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Outlines of English and American Literature
Oliver Goldsmith
by Long, William J.

Most versatile of eighteenth-century writers was "poor Noll," a most improvident kind of man in all worldly ways, but so skillful with his pen that Johnson wrote a sincere epitaph to the effect that Goldsmith attempted every form of literature, and adorned everything which he attempted. The form of his verse suggests the formal school, and his polished couplets rival those of Pope; but there the resemblance ceases. In his tenderness and humor, in his homely subjects and the warm human sympathy with which he describes them, Goldsmith belongs to the new romantic school of poetry.


The life of Goldsmith has inspired many pens; but the subject, far from being exhausted, is still awaiting the right biographer. The poet's youthful escapades in the Irish country, his classical education at Trinity College, Dublin, and his vagabond studies among gypsies and peddlers, his childish attempts at various professions, his wanderings over Europe, his shifts and makeshifts to earn a living in London, his tilts with Johnson at the Literary Club, his love of gorgeous raiment, his indiscriminate charity, his poverty, his simplicity, his success in the art of writing and his total failure in the art of living,--such kaleidoscopic elements make a brief biography impossible. The character of the man appears in a single incident.

Landing one day on the Continent with a flute, a spare shirt and a guinea as his sole outward possessions, the guinea went for a feast and a game of cards at the nearest inn, and the shirt to the first beggar that asked for it. There remained only the flute, and with that Goldsmith fared forth confidently, like the gleeman of old with his harp, delighted at seeing the world, utterly forgetful of the fact that he had crossed the Channel in search of a medical education.

That aimless, happy-go-lucky journey was typical of Goldsmith's whole life of forty-odd years. Those who knew him loved but despaired of him. When he passed away (1774) Johnson summed up the feeling of the English literary world in the sentence, "He was a very great man, let not his frailties be remembered."

Goldsmith's Prose and Verse

Among the forgotten works of Goldsmith we note with interest several that he wrote for children: a fanciful History of England, an entertaining but most unreliable Animated Nature, and probably also the tale of "Little Goody Twoshoes." These were written (as were all his other works) to satisfy the demands of his landlady, or to pay an old debt, or to buy a new cloak,--a plum-colored velvet cloak, wherewith to appear at the opera or to dazzle the Literary Club. From among his works we select four, as illustrative of Goldsmith's versatility.

The Citizen of the World, a series of letters from an alleged Chinese visitor, invites comparison with the essays of Addison or Steele. All three writers are satirical, all have a high moral purpose, all are masters of a graceful style, but where the "Spectator" touches the surface of life, Goldsmith often goes deeper and probes the very spirit of the eighteenth century. Here is a paragraph from the first letter, in which the alleged visitor, who has heard much of the wealth and culture of London, sets down his first impressions:

    "From these circumstances in their buildings, and from the dismal
    looks of the inhabitants, I am induced to conclude that the nation
    is actually poor, and that, like the Persians, they make a splendid
    figure everywhere but at home. The proverb of Xixofou is, that a
    man's riches may be seen in his eyes if we judge of the English by
    this rule, there is not a poorer nation under the sun."

The Deserted Village

The Deserted Village (1770) is the best remembered of Goldsmith's poems, or perhaps one should say "verses" in deference to critics like Matthew Arnold who classify the work with Pope's Essay on Man, as a rimed dissertation rather than a true poem.

To compare the two works just mentioned is to discover how far Goldsmith is from his formal model. In Pope's "Essay" we find common sense, moral maxims and some alleged philosophy, but no emotion, no romance, no men or women. The "Village," on the other hand, is romantic even in desolation; it awakens our interest, our sympathy; and it gives us two characters, the Parson and the Schoolmaster, who live in our memories with the best of Chaucer's creations. Moreover, it makes the commonplace life of man ideal and beautiful, and so appeals to readers of widely different tastes or nationalities. Of the many ambitious poems written in the eighteenth century, the two most widely read (aside from the songs of Burns) are Goldsmith's "Village," which portrays the life of simple country people, and Gray's "Elegy," which laments their death.

Vicar of Wakefield

Goldsmith's one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), has been well called "the Prince Charming" of our early works of fiction. This work has a threefold distinction: its style alone is enough to make it pleasant reading; as a story it retains much of its original charm, after a century and a half of proving; by its moral purity it offered the best kind of rebuke to the vulgar tendency of the early English novel, and influenced subsequent fiction in the direction of cleanness and decency.

The story is that of a certain vicar, or clergyman, Dr. Primrose and his family, who pass through heavy trials and misfortunes. These might crush or embitter an ordinary man, but they only serve to make the Vicar's love for his children, his trust in God, his tenderness for humanity, shine out more clearly, like star's after a tempest. Mingled with these affecting trials are many droll situations which probably reflect something of the author's personal escapades; for Goldsmith was the son of a clergyman, and brought himself and his father into his tale. As a novel, that is, a reflection of human life in the form of a story, it contains many weaknesses; but despite its faults of moralizing and sentimentality, the impression which the story leaves is one of "sweetness and light." Swinburne says that, of all novels he had seen rise and fall in three generations, The Vicar of Wakefield alone had retained the same high level in the opinion of its readers.

She Stoops to Conquer

Another notable work is Goldsmith's comedy She Stoops to Conquer. The date of that comedy (1773) recalls the fact that, though it has been played for nearly a century and a half, during which a thousand popular plays have been forgotten, it is still a prime favorite on the amateur stage. Perhaps the only other comedies of which the same can be said with approximate truth are The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777) of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

The plot of She Stoops to Conquer is said to have been suggested by one of Goldsmith's queer adventures. He arrived one day at a village, riding a borrowed nag, and with the air of a lordly traveler asked a stranger to direct him "to the best house in the place." The stranger misunderstood, or else was a rare wag, for he showed the way to the abode of a wealthy gentleman. There Goldsmith made himself at home, ordered the servants about, invited his host to share a bottle of wine,--in short, made a great fool of himself. Evidently the host was also a wag, for he let the joke run on till the victim was ready to ride away. [Footnote: There is some doubt as to the source of Goldsmith's plot. It may have been suggested by an earlier French comedy by Marivaux.]

From some such crazy escapade Goldsmith made his comedy of manners, a lively, rollicking comedy of topsy-turvy scenes, all hinging upon the incident of mistaking a private house for a public inn. We have called She Stoops to Conquer a comedy of eighteenth-century manners, but our continued interest in its absurdities would seem to indicate that it is a comedy of human nature in all ages.


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