“Poor Poll” too had his tragedies, but they were not deepened by a sadistic creed, and were relieved by triumphs in prose and poetry and on the stage.
His father was a humble Anglican curate in an Irish village, who, by adding tillage to theology, earned forty pounds a year. When Oliver was two years old (1730) the curate was made rector of Kilkenny West, and the family moved into a house on a main road near Lissoy, which later renamed itself Auburn in confidence that Goldsmith had had it in mind when he wrote The Deserted Village.
Oliver went through a succession of elementary schools, and remembered best a quartermaster turned schoolmaster, who could never forget his wars, but also told absorbing tales of fairies, banshees, and ghosts. At the age of nine the boy nearly died of smallpox, which further disfigured one of the least beautiful faces ever given to a lovable soul. At fifteen he entered Trinity College in Dublin as a sizar, or working student, wearing a distinguishing costume, performing menial services, and harassed by a tyrannical tutor. He ran away to Cork, planning to find passage to America, but his older brother Henry overtook him and beguiled him back to college. Oliver did well with the classics, but proved impervious to science; however, he managed to get his bachelor’s degree.
He applied for admission to minor ecclesiastical orders, but astonished the bishop by appearing in scarlet breeches. Rejected, he became a tutor, quarreled with his pupil, and again headed for Cork and America. An uncle intervened by advancing him fifty’pounds to go to London; Oliver lost it all in a gambling house. His relatives were dismayed by his shiftless incompetence, but were charmed by his gaiety, flute, and songs. A fund was raised to finance his study of medicine in Edinburgh, then in Leiden. He made some progress, but left Leiden without a degree. At Paris (he tells us) he attended the chemical lectures of Rouelle. Then he set out leisurely (1755), walking through France, Germany, Switzerland, and north Italy, playing his flute at country dances, earning haphazard meals, receiving alms at monastery gates.159 In January, 1756, he returned to England.
He practiced medicine in London, corrected proofs for Samuel Richardson, taught school in Surrey, then settled down in London as a hack writer, doing odd literary jobs and contributing to magazines. He wrote in four weeks a Life of Voltaire. In 1759 he persuaded Dodsley to publish a superficial Enquiry into the State of Polite Learning in Europe. Its comments on theatrical managers gave lasting offense to Garrick. It argued that ages of creative literature tend to be followed by ages of criticism, which deduce rules from the practice of creators, and tend to cramp the style and imagination of new poets. Goldsmith thought that Europe was in such a state in 1759.
A year later he wrote for Newbery’s Public Ledger some “Chinese Letters,” which were republished in 1762 as The Citizen of the World. The scheme was old: to imagine an Oriental traveler reporting with amusement and horror the ways of Europeans. So Lien Chi Altangi, in letters to a friend at home, describes Europe as a disorderly theater of avarice, ambition, and intrigue. Goldsmith issued the book anonymously, but the denizens of Fleet Street recognized his style in the simple language, lively descriptions, and amiable tone. Feeling his fame, he moved to better quarters at No. 6 Wine Office Court. Having complimented Johnson in the “Chinese Letters,” he ventured to invite the lexicographer (who lived just across the way) to supper. Johnson came, and their long friendship began (May 31, 1761).
One day in October, 1762, Johnson received an urgent message from Goldsmith, asking for help. He sent a guinea, came shortly afterward, and found that Goldsmith was about to be arrested for failure to pay his rent. He asked his friend had he nothing of value to pawn or sell. Goldsmith gave him a manuscript entitled The Vicar of Wakefield. Johnson (according to Johnson’s account160) bade the landlady wait, brought the novel to John Newbery, a bookseller, sold it for £ 60, and took the money to Goldsmith, who paid his rent and celebrated with a bottle of wine. The bookseller kept the manuscript unpublished for four years.
