Goldsmith—"The Vicar of Wakefield"
CHOSE my wife," says Dr. Primrose in the beginning of the
book, "as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine, glossy
surface, but such qualities as would wear well. To do her
justice, she was a
Of his children he says, "Our eldest son was named George, after
his uncle, who left us ten thousand pounds. Our second child, a
girl, I intended to call, after her aunt, Grissel; but my wife,
who had been reading romances, insisted upon her being called
Olivia. In less than another year we had another daughter, and
now I was determined that Grissel should be her name; but a rich
relation taking a fancy to stand
This is the family we learn to know in the "Vicar." When the
story opens Olivia is just eighteen, Sophia
seventeen, and they
are both very beautiful girls. At first
The dear doctor soon settles down to his changed life, but his
wife and her beautiful daughters try hard to be as fine as they
were before, and as grand, if not grander, than their neighbors.
This desire leads to not a few of their adventures. Among other
things they decide to have their portraits painted. This is how
"Having therefore engaged the limner (for what could I do?) our next deliberation was, to show the superiority of our taste in the attitudes. As for our neighbour's family, there were seven of them; and they were drawn with seven oranges, a thing quite out of taste, no variety in life, no composition in the world. We desired to have something in a higher style, and after many debates, at length came to a unanimous resolution, of being drawn together, in one large historical family-piece. This would be cheaper, since one frame would serve for all, and it would be infinitely more genteel; for all families of any taste were now drawn in the same manner.
"As we did not immediately recollect an historical subject to hit us, we were contented each with being drawn as independent historical figures. My wife desired to be represented as Venus, and the painter was instructed not to be too frugal of his diamonds in her stomacher and hair. Her two little ones were to be as cupids by her side; while I in my gown and band, was to present her with my books on the Whistonian controversy. Olivia would be drawn as an amazon, sitting upon a bank of flowers, dressed in a green Joseph, richly laced with gold, and a whip in her hand. Sophia was to be a shepherdess, with as many sheep as the painter could put in for nothing; and Moses was to be dressed out with a hat and white feather.
"Our taste so much pleased the Squire that he insisted on being put in as one of the family, in the character of Alexander the Great, at Olivia's feet. This was considered by us all as an indication of his desire to be introduced into the family; nor could we refuse his request. The painter was therefore set to work; and as he wrought with assiduity and expedition, in less than four days the whole was completed. The piece was large; and it must be owned he did not spare his colours; for which my wife gave him great encomiums.
"We were all perfectly satisfied with his performance; but an
unfortunate circumstance had not occurred until the picture was
finished, which now struck us with dismay. It was so very large,
that we had no place in the house to fix it. How we all came to
disregard so material a point is inconceivable; but certain it
is, we had been all greatly remiss. The picture, therefore,
instead of gratifying our
vanity, as we hoped, leaned, in a most
mortifying manner, against the kitchen wall, where the canvas was
stretched and painted, much too large to be got through any of
the doors, and the jest of all our neighbours. One compared it
to Robinson Crusoe's
For the rest of the troubles and adventures of the good Vicar and his family you must go to the book itself. In the end all comes right, and we leave the Vicar surrounded by his family with Dick and Bill sitting on his knee. "I had nothing now this side the grave to wait for," he says; "all my cares were over; my pleasure was unspeakable." Even if you do not at first understand all of this book I think it will repay you to read it, for on almost every page you will find touches of gentle humor. We feel that no one but a man of simple childlike heart could have written such a book, and when we have closed it we feel better and happier for having read it.
But delightful though we find the Vicar of Wakefield, the bookseller who bought it did not think highly enough of it to publish it at once. Meanwhile Goldsmith published a poem called The Traveller. His own wanderings on the Continent gave him the subject for this poem, for Goldsmith, like Milton, put something of himself into all his best works. The Traveller was such a success that the bookseller thought it worth while to publish the Vicar of Wakefield.
Goldsmith was now famous, but he was still poor. He lived in a
miserable garret doing all manner of literary work for bread.
Among the things he wrote was a play called The Good Natured Man.
It was a success, and brought him in
Goldsmith now left his garret, took a fine set of rooms,
furnished them grandly, and gave dinner-parties and
But soon these days of wealth were over; soon Goldsmith's money was all spent, and once again he had to sit down to grinding work. He wrote many things, but the next great work he published was another poem, The Deserted Village.
The Deserted Village, like The Traveller, is written in the heroic couplet which, since the days of Dryden, had held its ground as the best form of English poetry. In these poems the couplet has reached its very highest level, for although his rimes are smooth and polished Goldsmith has wrought into them something of tender grace and pathos which sets them above the diamond-like glitter of Pope's lines. His couplets are transformed by the Celtic touch.
The poem tells the story of a village which had once been happy
and flourishing, but which is now quite deserted and fallen to
ruins. The village is thought by some people to have been
Lissoy, where Oliver had lived as a boy, but others think this
cannot be, for they say no Irish village was ever so peaceful and
industrious as Goldsmith pictures his village to have been. But
we must remember that
the poet had not seen his home since
childhood, and that he looked back upon it through the golden
haze of memory. It is in this poem that we have the picture of
Oliver's old schoolmaster which I have already given you. Here,
too, we have a picture of the kindly village parson who may be
taken both from Oliver's father and from his brother Henry.
Probably he had his brother most in mind, for Henry Goldsmith had
but lately died, "and I loved him better than most other men,"
said the poet sadly in the dedication of this
Goldsmith's last great work was a comedy named She Stoops to Conquer. It is said that the idea for this play was given to him by something which happened to himself when a boy.
The last time that Goldsmith returned home from school he made
his journey on horseback. The horse was borrowed or hired, but
he had a guinea in his pocket, and he felt very grown up and
grand. He had to spend one night on the way, and as evening came
on he asked a passing stranger to direct him to the best house,
meaning the best in the neighborhood. The stranger happened to
be the village wag, and seeing the schoolboy swagger, and the
manly airs of sixteen, he, in fun, directed him to the squire's
house. There the boy arrived, handed over his horse with a
lordly air to a groom, marched into the house and ordered supper
and a bottle of wine. In the manner of the times in drinking his
wine he invited his landlord to join him as a real
But Goldsmith did not long enjoy the new fame this comedy brought
him. In the spring of 1774, less than a year after it appeared,
the kindly spendthrift author lay dead. He was only
The beginning of Goldsmith's life had been a struggle with poverty; the end was a struggle with debt. By his writing he made what was in those days a good deal of money, but he could not keep it. To give him money was like pouring water into a sieve. "Is your mind at ease," asked his doctor as he lay dying. "No, it is not," answered Goldsmith. Those were his last words.
"Of poor dear Dr. Goldsmith," wrote Johnson, "there is little to be told more than the papers have made public. He died of a fever, made, I am afraid, more violent by uneasiness of mind. His debts began to be heavy, and all his resources were exhausted. Sir Joshua is of opinion that he owed not less than two thousand pounds. Was ever poet so trusted before?"
Goldsmith was buried in the graveyard of the Temple church, but his tomb is unmarked, and where he lies no one knows. His sorrowing friends, however, placed a tablet to his memory in Westminster, so that his name at least is recorded upon the roll of the great dead who lie gathered there.
Book To Read
The Vicar of Wakefield (Everyman's Library).