Imágenes de página

moi de ses ouvrages, mais laisscz-moi ignorer ses foiblesses, et, d plus forte raison, ses vices.'

Of those who have left us anecdotes of Goldsmith, there is hardly one, with perhaps the exception of Northcote, who approached his subject with an honourable and becoming feeling of what was due alike to that and to himself. Some speak the language of jealousy, some of derision, and some of that light and careless gaiety, that would be willing to disclose a weakness or eccentricity if it would produce a laugh; their pages alternate between admiration and contempt. This, then, is the observation we would make—that the professed biographer, if worthy at all of the name, or conscious of the demands of his subject, would claim our confidence in the correctness of his representation, and that his work would be sufficient in itself, and independent of other sources of information. But when we approach the retailer of anecdotes, when we open the pages of a work that incidentally mentions the characters it meets with, or when it only uses them as secondary figures to complete the grouping and assist the position of the principal, then it is often necessary for us to pause before we give full credit to the narration; to weigh one statement against the other: to make ourselves acquainted with the motives and history of the writers, and to form our own finished work from the heap of indiscriminate materials laid before us. Any one familiar with the history of Goldsmith, and with the various works that have been consulted to illustrate it, will without difficulty understand our meaning: and he will not readily trust the suspicious anecdotes of the Hawkins's and others, without examining how far they are supported by other testimonies. There is one subject, on which the present biographer has very prudently not touched, relating to the poet, which could be illustrated, if worth the trouble, in a very amusing manner by incidental and unexpected coincidences; and even the items of a landlady's bill with the commentary of a few verses may have more than once disclosed a light before concealed, and presented to view very new and unlooked-for circumstances in a poet's life.

But to return to what we have advanced as regards the difference that may arise in the representation of a character drawn by a biographer, who is morally responsible for their correctness, to his subject and to the public, and whose own character is inseparably joined to the rectitude of principle displayed in his work; and by the memorialist, or retailer of anecdotes, wbo often acknowledges that he writes upon the lower standard of conversational report, and whose notices are only subsidiary and incidental.* Now the knowledge which we have hitherto had of Goldsmith has been derived almost entirely from the latter sources; and one remarkable instance of the want of care and examination shown by the writers, is made evident in the view which they take of his conversational powers. An assertion loosely made by Boswell, a witty sarcasm of Walpole, a splenetic effusion of Hawkins, originally given with confidence, and copied and repeated in every fragment of the poet's biography, have, by assurance and repetition, imposed upon the general belief, that Goldsmith's knowledge and power of mind almost entirely failed him in conversation; and that in the saloon or the dinner table you could no longer recognize the natural and graceful

* We do not, in the language we have used, mean to disparage the numberless instructive and interesting volumes which we possess in literature, under the name of Anecdotes, or Recollections, &c.; but merely to observe, that, in general, their authors consider them to be rather in the nature of the large and uuairanged mass of goods contained in the warehouse; than those that, having passed closer examination, are selected for the thop. Surely this will apply to some of the Anecdotes of Goldsmith. poet, the ingenious moralist, or even the humorous and lively writer of comedy. By one he was regarded as an inspired idiot; by another,

