Dr Oliver Goldsmith
(1728-1774)
by J. H. Plumb

Dr. Oliver Goldsmith was a very great man. This his contemporaries agreed on, yet none of them knew quite why. He baffled Dr. Johnson with his absurdities; Horace Walpole dismissed him as "an inspired idiot"; David Garrick immortalized him in the biting lines:

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll.

And even Sir Joshua Reynolds, who saw further and deeper into Goldsmith's character than anyone else, realised that no man could get such a reputation for absurdity without there being reason for it.

All agreed that the most absurd thing about Goldsmith, more absurd even than his asinine and inappropriate remarks, was his transparent envy. He could not bear praise of any man. The adulation rendered to Samuel Johnson gave him acute pain. Sometimes he tried to discharge his envy by making a joke of it and a mock of himself, as when he leaped onto a chair to show that he could deliver a better speech than Edmund Burke and dried up after two sentences. Yet the envy was there; as unmistakable as it was painful. And naturally his friends rubbed salt and acid on the raw aching heart. Solace he found for his strange nature in jokes, in absurdity, and in writing. He was driven by the deep urges of his personality as much as Dr. Johnson or James Boswell, but their urges were powerful, sensual, religious, locked in a massive, virile framework of passion. Oliver Goldsmith was blown about like a butterfly: his character seemed to lack core or mass. He longed for applause, love, affection, to be known to be good, to be wholesome, to be wanted. And the effect became ludicrous. The urgency of his desires, the immediacy of his responses, the unawareness of their excess, made him foolish; his features and his manner rendered him ludicrous. People laughed at him but wanted to be with him, so what began as an absurdity became a practise in folly. Notoriety and laughter, even against himself, were better than isolation and neglect.

Yet despite the disintegration of his personality, the foolishness of his actions, his excessive drunkenness and incurable extravagance, Goldsmith was, and is, a great man — a man of rare talents that bordered on genius, one of the finest natural writers in the English language. This reputation is based on, and justified by, some half a dozen books, essays, plays, poems, and one novel, The Vicar Of Wakefield.

He was an Irishman, born probably on November 10, 1728, at Pallas, in the County of Longford, the son of a clergyman in the Church of England. Goldsmith grew up in genteel poverty in rural isolation in a society in which the barriers of class were as firm as the Great Wall of China; in which riches and poverty, benevolence or tyranny, seemed as wayward as the winds of heaven. He acquired an education at Edgeworthstown School, and Trinity College, Dublin, but he got into scrapes, went wandering, and was somewhat lucky to get his B.A. in 1749. Off he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, and there he began to discover his true predicament — that he was a poor man, wretchedly poor, so poor that hunger lived with him like a wife and starvation became not a fanciful trope but a threat. And he was an ugly man, really ugly, and never desired. As he himself wrote:

"An ugly man and a poor man is society only for himself, and such society the world lets me enjoy in great abundance. . . . I may sit down and laugh at the world, and at myself, the most ridiculous object in it."

For years he drifted, living hand to mouth, begging his bread by playing on his flute, giving lessons in English, entering into formal disputations for the sake of a meal. By such means he did the Grand Tour on foot — the Netherlands, France, and Italy — and finally washed up in 1756 at Peckham, a London suburb, as a junior schoolmaster, an experience which he so detested that the memory of it drove him into a passion.

Yet his short stay at that school had been comparatively happy compared with the first few months after his return from Europe. He had eked out a living partly through practising medicine — usually his patients were poorer than he and could not pay — and partly through hack work with publishers, including possibly Samuel Richardson, the novelist and printer.

"Nothing," wrote Goldsmith, "is more apt to introduce us to the gates of the muses than Poverty."

Once hunger had driven him through, the gates closed, and there was no other life for Goldsmith. Having thrown up his usher's job at the school, he became what was in effect an assistant editor of the Monthly Review. The work put him in a state of euphoria. He worked hard; reviewed everything — plays, satires, mythology, philosophy, botany; tired rapidly; evaded his work or did it in a slipshod way, and within five months had given it up — as feckless and as restless as ever. But literature had him in its grip. True, he went on with his medicine for a time, and even did another spell at Peckham, but it was too easy to make a sort of living in literary London of Goldsmith's day for him to be able to resist for long such a pleasurable, drifting, talking, drinking life. He tried to. He planned to go out as a surgeon to India and make his fortune; the prospect of riches, the certainty of status, enticed him, yet he always procrastinated; he was born to write and the opportunities were not hard to come by.

