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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith]

Rambling about the works of Oliver Goldsmith, the reader may never be astonished at a spectacular vista but does enjoy a consistently picturesque one, punctuated with insights, apt images, and clever turns. Goldsmith may not take the reader swooping up toward the sublime, but he offers the more steady reward of well-crafted rhetorical architecture and a humane and penetrating voice, scintillating with wit. To read Goldsmith is to realize that the world may, for those of a certain turn of mind, be redeemed by language alone.

His friend Dr. Johnson wrote an eloquent epitaph for his grave, using Latin since he did not care to “disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription.” [1] This brief encomium attests to Johnson’s as well as to Goldsmith’s literary skill and sums up the latter as author with such succinctness that it is worth quoting (though here, in a concession to our age, rendered in the vulgar vernacular).

"Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant."

Goldsmith’s limits are implied in the adjective “gentle,” for no one would call Homer or Dante or Shakespeare gentle. The praise of his style as “clear, elevated, elegant" suggests craft and competence rather than the “sublime” Johnson allowed to his friend’s “genius.” Boswell had been disturbed to hear Goldsmith remark, “As I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the taylor, so I take my religion from the priest,” but the reader is justified in thinking that he got his literary standards in the same way, by accepting the pre-existing norms and working deftly within their limits.

Goldsmith had economic motive for his writerly professionalism, as it was for him essential to make a living with his pen. The son of an Anglican priest, he was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he barely graduated. [2] He then made a tour of Europe, though his was not so “grand” as those of his wealthier classmates. Goldsmith walked great distances and sometimes raised cash by playing his flute on the street. Upon his return he sought to make a living as a hack writer and managed to impress Johnson and others enough to be admitted to membership in “The Club” which met to dine at the Turk’s Head in Soho. Still he was chronically in debt, in part due to his gambling habit, and in Boswell Johnson tells of finding him “in great distress” unable to pay his rent. Johnson instantly sent him a guinea and found when he arrived that Goldsmith had already spent it for wine. Finding he had the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield completed, Johnson (the tastemaker of the day) took it to a printer and received immediate payment. [3]

He was considered odd by his contemporaries, often awkward in company even among his intimates. According to Boswell he once told a clergyman that his brother was Dean of Durham in order to puff his own importance. When Johnson composed his dignified Latin tribute, other members of The Club composed burlesque epitaphs, and the actor Garrick contributed a memorial of the writer’s social unease.

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith for shortness called Noll,
Who write like an angel, but talked like poor Poll.

The essays he wrote to pay his rent provide perhaps the purest access to Goldsmith’s essential tone built of civility, wit, and contemplation. He is regularly amused rather than, like Swift, indignant at human failings, in the same way that he is decent rather than demanding in morality and conventional rather than innovative in style. When he does propose an original idea, it is likely to be more show than substance, as he strove (with, apparently, less success than Wilde) to formulate paradoxes meant to be clever but which struck observers as ridiculous. For instance, his “On the Use of Language” suggests that “the true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them.” Yet so loose is his hold on the potentially provocative point [4] that he slides from it into complaints over his observation that those in no need of hospitality and of loans are least likely to be offered them, a discussion which will recall the author’s own penurious circumstances.

His embryonic Romanticism is reflected in “A City Night-Piece” [5] in which he muses in dark solitude and, seeing the homeless, complains of “this heart of mine formed with so much sensibility.” He returns to familiar thematic ground for the conclusion which condemns those who seek vice when night falls, saying of the respectable men who may “talk of virtue all the day,” that they then steal out to brothels. “He has passed the whole day in company he hates, and now goes on to prolong the night among company that as heartily hate him.”

Johnson called him a “naturalist” in the day when natural philosophy was studied and practiced by philosophers in general. Though he was never responsible for actual research (such as Goethe and Benjamin Franklin did), he did produce references such as An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. In “The Sagacity of Some Insects,” he marvels at the spider and concludes with real pathos for an aged arachnid.

His criticism is spirited, though lightweight; he took little interest in literary theory and wrote either with an eye to fictionalizing style or a wholly impressionistic critical standard. Indeed, in “Upon Criticism” he declares “I have assumed the critic only to dissuade from criticism.” To him every common reader makes a critic superior to the connoisseur. As with the consumer, so the producer: “let us,” he says, “instead of writing finely, try to write naturally.” In general his positions are today commonplace. Few contemporary critics would dissent from his preference for “laughing” over “sentimental” comedy, his defense of subjects in his day considered “low” by the fastidious, or his acceptance of the excellence of modern works against those who would honor only the classics. One work advocating for the literature of his own day is “A Resverie” which imagines writers as traveling in various “stage-coaches,” associated with pleasure, industry, fame, and riches and bearing well-known appropriate writers.

