CHAPTER XXVIII. STERNE, GOLDSMITH, AND MACKENZIE.
The Subjective School. Sterne—Sermons. Tristram Shandy. Sentimental
Journey. Oliver Goldsmith. Poems—The Vicar. Histories, and Other
Works. Mackenzie. The Man of Feeling.
THE SUBJECTIVE SCHOOL.
In the same age, and inspired by similar influences, there sprang up a widely-different school of novelists, which has been variously named as the Sentimental and the Subjective School. Richardson and Fielding depicted what they saw around them objectively, rather than the impressions made upon their individual sensitiveness. Both Sterne and Goldsmith were eminently subjective. They stand as a transparent medium between their works and the reader. The medium through which we see Tristram Shandy is a double lens,—one part of which is the distorted mind of the author, and the other the nondescript philosophy which he pilfered from Rabelais and Burton. The glass through which the Vicar of Wakefield is shown us is the good-nature and loving heart of Goldsmith, which brighten and gladden every creation of his pen. Thus it is that two men, otherwise essentially unlike, appear together as representatives of a school which was at once sentimental and subjective.
STERNE.—Lawrence Sterne was the son of an officer in the British army, and was born, in 1713, at Clonmel, in Ireland, where his father was stationed.
His father died not long afterwards, at Gibraltar, from the effect of a wound which he had received in a duel; and it is indicative of the code of honor in that day, that the duel was about a goose at the mess-table! What little Lawrence learned in his brief military experience was put to good use afterwards in his army reminiscences and portraitures in Tristram Shandy. No doubt My Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim are sketches from his early recollections. Aided by his mother's relations, he studied at Cambridge, and afterwards, without an inward call, but in accordance with the custom of the day, he entered into holy orders, and was presented to a living, of which he stood very much in need.
HIS SERMONS.—With no spirit for parochial work, it must be said that he published very forcible and devout sermons, and set before his people and the English world a pious standard of life, by which, however, he did not choose to measure his own: he preached, but did not practise. In a letter to Mr. Foley, he says: “I have made a good campaign in the field of the literati: ... two volumes of sermons which I shall print very soon will bring me a considerable sum.... 'Tis but a crown for sixteen sermons—dog cheap; but I am in quest of honor, not money.”
These discourses abound in excellent instruction and in pithy expressions; but it is painful to see how often his pointed rebukes are undesignedly aimed at his own conduct. In one of them he says: “When such a man tells you that a thing goes against his conscience, always believe he means exactly the same thing as when he tells you it goes against his stomach—a present want of appetite being generally the true cause of both.” In his discourse on The Forgiveness of Injuries, we have the following striking sentiment: “The brave only know how to forgive: it is the most refined and generous pitch of virtue human nature can arrive at. Cowards have done good and kind actions; cowards have even fought, nay, sometimes even conquered; but a coward never forgave.” All readers of Tristram Shandy will recall his sermon on the text, “For we trust we have a good conscience,” so affecting to Corporal Trim and so overwhelming to Dr. Slop.
But if his sermons are so pious and good, we look in vain into his entertaining Letters for a corresponding piety in his life. They are witty, jolly, occasionally licentious. They touch and adorn every topic except religion; and so it may be feared that all his religion was written, printed, bound, and sold by subscription, in those famous sermons, sixteen for a crown—“dog cheap!”
TRISTRAM SHANDY.—In 1759 appeared the first part of Tristram Shandy—a strange, desultory work, in which many of the curious bits of philosophy are taken from Montaigne, Burton, Rabelais, and others; but which has, besides, great originality in the handling and in the portraiture of characters. Much of what Sterne borrowed from these writers passed for his own in that day, when there were comparatively few readers of the authors mentioned. As to the charge of plagiarism, we may say that Sterne's hero is like the Gargantua of Rabelais in many particulars; but he is a man instead of a monster; while the chapter on Hobby-Horses is a reproduction, in a new form of crystallization, of Gargantua's wooden horses.
So, too, the entire theological cast of Tristram Shandy is that of the sixteenth century;—questions before the Sorbonne, the use of excommunication, and the like. Dr. Slop, the Roman Catholic surgeon of the family, is but a weak mouthpiece of his Church in the polemics of the story; for Sterne was a violent opponent of the Church of Rome in story as well as in sermon; and Obadiah, the stupid man-servant, is the lay figure who receives the curses which Dr. Slop reads,—“cursed in house and stable, garden and field and highway, in path or in wood, in the water or in the church.” Whether the doctor was in earnest or not, Obadiah paid him fully by upsetting him and his pony with the coach-horse.
But in spite of the resemblance to Rabelais and a former age, it must be allowed that Tristram Shandy contains many of the richest pictures and fairest characters of the age in which it was written. Rural England is truthfully presented, and the political cast of the day is shown in his references to the war in Flanders. Among the sterling original portraits are those of Mr. Shandy, the country gentleman, controversial and consequential; Mrs. Shandy, the nonentity,—the Amelia Osborne and Mrs. Nickleby of her day; Yorick, the lukewarm, time-serving priest—Sterne himself: and these are only supplementary characters.
