Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

FORSTER'S LIFE OF OLIVER GOLDSMITH.*

The Life and Adventures, or rather sufferings, of Oliver Goldsmith, constitute a great moral lesson. Look at the man, or the poet, dramatist, and novelist, as we will ; as a sizar at Trinity College, Dublin, as a poor medical student at Edinburgh, or a poorer tutor in an academy at Peckham; as a traveller, “ remote and unfriended,” supporting himself by his flute : in London, as the hack of the hard task-master Griffiths, or as a tenant of a garret in Green Arbour Court : at Canonbury, as one of Mr. Newbery's better class of writers, or as “Goldy,” aping Gay in a bloomcoloured coat, and Johnson in manners, albeit • upon a small scale ;" still it is ever the same thing over and over again--the irregularities of genius, struggling against the matter-of-fact realities of life.

Goldsmith (says Mr. Forster), must be held to have succeeded in nothing that the world would have had him succeed in. He was intended for a clergyman-and was rejected when he applied for orders; he practised as a physician -and never made what would have paid for a degree. The world did not ask him to write, but he wrote and paid the penalty. His existence was a conti. nued privation. The days were few in which he had resources for the night, or dared to look forward to the morrow. There was not any miserable want in the long and sordid catalogue which, in its turn and all its bitterness, he did not feel. The experience of those to whom he makes affecting reference in his “ Animated Nature"_“ people who die really of hunger, in common language, of a broken heart” – was his own. And when he succeeded at last, success was but a feeble sunshine on a rapidly approaching decay, which was to lead him, by its flickering and uncertain light, to an early grave.

But in this sad career, there lay a moral and a mystery which was well worth propounding, and which Mr. Forster has boldly and skilfully unravelled. Bearing on its title-page the name of a biography, his work is, in reality, an earnest vindication of the rights of literary humanity, as more particularly illustrated by the life of Oliver Goldsmith.

“ If the profession of an author," says Goldsmith himself, in his “ Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe;" " is to be laughed at by the stupid, it is certainly better to be contemptibly rich than contemptibly poor. For all the wit that ever adorned the human mind, will, at present, no more shield the author's poverty from ridicule, than his high-topped gloves conceal the unavoidable omissions of his laundress. To be more serious, new fashions, follies, and vices, make new monitors necessary in every age. be considered as a merciful substitute to the legislature. He acts not by punishing crimes, but by preventing them. However virtuous the present age, there may be still growing employment for ridicule or reproof, for persuasion or satire. If the author be, therefore, still necessary among us, let us treat him with proper consideration as a child of the public, not a rent-charge on the community. And, indeed, a child of the public he is in all respects ; for, while so able to direct others, how incapable is he frequently found of guiding himself! His simplicity exposes him to all the insidious approaches of cunning; Iris sensibility to the slightest invasions of contempt. Though possessed of fortitude to stand unmoved the expected bursts of an earthquake, yet of feelings

The Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith. A Biography: in Four Books. By John Forster, of the Inner Temple, Barrister, Author of the “Lives of Statesmen of the Commonwealth.” Bradbury and Evans.

An author may

so exquisitely poignant as to agonise under the slightest disappointment. Broken rest, tasteless meals, and causeless anxieties, shorten his life, or render it unfit for active employment; prolonged vigils and intense application still further contract his span, and make his time glide insensibly away. Let us not, then, aggravate those natural inconveniences by neglect : we have had sufficient instances of this kind already. Sale and Moore will suffice for one age at least. But they are dead, and their sorrows are over. The neglected author of the Persian Eclogues,' which, however inaccurate, excel any in our language, is still alive: happy, if insensible of our neglect, not raging at our ingratitude! It is enough that the age has already produced instances of men pressing foremost in the lists of fame, and worthy of better times ; schooled by continued adversity into a hatred of their kind; flying from thought to drunkenness; yielding to the united pressure of labour, penury, and sorrow; sinking unheeded, without one friend to drop a tear on unattended obsequies; and indebted to charity for a grave."

“These words (says Mr. Foster) had been written but a few years, when the hand that traced them was itself cold ; and yielding to that united pressure of labour, penury, and sorrow, with a frame exhausted by unremitting and illrewarded drudgery, Goldsmith was indebted to the forbearance of creditors for a peaceful burial. It is not, then, in the early death of learned Sale, driven mad with those fruitless schemes of a society for the encouragement of learning, which he carried, it may be hoped, to a kinder world than this; it is not from the grave of Edward Noore, with melancholy playfulness anticipating, in his last unsuccessful project, the very day on which his death would fall; it is not even at the shrieks of poor distracted Collins, heard through the melancholy cathedral cloister where he played in childhood; but it is in the life, adventures, and death of Oliver Goldsmith, that the mournful and instructive moral speaks its warning to us now.”

Few, indeed, could be found more deeply impressive or of wider import or significance. The moral does not speak for Goldsmith alone.

