Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

CHAPTER VII

THE DESERTED VILLAGE

1770

BENEATH these dark and desperate struggles of party profligacy the more peaceful current of life meanwhile flowed on and had its graces and enjoyments; not the least of them from Goldsmith's hand. “This day at 12,” said the Public Advertiser of the 26th of May, “will be published, price two shillings, The Deserted Village, a Poem. By Doctor Goldsmith. Printed for W. Griffin, at Garrick's Head in Catherine Street, Strand." Its success was instant and decisive. A second edition was called for on the 7th of June, a third on the 14th, a fourth (carefully revised) on the 28th, and on the 16th of August a fifth edition appeared. Even Goldsmith's enemies in the press were silent, and nothing interrupted the praise which greeted him on all sides. One tribute he did not hear, and was never conscious of; yet from truer heart or finer genius he had none, and none that should have given him greater pride. Gray was passing the summer at Malvern, the last summer of his life,' with his friend

[ocr errors][merged small]

1 He died suddenly at Cambridge in the summer of 1771, in his fiftyfifth year. See Walpole's Letters to Mann, ii. 171. It is pleasant to quote his last letter to Walpole, written a few weeks before. Atheism is a vile dish, though all the cooks of France combine to make new sauces to it. As to the soul, perhaps they may have none on the Continent, but I do think we have such things in England ; Shakespeare, for example, I believe had several to his share.” Nor can I say farewell to one with whose wit and wisdom I have enriched so many of these pages without borrowing from his commonplace-book what I have always thought as delicate a critical remark as ever was made. “In former times, they loved, I will

1

Nichols, when the poem came out; and he desired Nichols to read it aloud to him. He listened to it with fixed attention, and soon exclaimed, Thisman is a poet."

The judgment has since been affirmed by hundreds of thousands of readers, and any adverse appeal is little likely now to be lodged against it. Within the circle of its claims and pretensions a more entirely satisfactory and delightful poem than the Deserted Village was probably never written. It lingers in the memory where once it has entered; and such is the softening influence, on the heart even more than the understanding, of the mild, tender, yet clear light which makes its images so distinct and lovely, that there are few who have not wished to rate it higher than poetry of yet higher genius. “What true and pretty pastoral images,” exclaimed Burke, years after the poet's death,“has Goldsmith in his Deserted Village! They beat all: Pope, and Philips, and Spenser too, in my opinion.". But opinions that appear exaggerated may, in truth, be often reconciled to very sober sense;

not say tediousness, but length, and a train of circumstances in a narration. The vulgar do so still: it gives an air of reality to the facts, it fixes the attention, raises and keeps in suspense their expectation, and supplies the place of their little and lifeless imagination ; and it keeps pace with the slow motion of their own thoughts. Tell them a story as you would to a man of wit; it will appear to them as an object seen in the night by a flash of lightning; but when you have placed it in various lights and various positions, they will come at last to see and feel it as well as others. But we need not confine ourselves to the vulgar and to understandings beneath our own. Circumstance ever was, and ever will be, the essence both of poetry and oratory. It has in some sort the same effect upon every mind that it has upon that of the populace; and I fear the quickness and delicate impatience of these polished times are but the forerunners of the decline of all those beautiful arts which depend upon the imagination. ... Homer, the father of circumstance, has occasion for the same apology." As I transcribe this passage a return is published of the results of the first year's experience of the Manchester Free Library, from which it appears that no books of any class have excelled in popularity, as tested by the frequency of the demand made for them, the novels of De Foe. The secret of this is explained by Gray. 1853.

1 Works, v. 36. “He thought Goldsmith a genuine poet,” Mr. Nichols adds.

9 " That is,” Burke adds, “in the pastoral, for I go no farther.”—Letter to Shackleton, 6th May, 1780. Correspondence, ii. 347.

204

THE LIFE OF OLIVER GOLDSMITH

[ocr errors]

and, where any extraordinary popularity has existed, good reason is generally to be shown for it. Of the many clever, and indeed wonderful, writings that from age to age are poured forth into the world, what is it that puts upon the few the stamp of immortality, and makes them seem as indestructible as nature? What is it but their wise rejection of everything superfluous ?-being grave histories, or natural stories, of everything that is not history or nature ? being poems, of everything that is not poetry, however much resembling it; and especially of that prodigal accumulation of thoughts and images which, until properly sifted and selected, is as the unhewn to the chiselled marble? What is it, in short, but the unity, completeness, polish, and perfectness in every part, which Goldsmith attained ? It may be said that his range is limited, and that, whether in his poetry or his prose, he seldom wanders far from the ground of his own experience; but within that circle how potent is his magic, what a command it exercises over the happiest forms of art, with what a versatile grace it moves between what saddens us in humor or smiles on us in grief, and how unerring our response of laughter or of tears! Thus, his pictures may be small; may be far from historical pieces, amazing or confounding us; may be even, if severest criticism will have it so, mere happy tableaux de genre hanging up against our walls: but their colors are exquisite and unfading; they have that universal expression which never rises higher than the comprehension of the humblest, yet is ever on a level with the understanding and appreciation of the loftiest; they possess that familiar sweetness of household expression which wins them welcome, alike where the rich inhabit and in huts where poor men lie; and there, improving and gladdening all, they are likely to hang forever.