The sieges of towns in the Low Countries, then going on, are pleasantly connected with that most exquisite of characters, my Uncle Toby, who has a fortification in his garden,—sentry-box, cannon, and all,—and who follows the great movement on this petty scale from day to day, as the bulletins come in from the seat of war.
The Widow Wadman, with her artless wiles, and the “something in her eye,” makes my Uncle Toby—who protests he can see nothing in the white—look, not without peril, “with might and main into the pupil.” Ah, that sentry-box and the widow's tactics might have conquered many a more wary man than my Uncle Toby! and yet my Uncle Toby escaped.
Now, all these are real English characters, sketched from life by the hand of genius, and they become our friends and acquaintances forever. It seems as though Sterne, after a long and close study of Rabelais and Burton, had fancied that, with their aid, he might write a money-making book; but his own genius, rising superior to the plagiarism, took the project out of his venal hands; and from the antique learning and the incongruities which he had heaped together, bright and beautiful forms sprang forth like genii from the mine, to subsidize the tears and laughter of all future time. What an exquisite creation is my Uncle Toby!—a soldier in the van of battle, a man of honor and high tone in every-day life, a kind brother, a good master to Corporal Trim, simple as a child, benevolent as an angel. “Go, poor devil,” quoth he to the fly which buzzed about his nose all dinner-time, “get thee gone; why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me!”
And as for Corporal Trim, he is a host in himself. There is in the English literary portrait-gallery no other Uncle Toby, there is no other Corporal Trim. Hazlitt has not exaggerated in saying that the Story of Le Fevre is perhaps the finest in the English language. My Uncle Toby's conduct to the dying officer is the perfection of loving-kindness and charity.
THE SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY.—Sterne's Sentimental Journey, although charmingly written,—and this is said in spite of the preference of such a critic as Horace Walpole,—will not compare withTristram Shandy: it is left unfinished, and is constantly suggestive of licentiousness.
Sterne's English is excellent and idiomatic, and has commended his works to the ordinary reader, who shrinks from the hyperlatinism of the time represented so strongly by Dr. Johnson and his followers. His wit, if sometimes artificial, is always acute; his sentiment is entirely artificial; “he is always protruding his sensibility, trying to play upon you as upon an instrument; more concerned that you should acknowledge his power than have any depth of feeling.” Thackeray, whose opinion is just quoted, calls him “a great jester, not a great humorist.” He had lived a careless, self-indulgent life, and was no honor to his profession. His death was like a retribution. In a mean lodging, with no friends but his bookseller, he died suddenly from hemorrhage. His funeral was hasty, and only attended by two persons; his burial was in an obscure graveyard; and his body was taken up by corpse-snatchers for the dissecting-room of the professor of anatomy at Cambridge,—alas, poor Yorick!
OLIVER GOLDSMITH.—We have placed Goldsmith in immediate connection with Sterne as, like him, of the Subjective School, in his story of the Vicar of Wakefield and his numerous biographical and prose sketches; but he belongs to more than one literary school of his period. He was a poet, an essayist, a dramatist, and an historian; a writer who, in the words of his epitaph,—written by Dr. Johnson, and with no extravagant eulogium,—touched all subjects, and touched none that he did not adorn,—nullum quod tetigit non ornavit. His life was a strange melodrama, so varied with laughter and tears, so checkered with fame and misfortune, so resounding with songs pathetic and comic, that, were he an unknown hero, his adventures would be read with pleasure by all persons of sensibility. There is no better illustration of the subjective in literature. It is the man who is presented to us in his works, and who can no more be disjoined from them than the light from the vase, the beauties of which it discloses. As an essayist, he was of the school of Addison and Steele; but he has more ease of style and more humor than his teachers. As a dramatist, he had many and superior competitors in his own vein; and yet his plays still occupy the stage. As an historian, he was fluent but superficial; and yet the charm of his style and the easy flow of his narrative, have given his books currency as manuals of instruction. And although as a writer of fiction, or of truth gracefully veiled in the garments of fiction, he stands unrivalled in his beautiful and touching story of the incorruptible Vicar, yet this is his only complete story, and presents but one side of his literary character. Considering him first as a poet, we shall find that he is one of the Transition School, but that he has a beautiful originality: his poems appeal not to the initiated alone, but to human nature in all its conditions and guises; they are elevated and harmonious enough for the most fastidious taste, and simple and artless enough to please the rustic and the child. To say that he is the most popular writer in the whole course of English Literature thus far, is hardly to overstate his claims; and the principal reason is that, with a blundering and improvident nature, a want of dignity, a lack of coherence, he had a great heart, alive to human suffering; he was generous to a fault, true to the right, and ever seeking, if constantly failing, to direct and improve his own life, and these good characteristics are everywhere manifest in his works. A brief recital of the principal events in his career will throw light upon his works, and will do the best justice to his peculiar character.
