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OF OLIVER GOLDSMITH.
The middle of the last century was an evil time, in England, for literature and for literary men. The period was eminently one of transition; and transition periods are always times of trial to all whose interests they affect. The old system passes away, bearing with it those who cling to it; the new system requires time until it is in working order, and those who depend upon its advent for their subsistence are sorely harassed while the turmoil lasts. Thus it was with literature at the time when Goldsmith began to write. The age in which literary men depended upon patrons had passed away. No more snug government berths, no more secretaryships, as in the time of Addison and Prior and Steele—and the time when the public was to support literature had not yet come.
Thus the author was compelled either to depend entirely on the booksellers, or to sell his pen, in true hireling fashion, to the government of the day, or to the opposition, and to scribble approval or invective at his master's dictation. Happily for his own fame, happily for English literature, the author of the “Vicar of Wakefield ” chose the former alternative.
Oliver Goldsmith was born at Pallas, or Pallasmore, county Longford, Ireland, on the 10th of November, 1728. He was one of a numerous family, of whom he alone attained celebrity. His father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, a clergyman of the Established Church, was in very poor circumstances at the time of the birth of his famous son ; but little Oliver was only two years old when the sunshine of prosperity descended upon his house, with what must have appeared to the inmates quite a blaze of noonday splendour. The small income of forty pounds a-year, upon which the Rev. Charles Goldsmith had managed painfully and penuriously to struggle on with his family, was. suddenly increased to two hundred, when the rectory of Kilkenny-west was obtained by that fortunate divine; and the Goldsmiths removed to Lissoy, near Athlone.
The Rev. Charles Goldsmith seems to have possessed, in a very large degree, certain traits of character by which all the Goldsmiths were more or less distinguished. Almost culpably careless in worldly matters, his easy good-nature and kindly generous disposition frequently made him the dupe of the designing and ungrateful. Himself incapable of cunning and deceit, he imagined that all men were frank and open. The last man in the world to take an unfair advantage of his neighbour, he never suspected that any man could possibly take advantage of him. Goldsmith himself, under the guise of the Man in Black, gives us an insight into affairs at the Rectory in these early days. “My father's education,” the Man in Black tells us, “ was above his fortune, and his generosity greater than his education.” Then we hear of numerous guests entertained at the hospitable parson's table, and paying for their dinner by laughing at the host's oft-repeated jests and time-honoured anecdotes. “ He told the story of the ivy tree, and that was laughed at; he repeated the jest of the two scholars and one pair of breeches, and the company laughed at that ; but the story of Taffy in the sedan chair was sure to set the table in a roar; thus his pleasure increased in proportion to the pleasure he gave; he loved all the world ; and he fancied all the world loved him. We were told that universal benevolence was
what first cemented society; we were taught to consider all the wants of mankind as our own; to regard the human face divine with affection and esteem; he wound us up to be mere machines of pity, and rendered us incapable of withstanding the slightest impulse made either by real or fictitious distress ; in a word, we were perfectly instructed in the art of giving away thousands before we were taught the more necessary qualifications of getting a farthing."
In fact, this inimitable Man in Black, who appears as one of the characters in Goldsmith's “Citizen of the World,” is, in many respects, a counterpart of Goldsmith himself. Like our author, he is overreached by every knave, and an object of contemptuous pity to all the worldly wise. He tries one position after another, and fails in each, chiefly through his honesty and credulity. He cannot succeed as follower to a great man, because he will not flatter where he disapproves ; he loses his mistress because he believes her sincere when she expresses admiration of him, and detestation of his rival's high-heeled shoes. Everywhere he is snubbed and elbowed away by men more versed than himself in the ways of the world; but, like Goldsmith again, he has an easy, good-humoured philosophy, that carries him gaily through trials and troubles that would have swamped other men. As he cannot be rich and happy, he resolves to be poor and contented. Ile does not “invoke gods and men to see him dining upon a ha’porth of radishes;” but rather tries to persuade himself and others that a vegetable diet suits him. And he has his reward in the verdict universally pronounced upon him— that he “is very good-natured, and has not the least harm in him."
On a lad of ordinary disposition, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith's peculiar ideas would, perhaps, have had little effect. The small world of the school-room, and the larger world in which he would afterwards have to play his part, could scarcely fail to teach him to distinguish between real and fictitious distress, and to give him the prudence which makes charity begin at home, and, indeed, too often causes it to end there. But the Goldsmiths were not ordinary people. Warm-hearted, and of large sympathy—anxious to relieve the distress of alì who sued to them for aidthey were the very persons whom the prudent and prosperous are ever holding up to ridicule, as dupes and simpletons, utterly deficient in wisdom—as though there existed no other than worldly wisdom; as though “our being's end and aim” were the attainment of wealth. And here, at the very outset, we come upon the cause of many of the troubles and cares that beset Oliver Goldsmith throughout his entire career.
His kindly nature led him to relieve distress wherever he found it; and, as his disposition became known, there is no doubt that distress-real and feigned-sought him out pertinaciously enough.