In writing an angel, in talking poor Pol; as Madame de Bouillou said of Fontaine, that fables grew ready-made in his head, like apples on an apple-tree—comme les pommes sur le pommier. Yet, upon sounder and more accurate inquiry, there seems little reason to coincide in the justice of this accusation. Undoubtedly there are many persons of very sound and extensive learning, and of clear and vigorous judgment, whose habits of mental association are too slow to keep pace with the rapid combinations of conversational intercourse, who require time to collect and dispose their forces, arrange their arguments, and select their language; and who, more employed in acquiring knowledge than in detailing it, when suddenly called upon for an exertion of their powers, lose that confidence in their resources which use alone can give. Conversational eloquence is no proof of mental superiority in other respects; and, indeed, we may advance it as a point which we firmly believe, that the nature of the associations required for these brilliant and gladiatorial displays, are such as cannot exist in a mind of eminent power and genius. The man of genius feels more power than he is able to develope. 11 n'ornoit pas ce qu'il disoit, et pour tronver le grand Corneille, il le falloit lire. Now arguing a priori, as we find Goldsmith to have been habitually conversant with society, to have been of a communicative disposition, and to have been accustomed to write with despatch, and to detail, in his various publications, the knowledge which he had acquired; moreover as his mind was stored, if not with learning, yet with a variety of miscellaneous literature, there would belittle probability that his conversation should be so inconsistent, so feeble and puerile as has been described. But when we come to examine the facts that support the assertion, we find them give way to the least attentive scrutiny. If we take Boswell's narrative, there we find the details of Goldsmith's conversation described as taking place generally in company with Johnson. It would be hardly fair to draw an estimate from this single circle of society. Johnson, who had no regulation of temper, and no refinement of manner, by his vigorous powers of mind, and his vehement and violent tone, could have broken down the confidence of more acute and intrepid reasoners than Goldsmith. We are told that Fox and Gibbon were both silent in his company; and that in Burke alone he met an equal competitor. When the poet retreated from the severe and disagreeable combat, his silence arose as often from the rudeness of the attack, as from the vigour of the reply. Yet his repartees were often sensible, and sometimes pointed and happy. Dr. Joseph Warton, whose judgment will be readily accepted, when he first met Goldsmith, came away with the impression of his sense. The report of his conversations does not support the disparaging estimate of the memorialists. He had not assuredly the flowing eloquence of Burke, the ready illustration of Johnson, the wit of Beauclerk, nor perhaps the gravity and good sense of Reynolds; he was volatile, eager, youthful, and capricious. Few men shine when they endeavour to vie with their superiors; if they maintain their confidence, they grow exaggerated; if they lose it, timid and hesitating; but in the case of Goldsmith, while he did not possess that fund of copious and well-arranged knowledge upon which he could rely, or that fluent and ready eloquence which may temporarily supply its place, there seems every reason to question the justice of the reports so disadvantageous to him; while at the same time there may have existed peculiarities of manner which of themselves are quite able to prevent any claim to conversational excelfence; «o delicate and minute are often the causes of its failure or success! Of his religious opinions, or his pretensions to piety, we do not know that any of his biographers have spoken. He appears to have possessed great tenderness of feeling, simplicity of manner, and goodness of heart; and in the offices of friendship he far surpassed all the claims which expectation could maintain: he realized, indeed, his own description of "His pity gave ere charity began." In his behaviour he probably was not very refined :—not sufficiently prudential in worldly concerns to save himself from that very severe and cruel distress, which harassed him during the chief part of his life, which even clouded the meridian of his fame, and which at length drove him to the grave. Moreover, he had the peculiar taste to live in Canonbury House, Islington, to wear plum-coloured satin breeches, and to drink copious decoctions of sarsaparilla!

As a writer, the fame of Goldsmith, we suppose, must rest upon his Poems and his Vicar of Wakefield; though his dramatic reputation, founded on his two clever plays, will not be forgotten. Of his Historical Works, the best are his "Letters on English History." His "Citizen of the World," is however a very elegant and amusing production, written in his most finished and felicitous manner. The best criticism on his Novel which we have ever met with, is to be found in the letters of Madam Riccoboni (herself a most delightful writer in the same natural line), printed in the Garrick Correspondence; there, the too crowded succession of surprising incidents, passing all probability, is justly remarked on. Goldsmith's style is always elegant, and often rising to the very highest points of excellence; it is more systematized and regular than Addison's;* bnt in his happier moments, there are passages of such delicate and happy construction, such harmony of period, such fine selection of language, as no writer could surpass. Had the solidity and extent of his knowledge been equal to the grace with which it is imparted, he would have stood in the foremost rank of our modern literature.

As a poet, his style is all his own; he had no model of imitation before him. It does not resemble Dryden, or Pope, or any of the lesser constellations. It was well suited to his subject, easy, natural, and graceful, and formed on the soundest laws which the art could furnish. More varied than that of Pope, who may be called his immediate predecessor, (for the poets who rose to eminence between them, wrote chiefly in another manner); but inferior to Pope | in careful finish of language and exact

* It is not always that Addison's style is equal to his reputation. Ex. gr. "It had been scooped out of that hollow space which / before mentioned. I never met with any one who has walked in this garden who was not struck with the part / hate here mentioned. * * * What / am going to mention will perhaps deserve your attention." We suppose ' Clio' was asleep, or she would have improved this sentence a little.

t Tf et Pope was sometimes obscure from an endeavour to be over concise: as, 'Self-love still stronger, as its objects nigh, Reason's at distance and in prospect lie.' Here there is an omission of the verb ' are,' between objects and nigh, which make* the lines obscure. Again,

'The good or bad the gifts of fortune gain, But these less taste them, as they worse obtain.' Here worse does not belong to gifts, but the verb obtain. Also, 'Rewards that either would to virtue bring No joy, or be destructive of the thing.' Which is worthy of Welsted or Broome.

ness of reasoning. His defects, after all, are very few in number, and very unimportant. He sometimes repeats the same rhymes too closely to each other, and sometimes he fills his lines with feeble expletives, and low, prosaic words; sometimes his argument is not correctly followed, nor his metaphors consistently pursued. In the Traveller—

While e'en the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself a man.

