Page images
PDF
EPUB

from his vanity and deficiency of discrimination — there is no medium between excellence and failure. He is an acute and just observer of the little turns of gesture and expression, and makes his characters betray their idiosyncrasies by involuntary touches, just as men do in real life.

$ 11. The most charming and versatile, and certainly one of the greatest writers of the eighteenth century, is OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728-1774), whose works, whether in prose or verse, bear a peculiar stamp of gentle grace and elegance. He was born at the village of Pallas in the county of Longford, Ireland, in 1728. His father was a poor curate of English extraction, struggling, with the aid of farming and a miserable stipend, to bring up a large family. By the assistance of a benevolent uncle, Mr. Contarine, Oliver was enabled to enter the University of Dublin in the humble quality of sizar. He, however, neglected the opportunities for study which the place offered him, and became notorious for his irregularities, his disobedience to authority, and above all for a degree of improvidence carried to the extreme, though excused by a tenderness and charity almost morbid. The earlier part of his life is an obscure and monotonous narrative of ineffectual struggles to subsist, and of wanderings which enabled him to traverse almost the whole of Europe. Having been for a short time tutor in a family in Ireland, he determined to study medicine; and after nominally attending lectures in Edinburgh, he began those travels for the most part on foot, and subsisting by the aid of his flute and the charity given to a poor scholar — which successively led him to Leyden, through Holland, France, Germany, and Switzerland, and even to Pavia, where he boasted, though the assertion is hardly capable of proof, that he received a medical degree. His professional as well as his general knowledge was of the most superficial and inaccurate character. It was while wandering in the guise of a beggar in Switzerland that he sketched out the plan of his poem of the Traveller, which afterwards formed the commencement of his fame. In 1756 he found his way back to his native country; and his career during about eight years was a succession of desultory struggles with famine, sometimes as a chemist's shopman in London; sometimes as an usher in boardingschools, the drudge of his employers and the butt and laughing-stock of the pupils; sometimes as a practitioner of medicine among the poorest and most squalid population - "the beggars in Axe Lane,” as he expressed it himself; and more generally as a miserable and scantily-paid bookseller's hack. More than once, under the pressure of intolerable distress, he exchanged the bondage of the school for the severer slavery of the corrector's table in a printing-office, and was driven back again to the bondage of the school. The grace and readiness of his pen would probably have afforded him a decent subsistence, even from the hardly-earned wages of a drudge-writer, but for his extreme improvidence, his almost childish generosity, his passion for pleasure and fine clothes, and above all his propensity for gambling. At one time, during this wretched period of his career, he failed to

pass the examination qualifying him for the humble medical post of a hospital mate; and, under the pressure of want and improvidence, committed the dishonorable action of pawning a suit of clothes lent him by his employer, Griffiths, for the purpose of appearing with decency before the Board. His literary apprenticeship was passed in this severe school — writing to order, and at a moment's notice, schoolbooks, tales for children, prefaces, indexes, and reviews of books; and contributing to the Monthly, Critical, and Lady's Review, the British Magazine, and other periodicals. His chief employer in this way appears to have been Griffiths, and he is said to have been at one time engaged as a corrector of the press in Richardson's service. In this period of obscure drudgery he composed some of his most charming works, or at least formed that inimitable style which makes him the rival, and perhaps more than the rival, of Addison. He produced the Chinese Letters, the plan of which is imitated from Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, giving a description of English life and manners in the assumed character of a Chinese traveller, and containing some of those little sketches and humorous characters in which he was unequalled; a Life of Bcau Nash; and a short and gracefully-narrated History of England, in the form of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son, the authorship of which was ascribed to Lyttleton. It was in 1764 that the publication of his beautiful poem of the Traveller caused him to emerge from the slough of obscure literary drudgery in which he had hitherto been crawling. The universal judgment of the public pronounced that nothing so harmonious and so original had appeared since the time of Pope; and from this period Goldsmith's career was one of uninterrupted literary success, though his folly and improvidence kept him plunged in debt, which even his large earnings could not enable him to avoid, and from which indeed no amount of fortune would have saved him. In 1766 appeared the Vicar of Wakefield, that masterpiece of gentle humor and delicate tenderness; in the following year his first comedy, the Good-natured Man, which failed upon the stage in some measure from its very merits, some of its comic scenes shocking the perverted taste of an audience which admired the whining, preaching, sentimental pieces that were then in fashion. In 1768 Goldsmith composed, as taskwork for the booksellers — though taskwork for which his now rapidly rising popularity secured good payment the History of Rome, distinguished by its extreme superficiality of information and want of research no less than by enchanting grace of style and vivacity of narration. In 1770 he published the Deserted Village, the companion poem to the Traveller, written in some measure in the same manner, and not less touching and perfect; and in 1773 was acted his comedy She Stoops to Conquer, one of the gayest, pleasantest, and most amusing pieces that the English stage can boast. Goldsmith had long risen from the obscurity to which he had been condemned: he was one of the most admired and popular authors of his time; his society was courted by the wits, artists, statesmen, and writers who formed a brilliant circle round Johnson and Reynolds, –