The words he wrote of his brother Henry, the benevolent clergyman—"passing rich on forty pounds a year”—and whose “pride” was to "relieve the wretched,"
“ might be equally applied to himself. When applicants for succour came to him—
“Careless their merits, or their faults to scan,
His pity gave ere charity began." But the wish to relieve was so largely in excess of the power, that frequently when Justice called to present a claim for payment Generosity had been beforehand, and had carried away the money; and Justice had to wait, or, alas, in too many cases, to go away unsatisfied. Thus the most humiliating position in which Goldsmith was ever placed in the days of his direst poverty, arose from his hastily obeying an impulse to relieve the landlord of his miserable lodgings, who had been arrested for debt, and whose wife came to Goldsmith, weeping and wringing her hands. Thinking only how he could liberate the poor man by the only means in his power, the poet rushed off and pledged some books, and a suit of clothes, procured on the credit of Ralph Griffiths, a bookseller, that Goldsmith might appear decently at an examination, which he failed to pass, and dire was the wrath of Griffiths on the occasion.
The young days of Oliver Goldsmith offer nothing very remarkable to record. He was considered a dull boy by his first instructors, though there are indications at times of poetical talent. One of his sisters married a gentleman of fortune of the name of Hodson, to whom Henry Goldsmith, Oliver's eldest brother, was tutor. In order that his daughter might not enter this family without a suitable marriage portion, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith made a sacrifice, which, while it impoverished the whole family, was peculiarly detrimental to the fortunes of Oliver. He executed a bond, pledging himself to pay four hundred pounds as the marriage portion of his daughter Catherine. The immediate effect of this proceeding was that Oliver
was obliged to enter, in the humblest possible manner, upon the college career he was about to commence. On the 11th of June, 1745, Oliver Goldsmith was admitted as a sizar of Trinity College, Dublin.
Very wretched and very unsatisfactory was his life at that seat of learning. The menial duties exacted in return for the reduced expense of the sizar's education disgusted him. The brutalities of his tutor Wilder, a man at once ferocious and pedantic, and totally unable to appreciate the young scholar's genius, caused him the keenest mortification ; and to these ills were added the grinding poverty with which he now first became familiar ; a poverty occasionally alleviated by gifts from his uncle, the Rev. Mr. Contarine, a truly kind-hearted and benevolent man, to whom our poet was bound to the last by ties of affectionate gratitude. Now also his father died, and his necessities became greater than ever. We hear of him, writing ballads, and selling the copyrights at five shillings each ; then stealing out at night to hear these, the earliest efforts of his muse, sung through the streets.
A small triumph, in the shape of an exhibition, worth some thirty shillings, induced the young awkward student to give a very humble kind of ball at his rooms. To this ball came an unexpected visitor in the shape of Wilder the tutor, who put the guests to flight, and publicly beat the host. Smarting under the disgrace, Goldsmith quitted the college, and was only induced, after a time, to return by the persuasions of his brother Henry, who brought about a reconciliation, or rather a truce, between Oliver and his tyrant. On the 27th of February, 1749, he obtained his B.A. degree, and, returning home, remained for a time idle and unemployed, looking out for the chance of a career. He presented himself for ordination and was refused ; was a tutor in a private family, and left in consequence of a quarrel ; was furnished with funds by Uncle Contarine to study law, lost his money, and appeared again at home destitute. At length, with some last assistance from the friendly uncle's purse, he started on a tour through Europe; travelling, not like the majority of British tourists in coach and on horseback, but on foot and alone, making his way from place to place, and studying men rather than science. Important, and rich in results for his whole future life, was this remarkable journey. And, among the most memorable of its effects was, that it suggested the poem of the “ Traveller.” Marvellously true were the views taken by the poor student of the various lands through which he passed; and remarkable were the words in which, in one of his early essays, he predicted the change that was coming upon France. Clearly and distinctly he heard the first faroff mutterings of the great revolutionary storm. He saw the growth and spread of the spirit of freedom among the people, and while others cried "peace” when there was no peace, he distinctly and clearly foresaw the great crash of revolution that was coming.
Early in the year 1756 Oliver Goldsmith found himself alone in London. He was in his twenty-eighth year—without a profession, almost utterly friendless, and destitute of all means of subsistence. Of this part of his life he could be scarcely ever induced to speak in his later and happier days; but here and there we get a glimpse which shows us that it must have been dreary in the extreme. At Sir Joshua Reynolds's he once startled the company by commencing an anecdote with “When I lived among the beggars in Axe Lane;" and there is something very significant in the way in which the pangs of starvation are described in his "Natural History." He must have felt those pangs himself to describe them so graphically.
By various means he made a shift to live. At one time he pounded drugs for an apothecary near London Bridge ; at another, he attempted to practise physic amongst the poorest of the poor. Now we find him correcting press proofs for a printer; and now he is settled for a time as usher in Dr. Milner's boys' school at Peckham. We have a picture of him here, drawn by Miss Milner, the principal's daughter. He is described as exceedingly good-natured, always ready to amuse the boys with his flute,