In December, 1764, Goldsmith sent forth his first major poem, The Traveller, or A Prospect of Society. He retraced his Continental wanderings, described the faults and virtues of each land, and noted that each country thought itself the best. He gloried in the power of England (which had just won the Seven Years’ War), and described the M.P.s:
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by;
but he warned that avarice was tarnishing British rule, that selfish enclosures were impoverishing the peasantry and driving England’s sturdiest sons to America. He had shown the manuscript to Johnson, who contributed nine lines, chiefly toward the end, belittling the influence of politics on the individual’s happiness, and lauding domestic joys.
The success of the poem surprised all but Johnson, who helped it by proclaiming, “There has not been so fine a poem since Pope’s time”161—which slighted Gray. The publisher made a handsome profit on repeated editions, but yielded only twenty guineas to the author. Goldsmith moved to better rooms in the Temple; he bought a new outfit, with purple breeches, scarlet cloak, a wig, and a cane, and resumed with this dignity the practice of medicine. The experiment did not prosper, and the success of The Vicar of Wakefieldbrought him back to literature.
The bookseller who had bought the manuscript from Johnson felt that the fresh fame of Goldsmith would carry the strange novel to acceptance. It appeared in a small edition on March 27, 1766; this was sold out in two months, and a second edition in three months more; but not till 1774 did the sales repay the publisher’s investment. As early as 1770 Herder recommended it to Goethe, who rated it “one of the best novels ever written.”162 Walter Scott agreed.163 Washington Irving marveled that a bachelor homeless since his childhood could draw “the most amiable picture of domestic virtue and all the endearments of the married state.”164 Perhaps it was Goldsmith’s exclusion from family life that made him idealize the home, his unwilling bachelordom that made him idealize young womanhood, and his anonymous amours that made him exalt feminine chastity as more precious than life. His fond memories of his father and his brother furnished the portrait of Dr. Primrose, who, as “a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family, … unites in himself the three greatest characters on earth.”165 His own wanderings reappeared in son George, who, like Goldsmith, had ended his travels as a hack writer in London. The story is incredible and charming.
The proceeds from The Traveller and The Vicar of Wakefield were soon spent, for Goldsmith was a sieve for currency, and always lived in the future. He looked with envy upon the fame and fortune that might come from a successful play. He set his pen to the difficult genre, called the result The Good-Natured Man, and offered it to Garrick. David tried to forget the derogatory remarks that Goldsmith had made about him; he agreed to produce the play. However, it laughed at sentimental comedies, and these were Garrick’s moneymakers. He proposed changes, Goldsmith rejected them; Garrick advanced the author forty pounds, but dallied so long that the reckless author turned the manuscript over to Garrick’s rival, George Colman, who managed the Covent Garden Theatre. Colman’s actors disparaged the play; Johnson gave it all his support, attended rehearsals, wrote the prologue. The drama had its première on January 29, 1768; it ran ten nights, and was then withdrawn as only a moderate success; even so it netted the author £ 500.
Flush for a year, Goldsmith, against Johnson’s advice, moved to a handsome apartment in Brick Court, and fitted it so well that he had to return to hack writing to meet his bills. Now he turned out popular histories of Rome, Greece, England, and a History of Animated Nature— all of them poor in scholarship but enriched with gracious prose. When someone asked why he wrote such books, he answered that they enabled him to eat, while poetry let him starve. Nevertheless, on May 26, 1770, he sent forth his masterpiece, The Deserted Village, for which he received a hundred guineas—a fair price at that time for a poem only seventeen pages long. It sold out four editions in three months.
Its theme was the desertion of the countryside by farmers who had lost their lands through enclosures. It pictured
Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain;
it lent all the rosy colors of Goldsmith’s urban imagination to the peasant prosperity that (he presumed) had preceded the enclosures. He described the rural scenes, the diverse flowers, “the sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,” the village sports and dances, the “bashful virgin” and the pimpled youth, and the happy families where piety and virtue reigned. Again he saw his father ministering at Kilkenny West:
A man he was to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year—
enough to let him feed the vagrant, save the spendthrift, house the broken soldier, visit the sick, and comfort the dying.
