Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Austin Dobson
Oliver Goldsmith (17301774)
[Oliver Goldsmith, son of the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, was born at Pallas, in County Longford, Ireland, 10th November 1728. After receiving tuition at various local schools, he was, in June 1744, admitted a sizar of Trinity College, Dublin, where he ultimately took a B.A. degree in February 1749. Having undergone varied experiences as a medical student, traveller on the continent, corrector of the press, apothecary, and school usher, he became a writer-of-all-work to Griffiths, the proprietor of the Monthly Review. His first literary effort of any importance was a pseudonymous version of the French Memoirs of a Protestant condemned to the Galleys of France for his Religion, 1758. To this followed An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, April 1759, from the title-page of which, although he made no secret of its authorship, he withheld his name. Nor did he reveal it in The Bee of the same year, or in The Citizen of the Worlda series of Chinese letters reprinted in May 1762 from Newberys Public Ledger. In December 1764, however, he published, under his own name, The Traveller; or, a Prospect of Society, a poem to which, in March 1766, succeeded the famous Vicar of Wakefield. Two years later he essayed the stage with the comedy of The Good Naturd Man, produced at Covent Garden by Colman in January 1768; and two years later again (May 1770) he published, with a singularly happy dedication to Reynolds, the well-known poem of The Deserted Village. In March 1773 appeared at Covent Garden his best play, She Stoops to Conquer; or, the Mistakes of a Night, and in 1774 (4th April) he died at his chambers, 2 Brick Court, Middle Temple, and was interred in the burying-ground of the Temple Church. His literary legacy, in addition to the above, includes much meritorious compilation; besides which, shortly after his death, were issued some occasional verses, comprising the admirable fragment called Retaliation, and the clever jeu desprit of The Haunch of Venison.]
THERE is one thing that distinguishes Goldsmith from his contemporaries; he was undoubtedly, in Johnsons phrase, a plant that flowered late. When, in 1757, he at last seriously entered the lists of literature, he was nearly thirty; and for his past production he had nothing definite to show but an indifferent epigram, and the fragment of an unprinted didactic poem which he had sent from Switzerland to his brother. One reason for this reticence is, perhaps, that he had adopted letters only as a last resource. There is little to prove that he had ever been attracted to them by ambition, or by any secret consciousness of his gifts. On the contrary, to be a clergyman, a lawyer, a doctor, had seemed to him far more desirable; and it was only when he had lost all hope of success in these directions, that he turned for a livelihood to the antiqua mater of Grub Street. But his tardiness to take up the pen professionally had this advantage, that he entered upon his calling already fairly equipped. In his discursive pilgrimage towards manhood, he had seen much of life and character; and in some obscure way he had learned to writeif, indeed, any learning had been needfulsince, judging from those of his early letters which have been preserved, a peculiar and almost unique charm must always have characterised his style. But however this may be, it is notable that when, without any appreciable previous experience, he began to lay down the critical law from the back-parlour at the Dunciad, his manner and his opinions were already formed. Making reasonable allowance for seventeen years of practice, his sentences and paragraphs when, in 1774, he laid down his pen, do not differ greatly from the sentences and paragraphs of his first contributions to Griffiths magazine. And his views in 1757 are the views which he held to the close of his career, and which, as occasion offered, he successfully illustrated by his practice. That the future author of She Stoops to Conquer should be the keenest adversary of the mouthing Douglas of Home; that the future author of the Deserted Village should deplore the note of remoteness in Grays Pindaric Odes; and, finally, that the lucid improviser of the admirable Letters from a Nobleman to his Son upon the History of England should fall foul of the lumbering and pretentious platitudes of worthy Jonas Hanwaythese things are logical enough, but they show a consistency of critical opinion not always to be found in English literature.
The prose works of Goldsmith fall naturally into two classesthose which he wrote for bread, and those which he wrote for reputation. The Memoirs of Voltaire; the History of Mecklenburgh; the Lives of Nash, of Parnell, of Bolingbroke; the Histories of Greece, of Rome, of England; and the eight volumes on Natural History which Johnson predicted he would make as interesting as a Persian tale,these and the rest were compilations, honest journey work in defect of better, as Carlyle calls itbut compilations and nothing more. They were the labours by which, as he told Lord Lisburn, he made shift to eat and drink and have good clothes. He was paid for them well, far better than for the work by which he now survives; and he rewarded his employers by informing all he touched with the grace of a style which was always clear, always simple, always easy and spontaneous. Yet the prose works which he wrote for fame are of a far higher order, because, in addition to his gifts as a writer, he reveals in them his own engaging personality as a critic, a humorist, and a delineator of character. In the first of these capacities his strength, it is true, is least conspicuous. But his tasteapart from some queer prejudices, of which his inability to appreciate justly the genius of Sterne is perhaps the most notoriouswas instinctively good, and many of his judgments, although opposed to those of his contemporaries, have been confirmed by the Superior Court of Posterity. In regard to not a few social questions, too, he was in advance of his age. It is not so much, however, to the little tour de force called An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, or to the more didactic papers in The Bee and The Citizen of the World that one turns nowadays, as to the admirable essay-comments upon contemporary quackeries and absurditiesupon the connoisseurs, the pedants, the fine ladies, the stage favourites,upon the humours and follies of the Town. Even more attractive than these are the dispersed sketches of characterJack Spindle, and My Cousin Hannah, the Man in Black and the pawnbrokers widow, Beau Tibbs the inimitable and his faded help-mate,all of them little studies in genre which need only the machinery of a plot to turn them into the personages of a story.
Such a story Goldsmith gives us in the Vicar of Wakefield, the outcome and developed expression of all this motley criticism of life. If it be a test of taste in poetry to like Lycidas, it is surely a test of taste in fiction to like the delightful Primrose family. The Vicar and his wife, the philosopher Moses, Sophia and Olivia, even those chubby rogues Bill and Dick, are all drawn, as the old art-voucher puts it, from the quick; and in addition to being individual they have the merit of being typical. Their qualities good and bad, their joys and sorrows, their simple aspirations and their venial vanities, can never be out of fashion, for they are part of the homespun wear of humanity at large. An accomplished French critic said of Tom Jones that it was la condensation et le résumé de toute une existence. The phrase is truer still of Goldsmiths famous novel. Into the two volumes of the Vicar of Wakefield he has put all the regretful memories of his departed youth, all the hard experiences of his much-enduring middle age, all the accumulation of his own life-long hunger for sympathy, and his inextinguishable love of his fellow-creatures. Whether, if he had lived, he could have repeated his success, is doubtful; and it is certainly matter for congratulation that no failure in the same direction has ever detracted from the perennial charm of his solitary essay in fiction. One has but to turn for a moment to the pages of the great writers who were his contemporaries to recognise at once how cosmopolitan in its conception, and how entirely independent of suggestion from any reigning models is the Vicar of Wakefield. It might have been written in any country, and it is read all over the world.
From what has been said at the outset it will have been gathered that Goldsmiths style demands no lengthy examination. Indeed much of its attraction is of that native and personal kind which resists the resolvents of analysis. That he may have learnt something of phrase-building from the Rambler is possible, but he clearly, and fortunately, did not learn too much. It is demonstrable that, for certain of the qualities of his verse, he was largely indebted to French models; and it is not unreasonable to conclude that French models generally, and Voltaire in particular, had also influenced him in prose. But when one has catalogued his peculiarities and noted his differences, when one has duly scheduled his gifts of simplicity, ease, gaiety, pathos, and humour, something still remains undefined and evasivethe something that is Genius.