Chapter LXXI. GOLDSMITH—"THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD"
"I 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 good-natured, notable woman; and as for breeding, there were few county ladies who could show more. She could read any English book without much spelling; but for pickling, preserving, and cooking, none could excel her. She prided herself also upon being an excellent contriver in housekeeping; though I could never find that we grew richer with her contrivances."
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 god-mother, the girl was by her direction called Sophia; so that we had two romantic names in the family; but I solemnly protest I had no hand in it. Moses was our next; and, after an interval of twelve years, we had two sons more." These two youngest boys were called Dick and Bill.
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 Dr. Primrose is well off and lives comfortably in a fine house, but before the story goes far he loses all his money, and is obliged to go with his family to a poor living in another part of the country. Here, instead of their handsome house, they have a tiny four-roomed cottage, with whitewashed walls and thatched roof, for a home. It is a very quiet country life which they have now to live, and yet when you come to read the book you will find that quite a number of exciting things happen to them.
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 Dr. Primrose tells of it: "My wife and daughters happening to return a visit to neighbour Flamborough's, found that family had lately got their pictures drawn by a limner, who travelled the country, and took likenesses for fifteen shillings a-head. As this family and ours had long a sort of rivalry in point of taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us; and, notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was resolved that we should have our pictures done too.
"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 familypiece. 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.
*A coat with capes worn by ladies in the eighteenth century for riding.
"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 long-boat, too large to be removed; another thought it more resembled a reel in a bottle; some wondered how it could be got out, but still more were amazed how it ever got in."
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 though 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 500 pounds.
Goldsmith now left his garret, took a fine set of rooms, furnished them grandly, and gave dinner-parties and card-parties to his friends. These were the days of Goldy's splendor. He no longer footed it in the great world in rust black and tarnished gold, but in blue silk breeches, and coat with silken linings and golden buttons. He dined with great people; he strutted in innocent vanity, delighted to shine in the world, to see and be seen, although in Johnson's company he could never really shine. Sam was a great talker, and it was said Goldsmith "wrote like an angel and spoke like poor Poll." His friends called him Doctor, although where he took his medical degree no one knows, and he certainly had no other degree given to him as an honor as Johnson had. So Johnson was Dr. major, Goldsmith only Dr. minor.
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 poem—
"Near yonder copse, where once the garden smiled,
And still where many a garden flower grows wild;
There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,
The village preacher's modest mansion rose.
A man he was to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year;
Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Nor e'er had changed, nor wish'd to change, his place:
Unpractis'd he to fawn, or seek for power,
By doctrines fashion'd to the varying hour;
Far other aims his heart had learn'd to prize,
More skill'd to raise the wretched than to rise.
His house was known to all the vagrant train;
He chid their wand'rings, but relieved their pain:
The long-remember'd beggar was his guest,
Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;
The ruin'd spendthrift, now no longer proud,
Claim'd kindred there, and had his claims allow'd;
The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,
Sat by his fire, and talk'd the night away,
Wept o'er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,
Shoulder'd his crutch, and shoed how fields were won.
Pleased with his guests, the good man learn'd to glow,
And quite forgot their vices in their woe;
Careless their merits or their faults to scan,
His pity gave ere charity began.
Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,
And ev'n his failings lean'd to virtue's side;
But in his duty prompt, at every call,
He watch'd and wept, he pray'd and felt for all;
At church, with meek and unaffected grace,
His looks adorn'd the venerable place;
Truth from his lips prevail'd with double sway,
And fools, who came to scoff, remain'd to pray.
The service past, around the pious man,
With steady zeal, each honest rustic ran;
Ev'n children followed with endearing wile,
And pluck'd his gown, to share the good man's smile.
His ready smile a parent's warmth exprest;
Their welfare pleased him, and their cares distrest:
To them his heart, his love, his griefs were given,
But all his serious thoughts had rest in heaven.
As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form,
Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread,
Eternal sunshine settles on its head."
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 grown-up man might have done. The squire saw the joke and fell in with it, and not until next morning did the boy discover his mistake. The comedy founded on this adventure was a great success, and no wonder, for it bubbles over with fun and laughter. Some day you will read the play, perhaps too, you may see it acted, for it is still sometimes acted. In any case it makes very good reading.
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 forty-five.
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?"
*Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous painter.
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).