Thursday, April 4, 2024

This Day in Irish History (Death of Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Sublime, Vivid, Versatile’ Writer)

 Apr. 4, 1774— Even friends of Oliver Goldsmith sometimes despaired of his follies, and on his deathbed—after the former medical student took a “fever powder” that only worsened his condition—he was asked by his attending physician whether his mind was at ease.

“No, it is not,” he answered simply.

Hopelessly improvident, despite churning out a near-endless stream of poems, plays, essays, and travel pieces, Goldsmith nevertheless won the affection and admiration of an influential London circle of writers, artists, and actors. In no small measure, the efforts of this grief-stricken group ensured that his best writing would survive amid all the hack journalism that want obliged him to pour out.

I first became aware of Goldsmith in the mid-1970s when watching a PBS broadcast of his rollicking farce She Stoops to Conquer, starting Juliet Mills, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, and Brian Cox.

That comedy, which made Goldsmith the toast of the London theater scene when it premiered the year before the playwright’s death, was, legend has it, the result of an incident in his own life that gave his friends no end of laughter: he was hoodwinked into believing that a private country home was a local inn, and did not discover the mistake until after he had ordered the head of the household about.

Gullibility may have been the least of his faults. “Eager to shine in company,” summarized New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson in 1960, “he made large, sweeping assertions that had no basis in fact and left other people dazed. In an age that took conversation seriously, he was a notorious rattlebrain.”

Taking careful notes of all of this was James Boswell, who, in his famous biography of Goldsmith’s friend Samuel Johnson, offered this unforgettable mini-portrait:

“His person was short, his countenance coarse and vulgar, his deportment that of a scholar awkwardly affecting the easy gentleman. Those who were in any way distinguished, excited envy in him to so ridiculous an excess, that the instances of it are hardly credible. When accompanying two beautiful young ladies with their mother on a tour in France, he was seriously angry that more attention was paid to them than to him; and once at the exhibition of the Fantoccini in London, when those who sat next him observed with what dexterity a puppet was made to toss a pike, he could not bear that it should have such praise, and exclaimed with some warmth, ‘Pshaw! I can do it better myself.’”

That improvidence I alluded to earlier? Much of it derived from Goldsmith’s drinking and gambling—a situation only worsened by his propensity to claim sums for his work that did not match his boasts.

The son of an Anglo-Irish rural Protestant clergyman, Goldsmith may well have felt the need to promote himself in an urban environment like London that was only beginning to warm to Irish transplants, and especially among accomplished friends like Johnson, actor David Kean, and painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Indifferent about his medical studies while attending Trinity in Dublin, he shortly began to cast aside any notions of maintaining his own practice.

In addition to She Stoops to Conquer, Goldsmith’s other most heavily read works are the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and the melancholic poem “The Deserted Village” (1770), which anticipated the Romantic Movement in its tribute to the pastoral mode—or, in this case, a pastoral setting destroyed by the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and by legislation enclosing fields that ended up pushing peasants into cities for survival

As I demonstrated in this blog post from last year, he also assailed the "man  of wealth and pride" just as the Industrial Revolution began in earnest in England.

But, as I discovered in researching this, Goldsmith was an accomplished essayist. Although Boswell saw signs of him having “studiously copied the manner of Johnson, though, indeed, upon a smaller scale,” he strove for a more casual writing style than the great man of letters. His notable essays include “A City Night-Piece” and “An Essay on the Theatre.”

In his preface to the 12-volume General History of the World From the Creation to the Present Time (1764), Goldsmith advocated for historians to write as clearly as possible:

“A plan of general history, rendered too extensive, deters us from a study that is, perhaps, of all others, the most useful, by rendering it too laborious; and instead of alluring our curiosity, excites our despair.”

After Goldsmith’s death, Samuel Johnson and some friends received permission to honor him in Westminster Abbey. Johnson’s verses (translated from Latin to English) pay tribute to his friend in this way:

“Of all the passions,
Whether smiles were to be moved or tears,
A powerful yet gentle master;
In genius, sublime, vivid, versatile,
In style, elevated, clear, elegant—
The love of companions,
The fidelity of friends,
And the veneration of readers,
Have by this monument honored the memory.”

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