Oliver Goldsmith Poetry: British Analysis
Eighteenth century poets viewed themselves primarily in relation to their audience. They acted as intermediaries between the audience and some higher truth: divine providence, the majesty of state, or the ideal world described by art. In his verse, Oliver Goldsmith made two self-appointments: first as arbiter of literature for a society that had largely lost its ability to appreciate poetry and second as commentator on social changes. Arbitrating poetic ideals and offering social commentary were not separate activities, Goldsmith thought, because readers who could not discriminate real feeling in poetry were likewise not likely to observe the world around them accurately. Again, like other eighteenth century poets, Goldsmith expressed his concerns in both comic and serious works. The comic efforts tease readers back from excesses; the serious ones urge them to return to the norm. These trends are clearest in Goldsmith’s best poems, two mock elegies, the didactic The Traveller and the pastoral The Deserted Village.
Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) had started a fashion in poetry for sentimental reflections on occasions of death. This impulse, although quite natural, found further expression in lamenting the end of persons and things not traditionally the subjects of public mourning. (Gray himself parodied the fashion he had started with an ode on the death of a favorite cat who drowned while trying to snare a goldfish.) Goldsmith attacked this proliferation of laments in the Critical Review in 1759. Citing the corruption of the elegy, Goldsmith judged that his peers thought flattery, bombast, and sorrow sufficient ingredients to compose a moving poem. He also teased the popular mode of elegies with several mock versions; the best of these are “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex: Mrs. Mary Blaize” and “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” No other poems so well illustrate Goldsmith’s comic ability.
Adapted from an older French poem, “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex: Mrs. Mary Blaize” laments with tongue in cheek the passing of a one-time strumpet turned pawnbroker. The poem’s narrator strives hard to attribute conventional virtues of charity and probity to her, only to admit in the last line of each stanza to some qualification of the lady’s virtue:
She strove the neighbourhood to please,With manners wondrous winning,And never follow’d wicked ways,—Unless when she was sinning.
“An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” which first appeared as a song in The Vicar of Wakefield, makes a similar point about the perversion of elegiac conventions by telling of a “kind and gentle” man who befriended a dog “of low degree.” At first they get along well, then the dog, “to gain some private ends,” goes mad and bites the man. The townspeople lament that this good man must die a wretched death, betrayed by the ungrateful cur that he has trusted. In the final stanza, however, the poet twists the reader’s sentimental expectation of a tragic ending: Instead of the man, it is the dog that dies.
Goldsmith had more serious issues to lay before his audience. His first major poem, The Traveller, attempts a philosophic survey of European life, showing, he declared in the dedication, that “there may be equal happiness in states that are governed differently from our own; that every state has a particular principle of happiness, and that this principle in each may be carried to a mischievous excess.”
Condensing observations made on his trip to Europe into one moment, Goldsmith describes himself seated on a mountaintop in the Alps, from which he can look across to the great states of Europe: Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland, and Britain. Each land reveals to the poet’s eye its special blessing—and its liability.
Italy, bountifully supplied by Nature and once the seat of empire, has been exhausted by the pursuit and burden of wealth; now peasant huts arise where once imperial buildings stood. Switzerland, less endowed by Nature, produces a self-reliant and hardy race that has few wants but cannot develop “the gentler morals” that are a hallmark of a refined culture. France, dedicated to the graces of civilized life, has developed the most brilliant society in Europe but one which is prey to ostentation and vanity. Holland, claimed from the sea by an industrious people, devotes its energies to commerce and trade that now accumulates superfluous treasure “that engenders craft and fraud.” England, which Nature has treated neither too richly nor too miserly, is the home of Liberty and Freedom, which...
(The entire section is 2001 words.)