Oliver Goldsmith, the little Irish writer and sometimes physician who was the friend of Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds and the butt of countless rude jokes from the pen of James Boswell, tried his hand at almost every literary genre popular in his time. His novel, the VICAR OF WAKEFIELD, his domestic comedy, SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, and his gently satirical essays, the CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, have made a lasting niche for him in English literary history. He was also a creditable minor poet, with two long reflective poems, several charming songs, satirical lyrics, a literary ballad, and even the libretto for an oratorio to his credit. He was not an original poet, but he could capture the essence of the techniques of others and make them his own, moralizing like Johnson or satirizing like Swift.
Goldsmith’s best poetic works are unquestionably THE TRAVELLER and THE DESERTED VILLAGE, long didactic, reflective poems that show their author’s sensitive awareness of the pleasures and pains of the life of the common man. In the first of the two poems Goldsmith speaks as one who wanders over the continent of Europe, rejoicing that the world has been laid open for his pleasures. Yet he feels the pains of this world, too:
Yet oft a sigh prevails, and sorrows fall,To see the hoard of human bliss sosmall;And oft I wish, amidst the scene, tofindSome spot to real happiness consign’dWhere my worn soul, each wand’ringhope at rest,May gather bliss to see my fellowsbless’d.
He surveys the countries he knows, hoping to find this happiness in one of them, but he sees grave faults in each. Italy, bountifully endowed by nature, suffers through the indolence and sensuality of her people:
As in those domes, where Caesars oncebore sway,Defac’d by time and tottering in decay,There in the ruin, heedless of the dead,The shelter-seeking peasant builds hisshed.
The sturdy Swiss peasants are happy with their lot, content with the barest necessities; but their pleasures, as well as their desires, are few. In sharp contrast to their stern existence is the gay life of the French, whom Goldsmith finds slaves to their own desires for flattery and frivolity:
Here vanity assumes her pert grimace,And trims her robes of frieze withcopper lace;Here beggar pride defrauds her dailycheer,To boast one splendid banquet once ayear.
The industrious Dutch have created a prosperous nation out of the sea, yet brought elements of “craft and fraud,” even slavery, into their lives with their undue reliance on commerce:
At gold’s superior charms all freedomflies,The needy sell it, and the rich manbuys.
The traveler turns his attention finally to England, where he sees the proud desire for independence and the love of liberty sowing the seeds of destruction; this quest for freedom breaks down ties of family and class, and men turn on one another:
Here, by the bonds of nature feeblyheld,Minds combat minds, repelling and re-pell’d;Ferments arise, imprison’d factions roar,Repress’d ambition struggles round hershore,Till, over-wrought, the general systemfeelsIts motions stop, or frenzy fire thewheels.
As this chaos grows, men are enslaved by avarice, and all learning and the arts decline. Goldsmith protests with special passion the eviction of villagers by their landlords, noblemen seeking to enlarge their estates or their grazing land. This problem was especially critical in Goldsmith’s native Ireland, and he speaks of it at much greater length in THE DESERTED VILLAGE.
The final passage of THE TRAVELLER, which is said to have been written partly by Samuel Johnson, gives a new turn to Goldsmith’s central idea. Ultimately, the poem concludes, man’s happiness rest with himself:
How small, of all that human heartsendure,That part which laws or kings cancause or cure!Still to ourselves in every place con-sign’d,Our own felicity we make or find.
THE DESERTED VILLAGE, like THE TRAVELLER written in the heroic couplet so popular in the eighteenth century, is generally considered...
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