That essay verges on being a short story just as many of the chapters of The Citizen of the World are very like essays. This satiric series, with little or no over-arching structure, represents the view of Britain to a Chinese philosopher, allowing satire of all areas of life, but, in Goldsmith’s loose treatment, allowing as well for disquisitions on virtually any topic including literary criticism, the sketchy creation of a backstory for the supposed author, and the interpolation of narratives such as the story of the “beautiful captive.” As always, Goldsmith is casual, current, and conversational.

Perhaps the greatest single essay, “A Resverie at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap” is entertaining, even memorable and, in parts, moving. Goldsmith’s appeal survives though the essay reads like a series of smaller pieces. The tone is established at the outset. Saying that while young he much enjoyed reading Cicero on old age, but that having “declined into the vale of years,” he finds that “Cicero is no longer pleasing.” Falstaff, he finds, “with all his faults, gives me more consolation than the most studied efforts of wisdom,” and thus he drinks until closing time and after passing out dreams even of interviewing Dame Quickly, the tavern’s resident genie. In her narration the Boar’s Head becomes the seat of sensuality, not just intoxication but gambling, sexual desire, and vanity as well. Human weakness according to her never changes. “You will find mankind neither better nor worse now than formerly.” In the social realm the church is depicted as utterly hypocritical while in general “those that labour starve, and those who do nothing wear fine cloaths and live in luxury.” The place was occupied throughout its history “by adventurers, bullies, pimps, and gamesters,” in other words by human beings, who, in their occasional recoils from sensuality, fall into equally ridiculous religious or political enthusiasm. Listening, the author at last rebels against this unrelieved display of human foolishness, declaring that he had expected from her “a romance,” and that in future he is “determined to hearken only to stories,” that is to say, to fantasy. What can one do but drink?

Goldsmith’s poetry is clever and natural like conversation. He excels at little occasional pieces to friends such as “Verses in Reply to Dr. Baker’s invitation” or “The Haunch of Venison.” His facility with heroic couplets serves him well in his longer poems.

“The Traveller,” which is dedicated with real warmth to Goldsmith’s brother, reflects on the writer’s European experience which he refers to as “my prime of life in wand’ring spent and care” during which he found “no spot of all the world my own.” To compensate for this restless instability he assures himself that “to repine” is “affectation all, and school-taught pride.”

And wiser he, whose sympathetic mind
Exults in all the good of all mankind.

With enlightened tolerance, he guesses that in the various countries of the earth, for all their differences, “the bliss of all is much the same,” though he does recur to some standard ethnic generalizations when he details his impressions. To him the Italians, though “surely blest,” are too sensual, and the French are given to “vanity” and “ostentation,” the Dutch to “love of gain.” He finds an ideal in the mountain-dwelling peasants of Switzerland because they are “content,” are “calm” and “cheerful,” but concludes with a patriotic encomium on English “freedom.” But even at home he finds corruption in his belated times and fears that in the end “as social bonds decay,” Britain itself may be “stript of all her charms” and sunk to one low level of “avarice.” Already he sees that “laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” Citing the dreadful threat of the thugs of state power,

The lifted ax, the agonizing wheel,
Luke’s iron crown, and Damien’s bed of steel,”

he finds that “bliss . . . centers in the mind,” and that “our own felicity we make or find.”

“The Deserted Village” is an admirable example of the eighteenth century topographical style, like Pope’s “Windsor Forest” combing landscape description with political comment. Unlike Pope in “Windsor Forest” or Denham in “Cooper’s Hill,” though, Goldsmith takes the part of the poor, contrasting beautiful and idealized images of a pre-industrial provincial world with the immoral rapacity of the owners of his own day. He unforgettably portrays evicted families, many of them victims of the Inclosure Acts, trudging toward London where they will only encounter “profusion that he must not share,” (312) while losing their daughters perhaps to prostitution as well. (333) Some even emigrate to the New World where they are likely to find “the various terrors of that horrid shore.” (348) The political point remains a righteous one, as Goldsmith’s contemporaries such as Thomas Spence, the radical activist, realized. Even to a self-avowed conservative like Goldsmith, the aristocrats were immoral who abandoned a paternal role as landlords and expelled workers who had lived for generations as faithful tenants in order to indulge their fancies with extensive parks and decorative gardens or to turn over the land to grazing with an eye to trade.

The author’s moralizing is well-served by the abstract Augustan vocabulary and the balanced rhetorical periods that had earlier been used so adeptly by Pope: “Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey/ The rich man’s joy’s increase, the poor’s decay.” (267-268) “Hoards, even beyond the miser’s wish abound,/ And rich men flock from all the world around.” (271-271) “The man of wealth and pride,/ Takes up a space that many poor supplied.” (277-278) His final appeal, to “Poetry, thou loveliest maid” to “teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain” (426) is pathetic in its ineffectuality.

