No. 6: Oliver Goldsmith at 40

Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith, he of the large-domed forehead, was born in 1730…or 1728 – what difference does a couple of years make? Well for a man like Goldsmith who produced only a few great works for which he is remembered, 1768 and 1748 both mark the production of one of these works, so that 40 either heralded his spoof of the sentimental genre, A Good-Natured Man, or his politically charged poem The Deserted Village. So, do we place the 40-year old Goldsmith in a satirical or political humour?

Well, if we look at 1768 first of all, we can see a characteristic concern with sentiment and satire in Goldsmith’s play A Good-Natured Man, which premiered that year and in which a largely sentimental plot was peppered with bawdy humour. Goldsmith was in fact ridiculing the sentimental comedy, a genre he would later attack in 1733 as ‘bastard tragedy’, whose sole benefit was that, for an author, ‘it is of all others the most easily written’. Strong words for a man who Horace Walpole called ‘an inspired idiot’, one whose output consisted of a few outstanding works and many more routine pieces of anonymous writing produced to pay the bills – and with Goldsmith, there were a lot of bills, thanks largely to his own predilection for gambling. Wakefield itself was famously published due to the intervention of Samuel Johnson after Goldsmith had been placed under house arrest by his landlady for failing to keep up with his rent. Thus while we remember Goldsmith for his great works, it is the mundane ones that kept him fed in the interim, making his criticism of others for taking the easy route to writing a little perplexing at best, if not hypocritical. Furthermore, as much as a satirical vein can be seen to run through Wakefield, it was ultimately championed for its sentimentality (especially during the Victorian period): if Goldsmith sought to attack sentiment, that plan hideously backfired.

Goldsmith
Goldsmith’s statue, Trinity College, Dublin

In 1770, alternatively, Goldsmith was writing The Deserted Village, a poem absolutely political in its message, becrying the mass emigration of the Irish and the subsequent depopulation of the land. It is simultaneously more charged than A Good-Natured Man, and less complicated, in that its message is made clear and prominent rather than hidden within a veil of irony; and the message itself is both more barbed than A Good-Natured Man, in its attack of the political landscape moreso than the theatrical, and simultaneously less cynical in its nostalgic pining for a lost golden age. It should be noted that the poem received mixed reviews: those that disliked it did so because they disagreed with its message, instead arguing for the benefits of emigration and development of the land; whereas those that liked it did so for its pastoral qualities. Once again Goldsmith was being praised for his sentimental powers, something he himself very much sought to attack.

 

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Literary Party at Joshua Reynolds (Goldsmith can be seen on the far right, other guests include Johnson and David Garrick)

But then Goldsmith’s life was characterised by misinterpretation as much as missed opportunity. The confusion over his birthdate, arising from a torn page in the family bible where the birth is recorded, marks one end of his life with misinformation as much as the other, when he died of a misdiagnosed kidney infection in 1774 (when he would have been 46, or only 44). A short life, and now as productive as it could have been; he failed to achieve all that he could, primarily due to his own failure to commit and focus, as much as his ever-present gambling addiction and fast lifestyle – one that got him expelled from Trinity College for a short while before he ultimately graduated and…much later, became immortalised in the form of a statue outside its front gates. Redemption was awaiting Goldsmith in his legacy, and at 40 years old he was finally beginning to produce works of merit – The Vicar of Wakefield, The Good Natured-Man, The Deserted Village and She Stoops to Conquer were all written within five years of his 40th. Had Goldsmith lived longer, we might now be looking at a far more weighty canon and one which would have raised his profile even longer, but ultimately a lifetime of drink and debauchery claimed him on the brink of a full literary redemption.

 

Goldsmith at Buckingham: Both of Goldsmith’s two greatest works are set texts in our English degree, with She Stoops to Conquer forming part of our Plays in Performance module, and The Vicar of Wakefield appearing later in our Restoration and Augustan Literature module.

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