Not for what he has himself endured (continues Mr. Forster, in one of the most eloquent and suggestive passages in his work), whose labour was at last victoriously closed, but for all the disastrous chances that still awaited others. It is the world's concern. There is a subtle spirit of compensation at work, when men regard it least, which to the spiritual sense accommodates the vilest need, and lightens the weariest burden. "Milton talked of the lasting fame and perpetuity of praise, which God and good men have consented should be the reward of those whose published labours have advanced the good of mankind; and it is a set-off, doubtless, in the large account. The “two carriages” and the "style” of Griffiths are long passed away into the rubbish they sprang from, and all of us will be apt enough now to thank Heaven we are not Griffiths'. Jacob Tonson's hundred thousand pounds are now of less account, than the bad shillings he insinuated into Dryden's payments; and the fame of Mr. Secretary Nottingham is very much overtopped by the pillory of De Foe.

The Italian princes who beggared Dante are still without pity writhing in his deathless poem, while Europe looks to the beggar as to a star in heaven; nor has Italy's greater day, or the magnificence which crowded the court of Allgustus, left behind them a name of any earthly interest to compare with bis who restored land to Virgil, and who succoured the fugitive Horace. These are results which have obtained in all countries and been confessed by every age, and it will be well when they win for literature other living regards, and higher present consideration than it has yet been able to obtain. Men of genius can more easily starve than the world, with safety to itself, can continue to neglect and starve them.

These earnest words will not be lost upon a world in which the present is being daily more searchingly interrogated as to how much it is in

that may

debted for actual success to the past. The bequest of a great minister is sometimes a debt to be paid by the sweat of the poor man's brow, the legacy of the undying poet is a blessing on those abodes in which contentment more than compensates for want and pain.

Blest be those feasts with simple plenty crown'd,
Where all the ruddy family around
Laugh at the jests or pranks that never fail,
Or sigh with pity at some mournful tale ;
Or press the bashful stranger to his food,

And learn the luxury of doing good. No fear, no apprehension of the ultimate result vibrates in our heart. The time of transition from the pampered patron to the purse-proud bookseller is gone by—that of the public has succeeded. However slow the progress of opinion may be in manifesting itself, that of the public is never ultimately in the wrong. The claims of heart, intellect, and genius can never be permanently neglected. The time is possibly already come when they are vindicating themselves with a power make the ignorant pride and presumptuous vanity of worldly power and riches fade into insignificance and humiliation before their stern voice. Social position must ever depend upon the man.

If his conduct is as correct as his heart is open, if his acts are as honest as his head is filled with good intentions, if he entertains a just pride in his vocation, and is deeply imbued with the responsibility of his mission, no contemporary scale of rank can take intellectual or moral precedence, and no breveted order of the community can afford to deride or to despise his claims to equality and to respect. The days are gone by when Goldsmith mourned that an author was a thing only to be laughed at, as it is to be hoped the day will also soon go by when man is measured only by his wealth or his station ; the two most unintellectual and least moral of all the possible claims to distinction that could possibly be put forth, that is if merely put forth of themselves.

The great mistake of the world is, that money is happiness. Gladly do we join with Mr. Forster in repudiating a doctrine so unjust to Providence and so prejudicial to mankind. “What then,” says Oliver Goldsmith, “

proper encouragements of genius ? I answer, subsistence and respect." The answer ought to be law, written in letters engraved by a nation's gratitude. “One is weary,” says Mr. Carlyle, “ of hearing about the omnipotence of money. I will say, rather, that for a genuine man it is no evil to be poor. Money, in truth, can do much, but it cannot do all ! We must know the province of it, and confine it there; and even spurn it back when it wishes to get further.” “ All encouragements to merit,” said Goldsmith,“ are misapplied, which make the author too rich to continue his profession.” “ But he would not,” says Mr. Forster, " therefore starve him, or to the mercies of blind chance altogether surrender him.” “ What new arrangement, what kind of consideration,” says the same judicious advocate of the cause of literature, “may be required, will not be very distant from the simple acknowledgment that greater honour and respect are due.” And should, we shall briefly add, be insisted upon by correctness of conduct and manners, and by a modest, yet inflexible purpose, even when cramped by an ignorant bookseller, or an old woman of a critic.

But did Oliver Goldsmith's life present us with such a picture at the

are the

time that he wrote that sad melancholy passage, “in a garret writing for bread, and expecting to be dunned for a milk score," a passage which has suggested a striking proof of the genuine humanity of literature, from Mr. Foster.

* The ordinary Fate of Letters in that Age. There had been a Christian religion extant for now seventeen hundred and fifty-seven years; for so long a time had the world been acquainted with its spiritual responsibilities and necessities ; yet here, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the one common eminence conceded to the spiritual teacher, the man who comes upon the earth to lift his fellow-men above its miry ways. Up in a garret, writing for bread he cannot get, and dunned for a milk-score he cannot pay. And age after age, the comfortable, prosperous man sees it; and calls for water and washes his hands of it ; and is glad to think it no business of his ; and in that year of grace and of Goldsmith's suffering, had doubtless adorned his diningroom with the “ Distrest Poet” of the inimitable Mr. Hogarth, and invited langhter from easy guests at the garret and the milk-score. Yet

