auburn" had been situated. It is to be found in the county of Roscommon: its population or depopulation existed probably only in the poet's fancy, as it does not appear that he ever visited Ireland after he had left it, but the images cannot be contemplated without the most lively emotion. The character of the good pastor does not suffer by a comparison with Dryden's. It was probably meant for his brother, whom he describes in his address to him as "having retired to happiness and obscurity on an income of 40l. a year;" and for whom he seems to have entertained an ardent affection and esteem. The schoolmaster, and the village alehouse, are streaked with that humour which characterizes his Vicar of Wakefield. It is difficult to say which of his two poems has most poetical merit: but this was certainly the most popular. It interested the feelings. The four


last lines, as well as the ten concluding ones of The Traveller, were given him by Dr. Johnson.

Two years after this he hazarded another attempt to make the public laugh, and this time succeeded. His comedy She Stoops to Conquer is full of absurdities, and the humour of it hardly rises above farce. His friends had great apprehensions for its fate. Mr. Cumberland, in his Memoirs, gives a very entertaining account of the manœuvres practised by his friends, by posting people in different parts of the house to laugh and clap at the appointed places, in order to secure its success. The author himself came into the house when they were beginning a hiss at some passage. "What noise is that?" said he, in much alarm. "Oh doctor," said Colman, "do not be afraid of squibs, when we have been sitting these two hours upon a barrel of gunpowder." He did not forgive this sally.

The last work Goldsmith was employed in was his History of the Earth and animated Nature. He was but little of a naturalist, but he was a fine writer; and with the help of Buffon and other authors he produced a work popular and pleasing in high degree, though charged with errors by more scientific writers.

The literary fame of Goldsmith was now established, and the profits of his labours were such as ought to have made his circumstances perfectly easy: but he was a man of no regularity or worldly prudence, and, besides a propensity to show and expense, he had contracted an unfortunate habit of gaming, which involved him in pecuniary distress: his constitution too began to


give way, and he fell into a state of dejection, in which he expressed almost a weariness of life. In this state he was seized with a fever, which, assisted by a large dose of medicine which he took contrary to the advice of his physician, carried him off in March, 1774, at the early age of five-and-forty. A monument was erected for him in Westminster Abbey, with an elegant epitaph by his steady friend Dr. Johnson.

Goldsmith was awkward and uncouth in his person and manners. He did not shine in company, and seems to have had more than common propensity to blundering and confusion of ideas which is generally attributed to his countrymen. He had no powers of conversation, and seems to have been in some measure the butt of the wits with whom he associated. This consciousness of inferiority, which is never perhaps felt so much as in what regards personal intercourse, probably occasioned the feeling of envy to which it is acknowledged he was unfortunately subject. He was generous; and a great part of his expenses, as well as the most laudable, consisted in benefactions to poor authors and other objects of his beneficence. He had known distress, and was never tardy in relieving it. In other respects he was a man of rather fine feelings than of pure morals. Unfortunately they do not always go together.

The last piece that came from his pen was a little poem, entitled Retaliation, which was written by way of retort to the raillery of his friends at the literary club, who had been amusing themselves with writing humorous


epitaphs upon him. The characters which, in the form of epitaphs, he has given in return, are drawn with spirit, and upon the whole cannot be called severe; but the sport of this kind always carries a sting in it. In the character of Garrick, the inordinate appetite for praise of that accomplished actor was too truly touched not to irritate the jealousy of his self-love, and he retaliated by an epigrammatic fable of much more severity.

Of all the walks in which Goldsmith exercised his genius, that of poetry is the one in which it shone the brightest. Of his compositions in this line the bulk is small; but for beautiful discription, touching sentiment, and a harmony of versification that operates like a charm upon any one who has an ear for poetry, they are scarcely exceeded by any in the language. His Vicar of Wakefield is the only Novel he ever wrote, and it is one of the most pleasing we have. It is in this work that the author's talent for humour most successfully displays itself. Many of the incidents are irresistibly comic. Such are the gravity and self-importance of Moses, when he produces his bargain of spectacles with silver rims; the expedition to church upon Blackberry and Dobbin; the family picture, which was too large to enter the doors; the slyness of the vicar in overturning the cosmetic, while he pretended to stir the fire; and the schemes and plottings of good notable Mrs. Primrose with her gooseberry wine. We are at once touched and diverted with the harmless vanities of the whole group, joined with innocence and benevolence. The character of the vicar somewhat resembles Par-


