« PreviousContinue »
THIRTY years of taking-in; fifteen years of giving out; -that, in brief, is Oliver Goldsmith's story. When, in 1758, his failure to pass at Surgeons' Hall finally threw him on letters for a living, the thirty years were finished, and the fifteen years had been begun. What was to come he knew not; but, from his bare-walled lodging in Green-Arbour-Court, he could at least look back upon a sufficiently diversified past. He had been an idle, orchard-robbing schoolboy; a tuneful but intractable sizar of Trinity; a lounging, loitering, fair-haunting, Aute-playing Irish "buckeen." He had tried both Law and Divinity, and crossed the threshold of neither. He had started for London and stopped at Dublin; he had set out for America and arrived at Cork. He had been many things :-a medical student, a strolling musician, a corrector of the press, an apothecary, an usher at a Peckham "academy." Judged by ordinary standards, he had wantonly wasted his time. And yet, as things fell out, it is doubtful whether his parti-coloured experiences were not of more service to him than any he could have obtained if his progress had been less erratic. Had he fulfilled the modest expectations of his family, he would probably have remained a simple curate in Westmeath, eking out his “forty pounds a year” by farming a field or two, migrating contentedly at the fitting season from the “ blue bed to the brown," and (it may be) subsisting vaguely as a local poet upon the tradition of some youthful couplets to a pretty cousin, who had married a richer man. As it was, if he could not be said “to have seen life steadily, and seen it whole,” he had, at all events, inspected it pretty narrowly in parts; and, at a time when he was most impressible, had preserved the impress of many things which, in his
turn, he was to re-impress upon his writings. “No man”-says one of his biographers—"ever put so much of himself into his books as Goldsmith.” To his last hour he was drawing upon the thoughts and reviving the memories of that “unhallowed time” when, to all appearance, he was hopelessly squandering his opportunities. To do as Goldsmith did, would scarcely enable a man to write a Vicar of Wakefield or a Deserted Village, -certainly his practice cannot be preached with safety "to those that eddy round and round.” But viewing his entire career, it is difficult not to see how one part seems to have been an indispensable preparation for the other, and to marvel once more (with the philosopher Square) at "the eternal Fitness of Things.'
The events of Goldsmith's life have been too often narrated to need repetition here, and we shall not resort to the well-worn device of repeating them in order to say so.
But, in a fresh reprint of his Poems and Plays, some brief preamble to those branches of his work may be excusable, and even useful. And, with regard to both, what strikes one first is the extreme tardiness of that late blossoming to which Johnson referred. When a man succeeds as Goldsmith succeeded, friends and critics speedily discover that he had shown signs of excellence even from his boyish years. But, setting aside those half-mythical ballads for the Dublin streetsingers, and some doubtful verses for Jane Contarine, there is no definite evidence that, from a doggerel couplet in his childhood to an epigram not much better than doggerel composed when he was five and twenty, he had written a line of verse of the slightest importance; and even five years later, although he refers to himself in a private letter as a “poet,” it must have been solely upon the strength of the unpublished fragment of The Traveller, which in the interval, he had sent to his brother Henry from abroad. It is even more remarkable