, could they have known the danger to even their worldliest comforts, then impending, perhaps they had not laughed so heartily. For were not those very citizens to be indebted to Goldsmith in after years, for cheerful hours, and happy thonghts, and fancies that would smooth life's path to their children's children ? and now, without a friend, with hardly bread to eat, and uncheered by a hearty word or a smile to help him on, he sits in his melancholy garret, and those fancies die within him. It is but an accident now that the good“ Vicar” shall be born ; that the “Gentleman in Black” shall dispense his charities; that “Croaker" shall grieve ; " Tony Lumpkin” laugh ; or the sweet, soft echo of the “ Deserted Village” come always back upon the heart, in charity, and kindness, and sympathy with the poor. For Despair is in the garret ; and the poet, overmastered by distress, seeks only the means of flight and exile. With a day-dream to his old Irish playfellow, a sigh for the “heavy scoundrels” who disregard him, and a wail for the age to which genius is a mark of mockery, he turns to that first-avowed piece, which, being also his last, is to prove " that blockheads are not men of wit,” and yet that " wit are actually blockheads."

It is true that much is to be excused to poverty; but it is vain to deny that in Oliver Goldsmith's character, as evidenced by his whole career, there was a leaven of evil. As what is good is so peculiarly English, as to have become almost proverbially so ; so what was bad, partakes of that which is by long experience most intimately associated with the Irish character. It would appear as if there had been two natures at work in this fine intellect,—the Irish, which he inherited by birthright and association, and the English, which sprang from education and cultivation, and still more so from-natural ability, chastened by sorrow, suffering, and experience. True, that the poet's uncompromising master, Mr, Theaker Wilder may have been endowed with more than Euclidean ferocity ; still the sizar's conduct at college was not only not exemplary but very much the reverse; the club at George Conway's inn at Ballymahon, probably initiated Oliver into vices which he never afterwards purged himself of, gambling and bumper joviality. Rejected as a clergyman he did not suit long as a tutor. Before he had almost entered seriously upon his medical studies in Edinburgh, he started off for Leyden ;-the peripatetic philosophy of his subsequent wanderings can scarcely palliate the more prominent vagabondism. As to the degree obtained at Louvain or Padua, it is more than an apocryphal document; it is more certain, as Mr. Prior first made evident, that he was rejected as surgeon's mate at

men of

the London college. “Honour, to that court of examiners,” exclaims Mr. Forster, with an enthusiasm we cannot quite sympathise with, “to the end of time! They found him not qualified to be a surgeon's mate, and left him qualified to heal the wounds and abridge the sufferings of all the world." As an apothecary's journeyman, as a poor physician, as an usher in a Peckham academy, as Griffiths' hack, and the despairing tenant of Green Arbour Court, it is still everywhere the same thing—the most wondrous simplicity and inconsiderateness, united to great mental resources and natural abilities. Mr. Forster is by no means able to make out his case-that at the time of the publication of this “ Enquiry," that previously to the period when, acccording to Mr. Forster's views, he became author by choice—he had really done any thing to merit encouragement from those who had the means or the power to bestow such.

We do not mean to say that Goldsmith was not ill-treated; he was so, most undoubtedly, by the unfeeling taskmaster Griffiths, and we cordially agree with Mr. Forster's denunciation of the man. Nor do we meau to argue that even apart from his great literary abilities, Goldsmith did not possess eminent virtues ; on the contrary, the instincts of the man were among the most noble that dignify human nature. Sensibility,” Mr. Forster argues in the language of humanity tempered by reason, "is not charity;" but the sensibility manifested by Goldsmith to those in distress confers, in our opinion, a credit upon his heart which no rational charity, carried to whatever extent, could ever impart. Always simple and honest-minded, Oliver Goldsmith passed through the trials of life without one enduring stain upon the child-like purity of his heart. His passive virtues never failed him, he was ever meek in affliction, equable under all changes and chances. It was his unfeigned sincerity and unaffected simplicity of heart that no doubt won to him such staunch and honourable friendships ; but still he was also throughout life even to his death, inconsiderate and untaught by experience in worldly wisdom, and the life of this great man must still be held forth rather as a warning than as a lesson or an example to the literary aspirant.

There are a host of pretty and touching events to record in the life of a poet, whose great distinction was his unaffected simplicity and tender

Such are the sizar listening to his ballads sung in the public streets; the would-be physician concealing a large patch in his rusty velvet suit; the flute, alike ready for rustic or for schoolboy, or for the urchins of Green Arbour Court; the astonishment of brother Charles, on finding an established author in a garret ; the strange interruption to a conversation held with the Rev. Mr. Percy, seated on an only chair, the poet on the window-sill ; the poet's philosophic study of his cob-webbed walls ; Hogarth painting Goldsmith's passionate landlady, at Islington, the same from whose irate clutches Dr. Johnson once saved the poet; these events, for the most part familiar to the public, have been made, in Mr. Forster's work, subjects of charming illustrations by Messrs. Stanfield, Maclise, Leech, Doyle, and others.

Mr. Forster has not only exhibited great diligence and industry in compiling the history of Goldsmith's literary life, but also in his descriptions of contemporary literature and politics. It is curious, in referring to the more fugitive essays of the author, to find how much repetition

ness.

« ZurückWeiter »