Burke, Garrick, Beauclerk, Percy, Gibbon, Boswell, – and he became a member of that famous Club which is so intimately associated with the intellectual history of that time. Goldsmith was one of those men whom it is impossible not to love, and equally impossible not to despise and laugh at: his' vanity, his childish though not malignant envy, his more than Irish aptitude for blunders, his eagerness to shine in conversation, for which he was peculiarly unfitted, his weaknesses and genius combined, made him the pet and the laughing-stock of the company. He was now in the receipt of an income which for that time and for the profession of letters might have been accounted splendid; but his improvidence kept him plunged in debt, and he was always anticipating his receipts, so that he continued to be the slave of booksellers, who obliged him to waste his exquisite talent on works hardly thrown off, and for which he neither possessed the requisite knowledge nor could make the necessary researches: thus he successively put forth as taskwork the History of England, the History of Greece, and the History of Animated Nature, the two former works being mere compilations of second-hand facts, and the last an epitomized translation of Buffon. In these books we see how Goldsmith's never-failing charm of style and easy grace of narration compensate for total ignorance and a complete absence of independent knowledge of the subject. In 1774 this brilliant and feverish career was terminated. Goldsmith was suffering from a painful and dangerous disease, aggravated by disquietude of mind arising from the disorder in his affairs; and relying upon his knowledge of medicine he imprudently persisted in employing a violent remedy against the advice of his physicians. He died at the age of forty-six, deeply mourned by the brilliant circle of friends to which his very weaknesses had endeared him no less than his admirable genius, and surrounded by the tears and blessings of many wretches whom his inexhaustible benevolence had relieved. He was buried in the Temple Churchyard, and a monument was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, for which Johnson wrote a Latin inscription, one passage of which gracefully alludes to the versatility of his genius : “ qui nullum fere scribendi genus non tetigit, nullum quod tetigit non ornavit.”

§ 12. In everything Goldsmith wrote, prose or verse, serious or comic, there are a peculiar delicacy and purity of sentiment, tinging, of course, the language and diction as well as the thought. It seems as if his genius, though in its earlier career surrounded with squalid distress, was incapable of being sullied by any stain of coarseness or vulgarity. Though of English descent, he had in an eminent degree the defects as well as the virtues of the Irish character; and no quality in his writings is more striking than the union of grotesque humor with a sort of pensive tenderness, which gives to his verse a peculiar character of gliding melody and grace. He had seen much, and reproduced with singular vivacity quaint strokes of nature, as in his sketch of Beau Tibbs and innumerable passages in the Vicar of Wakefield. The two poems of the Traveller and the Deserted Village will ever be regarded as masterpieces of sentiment and description. The light yet rapid touch with