The London book market was expanding fast, very fast; publishers' profits might be uncertain, but they were usually large. The trouble was to get enough copy. Translations naturally were in great demand, and Goldsmith was willing to translate anything. The compilation of factual educational books of a general nature — histories, books on the natural world, compendiums of philosophy — helped to slake the middle-class thirst for knowledge.

Goldsmith wrote with confidence, if slight accuracy, on all branches of knowledge. Subscription lists for innumerable projects floated about London, drawing in guineas for needy authors and prosperous publishers, and sometimes, but usually many, many years later, producing a set of volumes. For a man of Goldsmith's inventive genius, projects were a godsend. In this world Goldsmith hacked along — sometimes flush with guineas, more often chased by debtors. And still he clung to his Indian adventure. In times of misery, when the world of debt and poverty closed in on him, he tried to summon up courage to go to Coromandel, to gamble on the chance of a quick death or a certain fortune — a dream that was finally shattered in 1758 when the French took Madras. It did not matter. In 1760, Goldsmith began to publish The Citizen of the World in the Public Ledger, a magazine run by a really great publisher, John Newbery, whom Goldsmith afterwards introduced into The Vicar of Wakefield as the "philanthropic bookseller." These essays, purporting to be written by a Chinese philosopher — Lien Chi — about London and the English, established Goldsmith's reputation. The method was not original; not only had Montesquieu used it in his Lettres Persanes but so had Horace Walpole, as recently as 1757, in his Letter of Xo-Ho, a Chinese Philosopher in London. And often the matter was no more original than the method, for Goldsmith tired quickly and found deadlines odious, so he lifted passages wholesale from several writers on China or Persia. Nevertheless these essays deserved their success and they remain one of the most dexterous and ironic comments on society of Goldsmith's day. They are, like all that Goldsmith did, written with grace, and although they reek with commonplace morality, the general drift is towards tolerance, kindliness, a mitigation of savagery, tyranny, poverty, and pain. From this time on Goldsmith became a figure of literary London — the friend of Reynolds, Johnson, Garrick, Burke, Percy, and almost everyone else who wrote or painted or talked about art and letters.

His output the next fourteen years was as extensive as it was uneven and the quality of his books was almost in inverse proportion to their size. His eight-volume History of the Earth and Animated Nature, his four-volume History of England, and his two-volume History of Rome are now worthless and unreadable. In their day they provided a vast amount of information for the general reader, some accurate, but a great deal false, in easy, gracious prose. In them, there was little of Goldsmith but tens of thousands of other writers' words: few have plagiarised so remorselessly as Goldsmith. During these years, however, he created as well as compiled. He wrote two long poems, The Traveller (1764) and The Deserted Village (1770), both of enduring value; two plays, The Good Natured Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1773), that radically changed the direction of the English theatre; and one novel of genius, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). These works have lasted: the plays are acted year in, year out; extracts from the poems embellish the majority of anthologies; and the novel has a rare and special place in English literature.

No one knows when or why Goldsmith wrote The Vicar of Wakefield. Certainly it was composed before 1762 when the manuscript saved him from the bailiffs. Samuel Johnson found him about to be arrested by his landlady for debt. Naturally he asked him if he had any marketable manuscript and Goldsmith dug out The Vicar of Wakefield. After a hasty glance, Johnson went off to Newbery, the bookseller, and sold it for sixty guineas. It remained unpublished for four years; Newbery was so doubtful about its worth that he hedged on it by selling a share to a Salisbury bookseller. Out at last in 1766 the critics handled it warily; the public bought it hesitantly. Dr. Johnson impatiently called it "a mere fanciful performance." The mood of the seventeen sixties did not suit it; gradually, however, its popularity spread. During the Victorian age it was translated into a dozen languages and its characters became a part of the English literary folklore. And yet by any standards it is a slipshod piece of work. Improbability is heaped on improbability until the mechanics of the plot become quite outrageous. The characters, too, will scarcely bear analysis. The good are very, very good and most of the wicked damnable: only the rogue, Jenkinson, is allowed to be betwixt and between- otherwise the heart is overwhelmingly in the right or the wrong place. And the dialogue, considering that Goldsmith possessed a good ear for music and wrote excellent plays, is remarkable for its artificiality. Yet millions of people have loved it, and tens of thousands still read it every year with immense pleasure, alien as it is to current literary interests or techniques. Why?

