The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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"Man Wants But Little Here Below"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

Context: Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield has long been one of the most popular English novels. The plot, recounting the misfortunes which beset the family of the Reverend Dr. Primrose, is inconsistent and highly improbable, but the story is nonetheless delightful; happily, everything works out well in the end. On one occasion, the family goes on a picnic, during which the conversation turns to poetry. Mr. Burchell, a family friend, remarks that English poetry "is nothing at present but a combination of luxuriant images, without plot or connexion; a string of epithets that improve the sound, without carrying on the sense." As an example of true poetry, he offers the company a ballad about a lovelorn lass disguised as a man who comes upon a hermit's cottage in the forest. Her blushes disclose her sex, and she tells the hermit of her distress in love. The hermit in the end turns out to be her lost lover, and all ends well. Early in the poem, the hermit offers to share his meager fare with the disguished lady. Goldsmith may have unconsciously rephrased a line from The Complaint by Edward Young (1683-1765): "Man wants but little, nor that little long."

"Then, pilgrim, turn, thy cares forego,
All earth-born cares are wrong;
Man wants but little here below,
Nor wants that little long."

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