The Poetry of Goldsmith

by Oliver Goldsmith
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988

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 Goldsmith’s best poem. His description of the idyllic life in the village of Auburn before disaster, in the form of a greedy landlord, struck it, has great appeal, especially in the brief vignettes of the vicar and the schoolmaster. Goldsmith’s interest in detail of nature and in the lot of the common man ally him rather with the poets of the next generation than with his neoclassical contemporaries.

THE DESERTED VILLAGE is a personal meditation; its form gives the author freedom to comment bitterly on the harm that trade has wrought on the English people and to lament that he will never fulfill his lifelong dream of spending his last years in Auburn, listening to the night noises of animals, children, and young lovers. He describes the former gaiety of the village when children danced, played games, and whispered under the hawthorn bushes, then contrasts the present scene:

No more thy glassy brook reflects theday,But, chok’d with sedges, works itsweedy way;Along thy glades, a solitary guest,The hollow-sounding bittern guards itsnest;Amidst thy desert walks the lapwingflies,And tires their echoes with unvariedcries.

Goldsmith then pictures himself strolling around the deserted town; the ruins of the vicarage remind him of the saintly man who once inhabited it, dispensing charity to every passing beggar, watching benevolently over the children in his parish, and dwelling always half in Heaven. Farther along was the home of the schoolmaster, a stern yet kind man, deeply devoted to learning, and a local celebrity:

While words of learned length andthund’ring soundAmazed the gazing rustics rang’daround;And still they gaz’d, and still thewonder grewThat one small head could carry allhe knew.

The remainder of the poem emphasizes Goldsmith’s sense of loss in the destruction of the village with its “simple blessings” and “spontaneous joys.” He is highly indignant at the wealthy, who let their horses and hounds inhabit the former homes and lands of the villagers. The poor find no refuge in the city, where they see wealth they cannot share, where the lost village maiden starves in the streets “near her betrayer’s door.” The unhappy alternative is to travel west to the new world, to face “the various terrors of that horrid shore.” The destruction of the villages seems to Goldsmith the first step in the degeneration of the whole country. With the villagers depart the “rural virtues,” “contented toil, and hospitable care, and kind connubial tenderness . . . and piety . . . and steady loyalty, and faithful love.” Poetry, too, will depart, and Goldsmith implores her to flourish in other lands:

Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,Redress the rigours of th’ inclementclime;Aid slighted truth; with thy persuasivestrainTeach erring man to spurn the rage ofgain . . .That trade’s proud empire hastes toswift decay,As ocean sweeps the labour’d moleaway.

Goldsmith was not always the serious moralist; his clever lyrics are kin to those of the Cavalier poets and the Restoration dramatists, generally hinging on a witty conclusion for their effect. One poem, “The Gift,” begins:

Say, cruel Iris, pretty rake,Dear mercenary beauty,What annual offering shall I makeExpressive of my duty?

After considering and rejecting various possibilities, his heart, gems, or gold, he concludes:

I’ll give thee—ah! too charming maid,I’ll give thee—to the devil.

The poet skillfully and openly imitated the galloping tetrameter couplets, the absurd rhymes, and the sense of man’s grotesqueness that characterize much of the poetry of Jonathan Swift. In “The Logicians Refuted,” Goldsmith argues that man is basically irrational, in spite of philosophers’ statements to the contrary. The instinct of the beasts is better:

Who ever knew an honest bruteAt law his neighbor prosecute . . .No politics disturb their mind;They eat their meals, and take theirsportNor know who’s in or out at court.

“The Double Transformation,” the tale of a marriage between a country scholar and a London belle, is reminiscent of both Swift and Pope in its description of the lady, whose beauty was all artifice, “powder, shreds, or lace.” Unlike his more cynical predecessors, however, Goldsmith provides a happy ending. The lady is stricken with smallpox, loses her numerous beaux, and contents herself with trying to please her husband:

Jack soon was dazzl’d to beholdHer present face surpass the old;With modesty her cheeks are dy’d,Humility displaces pride . . .No more presuming on her sway,She learns good-nature every day;Serenely gay, and strict in duty,Jack finds his wife a perfect beauty,

“Edwin and Angelina” reveals still another side of Goldsmith’s interests; it is modeled on the medieval folk ballad and again foreshadows the work of the Romantic period. It is not an exceptionally good ballad; its diction is too artificial to carry the immediate human appeal of the folk lyrics, but it is an interesting foretaste of things to come. The narrative is simple. A youthful traveler, dressed as a boy, takes refuge at a hermit’s cell and confesses to him that she is really Lady Angelina, who has left home to search for the worthy lover she scorned and drove away. Now she fears his death. Inevitably, the hermit proves to be the lost Edwin, and the lovers are happily reunited:

“No, never from this hour to part,We’ll live and love so true;The sigh that rends thy constant heartShall break thy Edwin’s too.”

Perhaps the most familiar of Goldsmith’s poems is the song from the VICAR OF WAKEFIELD, which begins:

When lovely woman stoops to folly,And finds too late that men betray,What charm can soothe her melan-choly?What art can wash her guilt away?

The simple language of this lyric shows Goldsmith’s natural poetic talent to far greater advantage than the lofty rhetoric of “Edwin and Angelina” or of the choral pieces.

The THRENODIA AUGUSTALIS, a memorial poem for the Princess Dowager of Wales, falls into the genre of choral odes, best represented by Dryden’s ALEXANDER’S FEAST. Like most of the poems addressed to royal personages, it is full of hyperbole:

Bless’d spirit, thou, whose fame, justborn to bloomShall spread and flourish from thetomb,How hast thou left mankind forHeaven!

The poem is divided into solo and choral parts, with sharp changes in mood, ranging from grief and terror to quiet acceptance of death. The second part of the ode pictures pilgrims coming to Augusta’s tomb, which is to be a haven for Faith, Religion, and Virtue. Somehow Goldsmith’s sense of poetic decorum prevents this effusive tribute from becoming ludicrous.

THE CAPTIVITY, the libretto for an oratoria, is based on the Biblical account of the Babylonian captivity, with Israelite prophets, Chaldean priests, and women of both nations as the principal speakers. Goldsmith skillfully varies his verse forms for recitatives and arias, and the work ranks creditably beside others of the same genre, though it is by no means the poet’s best effort.

It is, perhaps, remarkable that these choral pieces are even readable. Fortunately, Goldsmith’s reputation does not rest on them. Far more natural to his talents were the humorous verses that make up a large part of his collected poetry. Typical is his “Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” with its surprise conclusion:

The man recover’d of the bite—The dog it was that died.

“Retaliation” is a selection of portraits of his circle in London, Johnson, Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, and “magnanimous Goldsmith, a gooseberry fool.”

No one claims real greatness for Goldsmith’s poetry, but his work still gives pleasure to his readers. His interests were as wide as the scope of eighteenth century poetry, and he simultaneously reveals the neoclassicist’s interest in satire, urban society, moral generalizations, and polished verse and the Romantic poet’s concern for the countryside, the common man, nature, and simplicity of expression.

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