Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

Goldsmith—The Vagabond

T HE kind of book which is most written and read nowadays is called a novel. But we have not yet spoken much about this kind of book for until now there were no novels in our meaning of the word. There were romances such as Havelok the Dane  and Morte d'Arthur,  later still tales such as those of Defoe, and the modern novel is the outcome of such tales and romances. But it is usually supposed to be more like real life than a romance. In a romance we may have giants and fairies, things beyond nature and above nature. A novel is supposed to tell only of what could happen, without the help of anything outside everyday life. This is a kind of writing in which the English have become very clever, and now, as I said, more novels than any other kinds of book are written. But only a few of these are good enough to take a place in our literature, and very many are not worth reading or remembering at all.

The first real novel in the modern sense was written by Samuel Richardson, and published in 1740. Quickly after that there arose several other novel writers whose books became famous. These still stand high in the literature of our land, but as nothing in them would be interesting to you for many years to come we need not trouble about them now. There is, however, one novel of this early time which I feel sure you would like, and of it and its author I shall tell you something. The book I mean is called The Vicar of Wakefield,  and it was written by Oliver Goldsmith.

Oliver Goldsmith was born in 1728 in Pallas, a little out-of-the-way Irish village. His father was a clergyman and farmer, with a large family and very little money. He was a dear, simple, kindly man.

"A man he was to all the country dear,

And passing rich with forty pounds a year."

Two years after Oliver was born his father moved to Lissoy, another and better parish. Little Oliver began to learn very early, but his first teacher thought him stupid: "Never was there such a dull boy," she said. She managed, however, to teach him the alphabet, and at six he went to the village school of Lissoy. Paddy Byrne, the master there, was an old soldier. He had fought under Marlborough, he had wandered the world seeking and finding adventures. His head was full of tales of wild exploits, of battles, of ghosts and fairies too, for he was an Irishman and knew and loved the Celtic lore. Besides all this he wrote poetry.

To his schoolmaster's stories little Oliver listened eagerly. He listened, too, to the ballads sung by Peggy, the dairymaid, and to the wild music of the blind harper, Turlogh O'Carolan, the last Irish minstrel. All these things sank into the heart of the shy, little, ugly boy who seemed so stupid to his schoolfellows. He learned to read, and devoured all the romances and tales of adventure upon which he could lay hands, and in imitation of his schoolmaster he began to write poetry.

For three years Oliver remained under the care of his vagabond teacher. He looked up to him with a kind of awed wonder, and many years afterwards he drew a picture of him in his poem The Deserted Village.

"There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,

The village master taught his little school.

A man severe he was, and stern to view;

I knew him well, and every truant knew:

Well had the boding tremblers learn'd to trace

The day's disasters in his morning face;

Full well they laugh'd, with counterfeited glee

At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;

Full well the busy whisper circling round

Convey'd the dismal tidings when he frown'd.

Yet he was kind, or, if severe in aught,

The love he bore to learning was in fault;

The village all declared how much he knew:

'Twas certain he could write, and cypher too;

Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,

And ev'n the story ran—that he could gauge:

In arguing, too, the parson own'd his skill;

For ev'n though vanquish'd, he could argue still;

While words of learned length and thund'ring sound,

Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;

And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,

That one small head should carry all he knew."

But after three years of school under wonderful Paddy Byrne, Goldsmith became very ill with smallpox. He nearly died of it, and when he grew better he was plainer than ever, for his face was scarred and pitted by the disease. Goldsmith had been shy before his illness, and now when people laughed at his pock-marked face he grew more shy and sensitive still. For the next seven years he was moved about from school to school, always looked upon by his fellows as dull of wit, but good at games, and always in the forefront in mischief.

At length, when Goldsmith was nearly seventeen, he went to Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar. As you know, in those days sizars had to wear a different dress from the commoners. Oliver's elder brother had gone as a commoner and Oliver had hoped to do the same. But as his father could not afford the money he was obliged, much against his will, to go as a sizar. Indeed had it not been for the kindness of an uncle he could not have gone to college at all.

Awkward and shy, keen to feel insults whether intended or not, Goldsmith hated his position as sizar. He did not like his tutor either, who was a coarse, rough man, so his life at college was not altogether happy. He was constantly in want of money, for when he had any his purse was always open to others. At times when he was much in need he wrote street ballads for five shillings each, and would steal out at night to have the joy of hearing them sung in the street.

Goldsmith was idle and wild, and at the end of two years he quarreled with his tutor, sold his books, and ran away to Cork. He meant to go on board a ship, and sail away for ever from a land where he had been so unhappy. But he had little money, and what he had was soon spent, and at last, almost starving, having lived for three days on a shilling, he turned homewards again. Peace was made with his tutor, and Goldsmith went back to college, and stayed there until two years later when he took his degree.

