Oliver Goldsmith
Oliver Goldsmith; drawing by David Levine

Goldsmith must be read in bulk. The works on which his reputation depends fit snugly in two of Mr. Friedman’s volumes, but these give a misleading impression. We think of Goldsmith as the author of The Vicar of Wakefield The Good-Natured Man, She Stoops to Conquer, the essays, the poems, especially The Deserted Village and The Traveller. This is fair enough. But the story implied in the list is incomplete. To take its full weight we have to include the things he wrote as a bookseller’s hack, the compilations, translations, and biographies. Of this stuff it is necessary to say, as Goldsmith said of Prior’s Alma: “There are some parts very fine; and let them save the badness of the rest.” But Goldsmith spent so much time and spirit as a hack that we exclude this part of his life only at the cost of making the picture prettier than it was. As he wrote of another unfortunate, Edward Purdon:—

He led such a damnable life in this world,
I don’t think he’ll wish to come back.

So we need the slave-work as ballast. Mr. Friedman includes the biographies, even the Life of Bolingbroke, which is nine parts plagiarized from the Biographia Britannica, but he has no room for the translations or the histories. I particularly regret the absence of the History of the Earth and Animated Nature, but I concede that its inclusion would have upset the balance of things. We have, then, an ample Selected Writings, not a Collected Works.

The quality of Mr. Friedman’s textual work is impressive. He normally takes the first edition as his copy-text on the grounds that it is closer than any other to the manuscript, and he introduces only those readings of later editions which he considers authorial. This is excellent. Again, he has a very large Index which gives most of the cross-references. The editorial comment is always brief and sometimes curt to the point of silence. Many details which would be dark, I think, to the general reader are left in that condition. Presumably Mr. Friedman thinks his readers are likely to take in their stride such words as “patton,” “chowse,” and “courtain.” He may be right; as Milton may have been right in deeming it unnecessary to make any provision in a student’s day for learning Italian, one would pick it up in spare moments between specific concerns. Mr. Friedman is Miltonic in his expectations.

THE COMMON VIEW of Goldsmith is that he was a peripatetic clown who somehow managed to write like an angel. Biographers from Washington Irving to R. M. Wardle make him sound like an amiable idiot: His life seemed to aspire to the condition of farce, he was never the right man in the right place at the right time. In this figure he looks like Moses in The Vicar of Wakefield, who goes to the fair to sell a horse and returns with a gross of green spectacles, copper-rimmed, and shagreen cases. But it is hard to square this figure with the author of The Deserted Village, the bailiff-scene in The Good-Natured Man, and the third act of She Stoops to Conquer. These have a cutting edge which we are hardly willing to recognize in Goldsmith, though we acknowledge it in Jane Austen. In fact, the first chapter of The Vicar of Wakefield is as good as anything in Pride and Prejudice; the ironic perspective is just as compelling in one as in the other. I would not push the comparison any further. There is nothing in Goldsmith to compare with Emma. Besides, the body of Jane Austen’s work is richer in implication, more cogent in the relation between one part and another, than Goldsmith’s sprawling trunk. Jane Austen never allowed herself to write badly, as Goldsmith did when the kissing had to stop. But the comparison is tenable.

Perhaps we are misled by the genial tone, Dr. Primrose’s Sermon on the Mount. The Jane Austen we admire is mistress of a “regulated hatred,” without which our admiration would be muted and a little condescending. We do not particularly admire “dear Jane.” We read her beside George Eliot and Henry James because we recognize a certain resilience in her critique of man and society which makes this company congenial: She is as tough as her peers. But we are embarrassed by the genial mode. Even while we enjoy Goldsmith’s humor we suspect the attitudes on which it is based, the governing terms that make it possible. We approve when he makes fun of the sentimental comedians, when he scorns the pretentions of those who affect the Sublime. But when we come upon the mellow note in his fiction and drama we conclude that he adopted it as a desperate bid for favor; the man so meritorious that he does not bite when kicked. Johnson says in the Prologue to The Good-Natured Man: “The bard may supplicate, but cannot bribe.” But we know better; we think that the style is a bribe, a studied meekness, and the tongue an instrument for licking well-heeled boots. An extreme version of this is that we do not forgive Goldsmith for staying sane when better men went mad: Swift, Smart, Cowper, and the rest. This is another way of saying that Goldsmith is not “one of us.” We read eighteenth-century literature with Swift at one end and Blake at the other, and we approve only when we see evidence of Angst, a literature written on the nerves. Hazlitt said of someone that he always wrote with “an air of precaution”: We hate that air, and we think we feel it in Goldsmith.