At church, with meek and unaffected grace,
His looks adorned the venerable place;
Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway,
And fools who came to scoff remained to pray.
That schoolmaster who had disciplined the poet’s boyhood was transformed in recollection into a teacher “stern to view”:
Yet he was kind, or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault; . . .
In arguing, too, the parson owned his skill,
For e’en though vanquished he could argue still; . . .
With words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
This paradise had been ruined, Goldsmith thought, by enclosures; the peasant farm had been turned to pasturage, the peasant families had fled to the towns or the colonies, and the rural fount of honest virtue was drying up.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.
Having written the best poem of that generation, Goldsmith now returned to drama. In 1771 he offered to Colman a new comedy, She Stoops to Conquer. Colman dallied as Garrick had done, until Johnson intervened and almost commanded the manager to stage the play. Garrick, reconciled, wrote the prologue. After tribulations that almost broke the author’s spirit, the piece was produced, March 15, 1773. Johnson, Reynolds, and other friends attended the première and led the applause; Goldsmith himself wandered meanwhile in St. James’s Park, until someone found him and assured him that his play was a great success. It had a long run; the benefit nights brought Goldsmith a year of prosperity.
He had now raised himself to a place second only to Johnson among the English writers of the day, and even to foreign fame. He was a leading figure in the Club, and dared to differ from Johnson frequently. When there was talk about animal fables he remarked that it was especially difficult to make fishes talk like fishes; and “this,” he told Johnson, “is not so easy as you seem to think; for if you were to make little fishes talk they would all talk like whales.”166 The Great Bear sometimes clawed him cruelly, but loved him none the less, and the affection was returned despite Goldsmith’s envy of Johnson’s conversational mastery. He himself had never put his learning in order; he could not draw on it readily or aptly; he “wrote like an angel,” said Garrick, “and talked like poor Poll.”167Boswell tended to belittle Goldsmith, but many contemporaries—Reynolds, Burke, Wilkes, Percy—protested against this as unjust.168 It was observed that Goldsmith often spoke well in gatherings where Johnson was not present.169
His accent, his manners, and his appearance were against him. He had never lost his Irish brogue. He dressed too carelessly, and sometimes he sported incongruous polychrome finery. He was vain of his accomplishments, and did not admit Johnson’s superiority to him as a writer. He was five feet five inches tall, and resented Johnson’s height and bulk. His good nature shone through his homely face. Reynolds’ portrait did not idealize him; here were thick lips, a receding forehead, an advancing nose, and worried eyes. Caricaturists like Henry Bunbury widened Oliver’s mouth and prolonged his nose; the London Packet described him as an orangutan;170 a hundred stories traveled the town about his blunders of speech and action, and his secret love for pretty Mary Horneck.
His friends knew that his faults were on the surface, concealing a spirit of good will, affection, and almost ruinous generosity. Even Boswell described him as “the most generous-hearted man that exists; and now that he has had a large supply of gold by his comedy, all the needy draw upon him.”171 When he had no more money to give he borrowed to meet the demands of the poor who applied to him.172 He appealed to Garrick (whose forty pounds had not been repaid) to advance him sixty pounds on the promise of another play; Garrick sent the sum. Goldsmith owed £ 2,000 at his death. “Was ever poet,” Johnson asked, “so trusted before?”173
In 1774, as he was about to leave for one of the several clubs to which he belonged, he was stricken with fever. He insisted on prescribing for himself, forgetting Beauclerk’s advice that he should prescribe only for his enemies; he took a patent medicine, and grew worse. A doctor was called, too late to save him. He died on April 4, only forty-five years old. A crowd of mourners gathered about the corpse, simple men and women who had almost lived on his charity. He was buried in the churchyard of the Temple, but his friends insisted that some memorial to him should be set up in the Abbey. Nollekens carved the monument, Johnson wrote the epitaph. Better would have been the poet’s own lines in The Good-Natured Man: “Life at the greatest and best is but a forward child, that must be humored and coaxed a little till it falls asleep, and then all the care is over.”174