mond nastor

which, in the former, he has traced the scenery and the natural peculiarities of various countries will be admired long after the reader has learned to neglect the false social theories embodied in his deductions; and in spite of the inconsistency, pointed out by Macaulay, between the pictures of the village in its pristine beauty and happiness, and the same village when ruined and depopulated by the forced emigration of its inhabitants, the reader lingers over the delicious details of human as well as inanimate nature which the poet has combined into the lovely pastoral picture of “sweet Auburn.” The touches of tender personal feeling which he has interwoven with his description, as the fond hope with which he dwelt on the project of returning to pass his age among the scenes of innocence which had cradled his boyhood, the comparison of himself to a hare returning to die where it was kindled, the deserted garden, the village alehouse, the school, and the evening landscape, are all touched with the pensive grace of a Claude; while, when the occasion demands, Goldsmith rises with easy wing to the height of lofty and even sublime elevation, as in the image of the storm-girded yet sunshine-crowned peak to which he compares the good pastor.

The Vicar of Wakefield, in spite of the extreme absurdity and inconsistency of its plot, an inconsistency which grows more perceptible in the latter part of the story, will ever remain one of those rare gems which no lapse of time can tarnish. The gentle and quiet humor embodied in the simple Dr. Primrose, the delicate yet vigorous contrasts of character in the other personages, the atmosphere of purity, cheerfulness, and gayety which envelops all the scenes and incidents, will contribute, no less than the transparency and grace of the style, to make this story a classic for all time. Goldsmith's two comedies are written in two different manners, the Good-natured Man being a comedy of character, and She Stoops to Conquer a comedy of intrigue. In the first the excessive easiness and generosity of the hero are not a quality sufficiently reprehensible to make him a favorable subject for that satire which is the essential element of this kind of theatrical painting; and the merit of the piece chiefly consists in the truly laughable personage of Croaker, and in the excellent scene where the disguised bailiffs are passed off on Miss Richland as the friends of Honeywood, whose house and person they have seized. But in She Stoops to Conquer we have a first-rate specimen of the comedy of intrigue, where the interest mainly depends upon a tissue of lively and farcical incidents, and where the characters, though lightly sketched, form a gallery of eccentric pictures. The best proof of Goldsmith's success in this piece is the constancy with which it has always kept possession of the stage; and the peals of laughter which never fail to greet the lively bustle of its scenes and the pleasant absurdities of Young Marlow, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle, and above all the admirable Tony Lumpkin, a conception worthy of Vanbrugh himself.

Some of Goldsmith's lighter fugitive poems are incomparable for their peculiar humor. The Haunch of Venison is a model of easy narrative and accurate sketching of commonplace society; and in Retaliation we have a series of slight yet delicate portraits of some of the most distinguished literary friends of the poet, thrown off with a hand at once refined and vigorous. In how masterly a manner, and yet in how few strokes, has Goldsmith placed before us Garrick, Burke, and Reynolds! and how deeply do we regret that he should not have given us similar portraits of Johnson, Gibbon, and Boswell! Several of the songs and ballads scattered through his works are remarkable for their tenderness and harmony, though the Edwin and Angelina, which has been so often lauded, has always appeared to me mawkish, affected, and devoid of the true spirit of the mediæval ballad.

NOTES AND ILLUSTRATIONS.

OTHER NOVELISTS.

CTIARLES JOHNSTONE (d. 1800) was the author

of the once popular Adventures of a Guinea, 1760, SABAH FIELDING (1714-1768) was sister of the and other now unknown works. The former is a celebrated novel-writer, and herself well known as

severe satire on the sins and follics of the age. We An authoress. Her best known novels were David lay it down with a feeling of relief." It exhibits Simple and The Cry. She also translated Xeno- tha " bager sides of literature and life." phon's Memorabilia.

28

« PreviousContinue »