The word " scan," neither harmonious nor appropriate, is evidently brought in for the rhyme's sake. Again,

Where noble stem* transmit the patriot_/?ame; may be allowable, but is hardly correct. In the lines,

From art more various are the blessings sent,
Wealth, commerce, honour, liberty, content.

It does not seem consistent with his argument, any more than it is with truth, to derive from Art that content, which is generally considered rather the result of simple desires and natural habits.

The possessive pronouns, those and these, appear to us used in an unpleasing, if not in an incorrect manner, in the following lines :—

Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that asked but little room;
Those healthful sports that grac'd the peaceful scene,
Liv'd in each look and brighten'd all the green.
Thei e far departing seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.

These, with a few others of the same kind, are but trifling specks and blemishes on the surface of his poetic fame, and disappear amidst the various excellencies with which they are surrounded. Descriptive poems, as the Traveller and the Deserted Village, are very often tedious from a too unbroken succession of pictures and images of nature; but Goldsmith has relieved this, by the grace and elegance of his transitions.* There is one in the Traveller which never recurs to us but with the same delight in its happy elegance.

But all the gentle morals, such as play

Thro' life's more cultur'd walks and charm the way;

These, far dispers'd, on timorous pinions fly,

To sport and flutter in a kinder sky.

* The Author of the poet's life has quoted a passage from the Quarterly Review, which has mentioned, among other subjects of praise, the elegance of Goldsmith's transitions; and he has given, for what reason we cannot imagine, the article to Sir Walter Scott. The matter is of no consequence, except that it may possibly lead to this criticism being hereafter reckoned among the works of that illustrious writer. Sir W. Scott never wrote a line of it; it was written by a much humbler person, at the request of the then editor. The author of the article ought not to be forgotten by Mr. Prior's publisher, for ' the father's ire reveng'd the daughter's wrong,' in some very fearful threats. We will also add, that the words in brackets, laudatory of Mr. Richards, were not written by the Reviewer, but inserted by Mr. Gifford himself, we suppose, to tranquillize the doctor, after he had been plucked of the feathers which Dr. Parr's foolish and thoughtless praise had stuck upon him. The crowd' hallooing in the tail of a procession,' which gave offence, did not come from the Reviewer, who doubtless will be pleased to see that Mr. Prior thinks his Defence of Goldsmith worthy of a place in his volume. For it was written when he was young in years and literature. We see that the Quarterly Review has adopted Mr. Prior's mistake; he ought to have known his own children! 1

To kinder skies, where gentler mankind reign
I turn, and France displays her light domain.
Heavens! how unlike their Belgic sires of old,
Rough, poor, content, ungovernably bold;
War in each breast, and freedom on each brow,
How much unlike the sons of Britain now.
Fir'd at the sound, my genius spreads her wing,
And flies where Britain courts the western spring, &c.

Goldsmith has been as little indebted to other poets for his images as for his expressions; his circle of ideas is not very extensive, nor his reasoning very profound or exact, but it is his own. He borrows, indeed, largely from himself j and, like the London physician, often gives himself a fee,by taking a guinea out of one breeches pocket, and putting it in another. Thus the political and moral maxims of his two greatest poems may be traced in his prose writings: such passages are often transferred from one to the other with little alteration of language; a circumstance which strongly shows the finish and exactness of his prose style, so closely approaching to the poetical. To Addison's poem on Italy, he was indebted for a few expressions, but they are such as any one writer may take from another without acknowledgment, perhaps without intention. As in the last couplet which we have just quoted—' Fir'd at the sound my Genius spreads her wing,"—is an improvement on

Fir'dwith a thousand raptures I survey.
Fir'd with the name, Sec.—(Addison.)



'The canvas glow'd beyond e'en Nature warm.' Addison has—

'So warm with life the blended colours glow.' And a little further on,

"A new creation rescued from his reign." Wemeet in Addison,—

A new creation rises to my sight. In one of Savage's poems we find a couplet,—

Yet at the board with decent plenty blest,
The journeying stranger sate a welcome guest;

which has much verbal resemblance to the opening lines of the Traveller, where the same expressions occur. The poetical images so felicitously expressed,

'Where the broad ocean leans upon the land,'

may be traced through many poets:—besides the passages from Statius and Dryden, quoted by the last editor of his poems, we find in Casimir, ii. 21 :—

'Jam video procul

Ad litus adclinata leni
jGnuora deuubuisae somno.'

Gent. Mag. Vol. VII. SH

« AnteriorContinuar »