Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Washington Irving (17831859)
From Life of Oliver Goldsmith
IT has been questioned whether he really had any religious feeling. Those who raise the question have never considered well his writings; his Vicar of Wakefield, and his pictures of the Village Pastor, present religion under its most endearing forms, and with a feeling that could only flow from the deep convictions of the heart. When his fair travelling companions at Paris urged him to read the Church Service on a Sunday, he replied that he was not worthy to do it. He had seen in early life the sacred offices performed by his father and his brother with a solemnity which had sanctified them in his memory: how could he presume to undertake such functions? His religion has been called in question by Johnson and by Boswell; he certainly had not the gloomy hypochondriacal piety of the one, nor the babbling mouth piety of the other; but the spirit of Christian charity, breathed forth in his writings and illustrated in his conduct, give us reason to believe he had the indwelling religion of the soul.
We have made sufficient comments in the preceding chapters on his conduct in elevated circles of literature and fashion. The fairy gifts which took him there were not accompanied by the gifts and graces necessary to sustain him in that artificial sphere. He can neither play the learned sage with Johnson, nor the fine gentleman with Beauclerc; though he has a mind replete with wisdom and natural shrewdness, and a spirit free from vulgarity. The blunders of a fertile but hurried intellect, and the awkward display of the student assuming the man of fashion, fix on him a character for absurdity and vanity which, like the charge of lunacy, it is hard to disprove, however weak the grounds of the charge and strong the facts in opposition to it.
In truth, he is never truly in his place in these learned and fashionable circles, which talk and live for display. It is not the kind of society he craves. His heart yearns for domestic life; it craves familiar, confiding intercourse, family firesides, the guileless and happy company of children; these bring out the heartiest and sweetest sympathies of his nature.
Had it been his fate, says the critic whom we have already quoted, to meet a woman who could have loved him despite his faults, and respected him despite his foibles, we cannot but think that his life and his genius would have been much more harmonious; his desultory affections would have been concentred, his craving self-love appeased, his pursuits more settled, his character more solid. A nature like Goldsmiths, so affectionate, so confiding, so susceptible to simple innocent enjoyments, so dependent on others for the sunshine of existence, does not flower if deprived of the atmosphere of home.
The cravings of his heart in this respect are evident, we think, throughout his career; and if we have dwelt with more significancy than others upon his intercourse with the beautiful Horneck family, it is because we fancied we could detect, amid his playful attentions to one of its members, a lurking sentiment of tenderness, kept down by conscious poverty and a humiliating idea of personal defects. A hopeless feeling of this kind, the last a man would communicate to his friends, might account for much of that fitfulness of conduct, and that gathering melancholy, remarked, but not comprehended by his associates, during the last year or two of his life; and may have been one of the troubles of the mind which aggravated his last illness, and only terminated with his death.
We shall conclude these desultory remarks with a few which have been used by us on a former occasion. From the general tone of Goldsmiths biography, it is evident that his faults at the worst were but negative, while his merits were great and decided. He was no ones enemy but his own; his errors in the main, inflicted evil on none but himself, and were so blended with humourous and even affecting circumstances, as to disarm anger and conciliate kindness. Where eminent talent is united to spotless virtue, we are awed and dazzled into admiration, but our admiration is apt to be cold and reverential; while there is something in the harmless infirmities of a good and great, but erring individual, that pleads touchingly to our nature; and we turn more kindly towards the object of our idolatry, when we find that, like ourselves, he is mortal and frail. The epithet so often heard, and in such kindly tones, of Poor Goldsmith! speaks volumes. Few who consider the real compound of admirable and whimsical qualities which form his character, would wish to prune away its eccentricities, trim its grotesque luxuriance, and clip it down to the decent formalities of rigid virtue. Let not his frailties be remembered, said Johnson, he was a very great man. But for our part, we rather say, Let them be remembered, since their tendency is to endear; and we question whether he himself would not feel gratified in hearing his reader, after dwelling with admiration on the proofs of his greatness, close the volume with the kind-hearted phrase, so fondly and familiarly ejaculated, of Poor Goldsmith!