Goldsmith’s most enduring work, his only novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1761) tends to relax into essays about literary or dramatic taste or politics, or criminal justice reform when it is not providing accounts of the highest emotional intensity fancied by those fond of the “sentimental novel.” Throughout the author counsels modest personal tastes and voices suspicions of high life, yet the wealthy and virtuous win out in an exceedingly unrealistic romance version of Job complete with his final restoration to prosperity. The good Dr. Primrose even has an apparently deceased daughter returned which bests what Jehovah did for Job. It is for good reason that the priest feels faith in a benevolent Providence through all his misfortunes that rivals that of Voltaire’s ever-optimistic Pangloss in Candide (1759).

She Stoops to Conquer is an amusing farce, and an amusing face is a worthy thing. Moderns who enjoy its absurd situations will readily assent to Goldsmith’s defense of “laughing” over “sentimental” comedy. Here Goldsmith invokes the principle social polarities in a spirit of pure play. Male and female, rich and poor, town and country, virtue and vice are all reconciled in harmonious and proper marriages as though their apparent contradictions were all in fun. Suddenly Tony’s irresponsible roistering, Charles’ intrigues with lower status women, George’s plans to elope surreptitiously with the family jewels are as harmless as Mr. Hardcastle’s nostalgia and his wife’s wish to be fashionable.

The character of Goldsmith’s oeuvre is epitomized by his Life of Richard Nash. Especially in an age in which (as in Plutarch’s time) biography was often exemplary, one might wonder why he chose to memorialize this gambler and womanizer for whom his most frequent epithet is “dissipated.” There are, of course, sufficient prudential reasons. “Beau” Nash, the unofficial “master of ceremonies” at the baths, was, in his day, not unlike the figures that grace the tabloids, “famous for being famous.” A good many anecdotes, of greater or lesser veracity, circulated about him, and he was himself an all-but-incessant reteller of his own legend, so there was doubtless a brief but bright efflorescence of interest in the superannuated celebrity when he died. It is then natural that a hack writer would foresee a likely market.

Surely, though, Goldsmith (himself socially awkward) felt a deep interest, compounded perhaps of envy, sympathy, horror, and fascination, with this man whom Goldsmith describes as capable of appearing much wittier than he was in fact due to his charismatic aplomb. Though the depiction of an aged and poverty-stricken fop makes the account a morality tale in the end, Goldsmith is not as critical of his subject as his reader may be. Nash was a self-conscious hedonist who challenged Wesley when he came to Bath [5], yet Goldsmith makes every allowance for him, placing him in a middle character, neither “truly great or strongly vicious.” A modern might not be as indulgent of a man whose bons mots included ridicule of another’s appearance, but we may accept Goldsmith’s word that he did many good works: saving gamblers from “sharpers,” and young women from those who might take advantage of them, that his benefactions were so open-handed as to be even ruinous of his own interests. Though openly irreligious and flouting social proprieties, he nonetheless seems have taken his role in Bath quite seriously, carefully organizing the dances and dinners and strictly enforcing his own set of rules by force of personality alone. Goldsmith must have liked as well the way that Nash insisted on mixing the aristocracy with the haute bourgeoisie in a way unacceptable to some of the aristocrats.

The book is fundamentally an easy read, as genial and likable as its author was by the accounts of his friends, an oddball of whom it may be said that, like Nash, “his virtues were all amiable” and whose weaknesses were excusable. Reading Goldsmith, one feels as though one is walking alongside one of the more charming of men, one whose conversation consumes the hour pleasantly. One can hardly afford to spurn such rewards. Goldsmith’s response to life is warm rather than hot. Just as he habitually insists that a man of modest means who is satisfied is both rich and wise, he offers no startling revelations, but rather makes do on a simple humane decency and acceptance, lit by wit and delivered with the fluent confidence of a professional writer. Indeed, any more extravagant returns from literature of any sort, while perhaps more thrilling, must surely prove less dependable. Goldsmith may never attain the heights of sublimity, but he is altogether comfortable dancing with grace on the lower plateaus of Parnassos.

1. Nonetheless, his Latinity was impugned in a lengthy article “On Epitaphs” in the Classical Journal during 1816.

2. Apart from poor grades, he was involved in a “riot” outside the Marshalsea debtor’s prison.

3. Mrs. Piozzi offers an livelier account of the incident with bailiffs besieging Goldsmith’s lodging and the author roaring drunk and “enraged.”

4. Has Goldsmith been enlisted by the Deconstructionists?

5. Cf. Gay’s “Trivia” which likewise records nocturnal wandering in urban neighborhoods.

6. Wesley, followed by a crowd of Methodists, held his own, but, after Nash had departed and Wesley had begun to lead prayers for him, hostile members of the crowd “hollowed and hissed us.” (Wesley, Letters 1739)

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