Johnson, though he had taken equal interest in the progress of this second poem, contributing to the manuscript the four lines which stand last, yet thought it inferior to the Traveller. Time has not confirmed that judgment. Were it only that the field of contemplation in the Traveller is somewhat

desultory, and that (as a later poet pointed out) its successor has an endearing locality, and introduces us to beings with whom the imagination is ready to contract a friendship, the higher place must be given to the Deserted Village. Goethe tells us the transport with which the circle he now lived in hailed it when they found themselves once more as in another beloved Wakefield; and with what zeal he at once set to work to translate it into German. All the characteristics of the first poem seem to me developed in the second, with as chaste a simplicity, with as choice a selectness of natural expression, in verse of as musical cadence, but with yet greater earnestness of purpose and a far more human interest. On the other hand, it is subject to the remark, which, indeed, has been made against it, not merely that it is founded on false reasoning, but that, in order to support its theory, things which could never have co-existed

The passage from his Autobiography is well worth quoting: “A little poem, which we passionately received into our circle, allowed us from henceforward to think of nothing else. Goldsmith's Deserted Village necessarily delighted every one at that grade of cultivation, in that sphere of thought. Not a living and active, but a departed, vanished existence was described; all that one so readily looked upon, that one loved, prized, sought passionately in the present, to take part in it with the cheerfulness of youth. Highdays and holydays in the country, church consecrations and fairs, the solemn assemblage of the elders under the village lindentree, supplanted in its turn by the lively delight of youth in dancing, while the more educated classes show their sympathy. How seemly did these pleasures appear, moderated as they were by an excellent country pastor, who understood how to smooth down and remove all that went too far, that gave occasion to quarrel and dispute. Here again we found an honest Wakefield, in his well-known circle, yet no longer in his living bodily form, but as a shadow recalled by the soft mournful tones of the elegiac poet. The very thought of this picture is one of the happiest possible, when once the design is formed to evoke once more an innocent past with a graceful melancholy. And in this kindly endeavor how well has the Englishman succeeded in every sense of the word ! I shared the enthusiasm for this charming poem with Gotter, who was more felicitous than myself with the translation undertaken by us both; for I had too painfully tried to imitate in our language the delicate significance of the original, and thus had well agreed with single passages, but not with the whole.”—Truth and Poetry from my own Life (translated by Mr. Oxenford), i. 474. And see Ib. i. 506.

[ocr errors]

are brought together,' and a village is described in its prosperity which could never have been the same described in its decay. To this Goldsmith would doubtless have said what he said to the friend he described his plan to, just after the poem was begun. “I remember it in my own country, and have seen it in this.” He would have been indifferent to the objection, if even able to see it.

As his plan had regard to neither country singly, he would have claimed equal independence for what in his own view its execution might require; and, in truth, this fairly brings us back to the consideration that it is the purpose and design of the poem which must really bear the brunt of the objection made even to the method of working it out.

Nor is that purpose to be lightly dismissed because it more concerns the heart than the understanding, and is sentimental rather than philosophical. The accumulation of wealth has not brought about man's diminution, nor is trade's proud empire threatened with decay; but too eager are the triumphs of both to be always conscious of evils attendant on even the benefits they bring; and of those it was the poet's purpose to remind us. The lesson can never be thrown away. No material prosperity can be so great but that underneath it, and indeed because of it, will not still be found much suffering and sadness, much to remember that is commonly forgotten, much to attend to that is almost always neglected. Trade would not thrive the less, though shortened somewhat of its unfeeling train, nor

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

Macaulay has put this most forcibly. “It is made up of incongruous parts. “The village in its happy days is a true English village. The village in its decay is an Irish village. The felicity and the misery which Goldsmith has brought close together belong to two different countries, and to two different stages in the progress of society. He had assuredly never seen in his native island such a rural paradise, such a seat of plenty, content, and tranquillity, as his Auburn. He had assuredly never seen in England all the inhabitants of such a paradise turned out of their homes in one day and forced to emigrate in a body to America. The hamlet he had probably seen in Kent: the ejectment he had probably seen in Mun. ster ; but by joining the two he has produced something which never was. and never will be seen in any part of the world.”—Biographical Essays, 65.

« ForrigeFortsett »