Primarily because it radiates goodness, and goodness most writers have found almost impossible to convey without being either sententious or tedious or both. Dr. Primrose, the hero, however, is a very good man. Of course, he is silly, gullible, too prone to charity, and a natural victim of all who are tyrannical and vicious. So he suffers, and how he suffers. The whole novel is an odyssey of undeserved disaster. Primrose is stripped of everything — home, daughters, son, reputation — only through trusting human beings. Yet he never loses hope, never, even in gaol, tires of life. His spirit proves unbreakable. He retains a relish for living in the worst of times. And that, of course, is the experience of humanity. Men and women do not break under public disaster or private grief: they endure, and maybe as they go on they find they still like living. And that is the moral of The Vicar of Wakefield, of Dr. Primrose. The buffets of a wanton Fate cannot destroy the human spirit. This is the theme of the novel and although it still appeals deeply to its readers, it probably appealed even more intensely to the rougher, more uncertain world of the nineteenth century, where feudal tyranny still flourished. Men at that time could still violate justice, suborn witnesses, browbeat the poor, and stamp on the humble. Men by the very nature of their status were at the mercy of their social superiors, and much that seems wildly improbable to us appeared not so singular to our grandfathers.

That a rich squire should get his way not only with girls but also with the law might be the material of melodrama, yet it was never a figment of the imagination. It happened. Doubtless Goldsmith could have given chapter and verse, for many of the blows that Dr. Primrose suffered, from his memories of his father's time as a country parson in Ireland. And, of course. Goldsmith himself knew the outrages that the powerless and the poverty-stricken had to endure at the hands of their richer superiors. Also he knew the reverse of this: how a man of generous instincts could shower unexpected blessings on those inferior to himself as Sir William Thornhill did on the Primrose family. In Goldsmith's day, and for long after, the wheel of chance could whirl with astonishing speed. The Vicar of Wakefield may be light, romantic, improbable, but embedded in it is both moral and social comment. And this, as well as its charm, gives it enduring worth. It also contains many incidental felicities: there are excellent Lyrics, charming anecdotes, and one of the best expositions of; Toryism in eighteenth-century literature. And every scene is beautifully written. Goldsmith wrote as a bird sings; the words flowed from his pen as naturally as he breathed. No wonder that the envy was not all on Goldsmith's side and that Dr. Johnson found it hard at times to restrain his malice. And perhaps the jealousy that Goldsmith roused ran deeper than this. His irresponsible spirits, his fecklessness, and absurdities indicate, like his gifts, a direct response to life that most men of ability find hard to achieve.

And so Dr. Goldsmith was a very great man. In his own day the hallmarks of his fame were his "laughing" comedies, so much more robustly comic than the sentimental plays in vogue, and his poetry in which much of the warmth and tenderness of the future romantic movement was expressed with a technical dexterity that could keep company with Dryden and Pope. The fine clothes, excellent food, plentiful wine, the condescension of the great and the applause of the common folk, which his success brought him, he enjoyed openly and immoderately. Goldsmith could not have enough adulation. Resplendent in satin and as ugly as sin, he became one of the great luminaries of the literary scene, noticed even by Horace Walpole, who refused to be introduced to Dr. Johnson. Goldsmith, however, lived too hard: played too much, worked too much. His health broke and, stupidly, he treated himself, rejected good doctors, and followed the advice of indifferent apothecaries. At the age of forty-five, on April 4, 1774, Goldsmith died.

He was still young. So inventive, so natural a writer must have produced further works of distinction had he lived, yet most probably his place in literature would have been neither higher nor lower than it is, for he was unlucky to be born in Johnson's day. His wayward spirit would have been happier in the full flood tide of romanticism; his achievement then might have been far greater. The greatest heights, however, could never have been his. He lacked depth of passion — the fierce overriding passion that darkens the world of true literary genius. Nature, which had given him so much, denied him all capacity for it. Even though he looked like Caliban, his spirit was all Ariel.

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