For many years the only work I’d read by Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) was his Vicar of Wakefield, an eighteenth century retelling of the Book of Job. Though not the greatest of novels, this pleasantly didactic narrative earns one’s respect. Yet a broader reading of Goldsmith reveals an uneven character: an odd mixture of vanity and awkwardness, peevishness and benevolence. At times a skilled moralist, he was a Romantic sentimentalist at heart, who was not above the bawdy irreverence of his peers.
He admired the arch-infidel Voltaire (loathed by his friend Samuel Johnson) for “opposing error and oppression of every kind, and defending and promulgating every useful truth.” Perhaps every truth “useful” to himself, one might add. With such vagaries in mind, we must follow Goldsmith’s own advice: “He becomes most wise who makes the most judicious selection.” And thus by carefully picking through the dross, one encounters some real gems such as Letter LXVII of The Citizen of the World, which admonishes the reader against impractical philosophizing:
Books, my son, while they teach us to respect the interests of others, often make us unmindful of our own; the youthful reader, while he grasps at social happiness, grows miserable in detail, and, attentive to universal harmony, often forgets that he has a part in the contest to sustain.
Another favorite is “A City Night-Piece,” which offers a pensive and haunting nocturne:
The clock has struck two, the expiring taper rises and sinks in the socket, the watchman forgets the hour in slumber, the laborious and the happy are at rest, and nothing now wakes but guilt, revelry and despair…. All the bustle of human pride is forgotten, and this hour may well display the emptiness of human vanity.
Finally, in his Life of Nash, Goldsmith presents a very Johnsonian approach to the art of biography:
History owes its excellence more to the writer’s manner than the materials of which it is composed…. Thus none can properly be said to write history but he who understands the human heart, and its whole train of affections and follies. Those affections and follies are properly the materials he has to work upon…. Every man’s own life would perhaps furnish the most pleasing materials for history, if he only had candour enough to be sincere and skill enough to select such parts as once making him more prudent, might serve to render his readers more cautious…. That knowledge which we can turn to our real benefit should be most eagerly pursued.
The preface happens to be the best part. As for the rest of the essay, one wonders why Goldsmith misspent his talents chronicling the career of a professional dandy. Horace Walpole once called him an “inspired idiot.” That may be too harsh. However, I agree with Boris Ford’s verdict that Goldsmith “wrote nothing of the very first quality and a good deal that was trivial.”