son Adams, [8]  and perhaps still more the author's own village pastor, "a man to all the country dear." [9]  He is distinguished from the former by an admirable vein of dry humour, and resembles him in the honest simplicity of a man without guile: to this is joined a touch of professional vanity. In the serious parts of the story his behaviour is highly dignified; and it is hoped there are few who can read his discourse in the prison, when the good man is stripped of his all and overwhelmed with calamities, without feeling those emotions at once salutary and gratifying, which goodness and piety bearing up against misfortune are calculated to inspire. The benevolence and piety of Adams have always something ludicrous in them: the Vicar of Wakefield is a higher character. His kind feelings towards his family, the affecting tenderness with which he receives again his repentant daughter, his hospitality and flowing benevolence, with his behaviour in every scene of distress, make him a pleasing and venerable character, and are evidently painted by a man who, whatever were his faults, strongly felt the enthusiasm of virtue and piety.

The plot of this piece is full of improbabilities and absurdities. All that relates to the two kept-mistresses is coarse and low; the character of Burchell, alias Sir William, is too romantic for a representation of real life, and even in his love there is a great want of delicacy, or he would not have insulted his mistress with pretending to make a match between her and the fellow Jenkinson:—but whatever be its faults, we easily


forgive the author, who has made us laugh, and has made us cry. In the adventures of the eldest son the author has related some of the vicissitudes of his own life. It must not be forgotten that this novel is enriched with two specimens of the author's poetical powers. The first, "When lovely woman stoops to folly," [10]  is wonderfully pathetic. It is sweet as music, and polished like a gem. The Hermit is a most pleasing tale, and has always been very popular. The idea of it is supposed to be taken from Percy's Friar of Orders grey; [11]  but Goldsmith asserted that if there was any resemblance; the Friar was taken from his Hermit, which he says he read to Percy, and that Percy the next time he saw him told him he had made use of his plan to weave together fragments of Shakespear. It is worthy of remark that this novel has been imitated by La Fontaine, a very pleasing novel writer of the present age, under the title of Tableaux de Famille. La Fontaine, like our author, excels in pictures of domestic life and touches of naïveté; but he by no means possesses the humour, the irresistible humour, of Goldsmith.


[1] The British Novelists; with an Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld, 50 Vols. (London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington; W. Otridge and Son; A. Strahan; T. Payne; G. Robinson; W. Lowndes; Wilkie and Robinson; Scatcherd and Letterman; J. Walker; Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe; R. Lea; J. Nunn; Lackington and Co.; Clarke and Son; C. Law; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; E. Jeffery; J.K. Newman; Crosby and Co.; J. Carpenter; S. Bagster; T. Booth; J. Murray; J. and J. Richardson; Black, Parry, and Kingsbury; J. Harding; R. Phillips; J. Mawman; J. Booker; J. Asperne; R. Baldwin; Mathews and Leigh; J. Faulder; Johnson and Co.; Sherwood and Co.; J. Miller;W. Creech, Edinburgh; and Wilson and Son, York, 1810), 23: i-iii. Victoria Wynn and Mary A. Waters co-edited this essay with assistance from Bronwen Johnson for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] See Milton, Paradise Lost Bk. XII, 646. BACK

[3] Line 1 of Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Traveller (1764). BACK

[4] Lines 243-4 of Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Traveller (1764), somewhat altered. BACK

[5] Taken from Samuel Johnson's epitaph for Oliver Goldsmith. These lines roughly translate to "who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn." BACK

[6] "Tearful comedy," a popular genre on the eighteenth-century French stage. BACK

[7] False Delicacy opened in 1768 at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane. BACK

[8] The protagonist's companion in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742), by Henry Fielding. BACK

[9] Goldsmith, The Deserted Village (1770) 141. BACK

[10] The short poem is sung by the Vicar's daughter after she has been seduced. BACK

[11] Printed in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). BACK

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