His father was now dead and it was necessary for Oliver to earn his own living. All his family wished him to be a clergyman, but he "did not deem himself good enough for it." However, he yielded to their persuasions, and presented himself to his bishop. But the bishop would not ordain him—why is not known, but it was said that he was offended with Goldsmith for coming to be ordained dressed in scarlet breeches.

After this failure Oliver tried teaching and became a tutor, but in a very short time he gave that up. Next his uncle, thinking that he would make a lawyer of him, gave him £50 and sent him off to London to study law there. Goldsmith lost the money in Dublin, and came home penniless. Some time after this a gentleman remarked that he would make an excellent medical man, and again his uncle gave him money and sent him off to Edinburgh, this time as a medical student. So he said his last good-by to home and Ireland and set out.

In Scotland Goldsmith lived for a year and a half traveling about, enjoying life, and, it may be, studying. Then, in his happy-go-lucky way, he decided it would be well to go to Holland to finish his medical studies there. Off he started with little money in his pocket, and many debts behind him. After not a few adventures he arrived at length in Leyden. Here passing a florist's shop he saw some bulbs which he knew his uncle wanted. So in he ran to the shop, bought them, and sent them off to Ireland. The money with which he bought the bulbs was borrowed, and now he left Leyden to make the tour of Europe burdened already with debt, with one guinea in his pocket, and one clean shirt and a flute as his luggage.

Thus on foot he wandered through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France. In the villages he played upon his flute to pay for his food and his night's lodging.

"Yet would the village praise my wondrous power,

And dance, forgetful of the noon-tide hour.

Alike all ages. Dames of ancient days

Have led their children through the mirthful maze,

And the gay grandsire, skill'd in gestic lore,

Has frisk'd beneath the burthen of threescore."

In the towns where no one listened to his flute, and in Italy where almost every peasant played better than he, he entered the colleges and disputed. For in those days many of the colleges and monasteries on the Continent kept certain days for arguments upon subjects of philosophy "for which, if the champion opposes with any dexterity, he can gain a gratuity in money, a dinner, and a bed for one night."

Thus, from town to town, from village to village, Goldsmith wandered, until at the end of a year he found himself back among his countrymen, penniless and alone in London streets.

Here we have glimpses of him, a sorry figure in rusty black and tarnished gold, his pockets stuffed with papers, now assisting in a chemist's shop, now practicing as a doctor among those as poor as himself, now struggling to get a footing in the realm of literature, now passing his days miserably as an usher in a school. At length he gained more or less constant work in writing magazine articles, reviews, and children's books. By slow degrees his name became known. He met Johnson and became a member of his famous club. It is said that the first time those two great men met Johnson took special care in dressing himself. He put on a new suit of clothes and a newly powdered wig. When asked by a friend why he was so particular he replied, "Why, sir, I hear that Goldsmith is a very great sloven, and justifies his disregard for cleanliness and decency by quoting my example. I wish this night to show him a better example." But although Goldsmith was now beginning to be well known, he still lived in poor lodgings. He had only one chair, and when a visitor came he was given the chair while Oliver sat on the window ledge. When he had money he led an idle, easy life until it was spent. He was always generous. His hand was always open to help others, but he often forgot to pay his just debts. At length one day his landlady, finding he could not pay his rent, arrested him for debt.

In great distress Goldsmith wrote to Johnson begging him to come to his aid. Johnson sent him a guinea, promising to come to him as soon as possible. When Johnson arrived at Goldsmith's lodging, "I perceived," he says, "that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired him to be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merits, told the landlady I should soon return, and having gone to a bookseller sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in high tone for having used him so ill."

The novel which thus set Goldsmith free for the moment was the famous Vicar of Wakefield.  "There are an hundred faults in this thing," says Goldsmith himself, and if we agree with him there we also agree with him when he goes on to say, "and an hundred things might be said to prove them beauties. But it is needless. A book may be amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity. The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth: he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family. He is drawn as ready to teach, and ready to obey: as simple in affluence, and majestic in adversity." When we have made the acquaintance of the Vicar we find ourselves the richer for a lifelong friend. His gentle dignity, his simple faith, his sly and tender humor, all make us love him.

In the Vicar of Wakefield  Goldsmith drew for us a picture of quiet, fireside family life such as no one before, or perhaps since, has drawn. Yet he himself was a homeless man. Since a boy of sixteen he had been a wanderer, a lonely vagabond, dwelling beneath strange roofs. But it was the memory of his childish days that made it possible for him to write such a book, and in learning to know and love gentle Dr. Primrose we learn to know Oliver's father, Charles Goldsmith.

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