RICHARD BLACKMUR complained of Lionel Trilling several years ago that “he cultivates a mind never entirely his own”; a mind “always deliberately to some extent what he understands to be the mind of society.” This was not enough for Blackmur, a lover of “tykish impulses and wild insights”: He wanted Trilling to commit himself to his own mind, to go it alone, as a prophetic gesture that society might or might not understand. Either way, it was the distinctive duty of the modern critic, the critic who accepted the fate of being modern. To the extent that we are modern, we have the same feeling, allowing for the necessary differences, about Goldsmith; that he always hedged his bet, he cut down on risk. He was never willing to be, in Blackmur’s word, a tyke: He wanted to be a respectable dog, in high standing with the profession. And if we want to let him down lightly, we say that he was an impoverished Irishman living on his wits in London, he had to be careful not to offend.

The argument is not convincing. True, he declined to go mad for us. And he contrived to place his criticism of contemporary society at a safe distance from the specific case. In The Traveller he says “Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law.” But he does not name names; so no one need take offense. The criticism of the robber barons in The Deserted Village is so generalized that to this day we are not even sure whether Auburn is Irish, English, or vaguely both. This is Crabbe’s complaint, that Goldsmith the good-natured man found it much too easy to abstract himself from the facts of the case, the contingent detail. The times are bad: “Auburn and Eden can no more be found.” Even so, the facts must be reported, the “real picture of the poor.” In his famous attack on pastoral poetry in the opening lines of The Village Crabbe says:

Fled are those times, when, in harmonious strains,
The rustic poet praised his native plains:
No shepherds now, in smooth, al- ternate verse,
Their country’s beauty or their nymphs’ rehearse;
Yet still for these we frame the tender strain.
Still in our lays fond Corydons complain,
And shepherds’ boys their amorous pains reveal,
The only pains, alas, they never feel.

Touché. But The Deserted Village could not be mistaken for smooth, alternate verse. Crabbe’s poems look ahead to Dickens, Mayhew, and Lawrence: This is a major source of their interest. Goldsmith’s poems look back to Swift, Pope, and Gay, to a manner which he deeply admired but could never imitate. He admired the severity of the early masters, but could not reproduce it in his own verse. The key to his meditative style in the poems is that it operates from a high level of generalization: His moral Universals are embodied in representative figures, in types. His style works from above; a style of survey. He had a remarkably vivid sense of life, but it expressed itself as a sense of the perennial rhythms, the patterns of feeling which we recognize as human. This is, in one of its forms, the “sweet succession” invoked in The Deserted Village, which is at once the village dance at Auburn and the fundamental dance of life itself. The limitation in Goldsmith’s sensibility was that he had to have a sense of these large patterns of life “in principle,” before we could respond to their embodiments “in practice,” on the ground. He was sluggish in working from the ground up.

CHAPTER SEVEN OF The Vicar of Wakefield is a case in point. The Primroses are to entertain their landlord, Mr. Thornhill, who comes complete with two friends and several servants. Mrs. Primrose insists on entertaining the whole party: “for which, by the bye, our family was pinched for three weeks after.” The entire chapter depends upon a sense of certain basic human tensions; between one social class and another, between husband and wife, father and children. These tensions are disclosed in conversation. Mr. Thornhill makes a crude joke. “At this he laughed, and so did we: the jests of the rich are ever successful. Olivia too could not avoid whispering, loud enough to be heard, that he had an infinite fund of humour.” Gradually Dr. Primrose is isolated in his probity: Thornhill’s vulgarity, the simpering daughters, and the conniving mother drive him into the wilderness; he is saved only by the ending of the chapter. Goldsmith’s writing at this stage in the book is flawless; but we have no impression of a novelist waiting to spring upon the contingent fact, the miraculously opportune event. Nor have we a sense of Goldsmith’s invention making contingent facts appear. The facts are derived from the Universal, from the perennial rhythms; they are implicit in the Universal and, as it were, waiting to be released. Those readers who would keep the moral Universals strictly in their places will look hard at Goldsmith’s book to ensure that the freedom and force of the events are acknowledged. And they will look with particular suspicion at the end of the book, because traditionally the Universal imposes itself there, calling things to a proper halt. The severest readers, especially if they are severely modern in their demands, may feel that Goldsmith’s Universal is offensively benevolent, making things come right at a time when most things were in the habit of going wrong. I shall concede to them that the ending is happy. But this is the limit of concession. For the rest, Goldsmith seems to me to have contrived an amenable relation between his Universal and the concrete details of its embodiment. Whether he began with the events and characters, working “up,” or (as I think) with the Universal and worked “down,” the book is alive in his hands.


There is still a tendency to treat this novel as a sport, a bit of a lark; something to be disposed of before getting down to the real things, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews. I cannot recall a historian of the novel who has given it more than passing mention on his way to sterner stuff. But it seems to me a remarkable book. Mr. Friedman has edited it, incidentally, with notable resource.

This Issue

April 28, 1966