Oliver Goldsmith was born at the little village of Pallas, in Ireland, where his father was a poor curate, on the 10th of November, 1728. There were nine children, of whom he was the fifth. His father afterwards moved to Lissoy, which the poet described, in his Deserted Village, as
Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain.
As his father was entirely unable to educate so numerous a family, Goldsmith owed his education partly to his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarini, and in part to his brother, the Rev. Henry Goldsmith, whom he cherished with the sincerest affection. An attack of the small-pox while he was a boy marked his face, and he was to most persons an unprepossessing child. He was ill-treated at school by larger boys, and afterwards at Trinity College, Dublin, which he entered as a sizar, by his tutor. He was idle, careless, and improvident: he left college without permission, but was taken back by his brother, and was finally graduated with a bachelor's degree, in 1749. His later professional studies were spasmodic and desultory: he tried law and medicine, and more than once gained a scanty support by teaching. Seized with a rambling spirit, he went to the Continent, and visited Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy; sometimes gaining a scanty livelihood by teaching English, and sometimes wandering without money, depending upon his flute to win a supper and bed from the rustics who lived on the highway. He obtained, it is said, the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Padua; and on his return to England, he went before a board of examiners to obtain the position of surgeon's mate in the army or navy. He was at this time so poor that he was obliged to borrow a suit of clothes to make a proper appearance before the examiners. He failed in his examination, and then, in despair, he pawned the borrowed clothes, to the great anger of the publisher who had lent them. This failure in his medical examination, unfortunate as it then seemed, secured him to literature. From that time his pen was constantly busy for the reviews and magazines. His first work was An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, which, at least, prepared the way for his future efforts. This appeared in 1759, and is characterized by general knowledge and polish of style.
HIS POEMS.—In 1764 he published The Traveller, a moralizing poem upon the condition of the people under the European governments. It was at once and entirely successful; philosophical, elegant, and harmonious, it is pitched in a key suited to the capacity of the world at large; and as, in the general comparison of nations, he found abundant reason for lauding England, it was esteemed patriotic, and was on that account popular. Many of its lines have been constantly quoted since.
In 1770 appeared his Deserted Village, which was even more popular than The Traveller; nor has this popularity flagged from that time down to the present day. It is full of exquisite pictures of rural life and manners. It is what it claims to be,—not an attempt at high art or epic, but a gallery of cabinet pictures of rare finish and detail, painted by the poet's heart and appealing to the sensibility of every reader. The world knows it by heart,—the portraiture of the village schoolmaster and his school; the beautiful picture of the country parson:
A man he was to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year.
This latter is a worthy companion-piece to Chaucer's “poor persoune,” and is, besides, a filial tribute to Goldsmith's father. So real are the characters and scenes, that the poem has been a popular subject for the artist. If in The Traveller he has been philosophical and didactic, in the Deserted Village he is only descriptive and tender. In no work is there a finer spirit of true charity, the love of man for God's sake,—like God himself, “no respecter of persons.”
While in form and versification he is like Pope and the Artificial School, he has the sensibility to nature of Thomson, and the simplicity of feeling and thought of Wordsworth; and thus he stands between the two great poetic periods, partaking of the better nature of both.
THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD.—Between the appearance of these two poems, in 1766, came forth that nonpareil of charming stories, The Vicar of Wakefield. It is so well known that we need not enter into an analysis of it. It is the story of a good vicar, of like passions with ourselves; not wanting in vanity and impetuosity, but shining in his Christian virtue like a star in the midst of accumulating misfortunes,—a man of immaculate honor and undying faith, preaching to his fellow-prisoners in the jail, surveying death without fear, and at last, like Job, restored to happiness, and yet maintaining his humility. It does not seem to have been constructed according to artificial rules, but rather to have been told extemporaneously, without effort and without ambition; and while this very fact has been the cause of some artistic faults and some improbabilities, it has also given it a peculiar charm, by contrast with such purely artificial constructions as the Rasselas of Johnson.
So doubtful was the publisher, who had bought the manuscript for L60, that he held it back for two years, until the name of the author had become known through The Traveller, and was thus a guarantee for its success. The Vicar of Wakefield has also an additional value in its delineation of manners, persons, and conditions in that day, and in its strictures upon the English penal law, in such terms and with such suggestions as seem a prophecy of the changes which have since taken place.
HISTORIES, AND OTHER WORKS.—Of Goldsmith's various histories it may be said that they are of value for the clear, if superficial, presentation of facts, and for their charm of style.
The best is, without doubt, The History of England; but the Histories of Greece and Rome, re-edited, are still used as text-books in many schools. The Vicar has been translated into most of the modern languages, and imitated by many writers since.
As an essayist, Goldsmith has been a great enricher of English history. His Chinese letters—for the idea of which he was indebted to the Lettres Persanes of Montesquieu—describe England in his day with the same vraisemblance which we have noticed in The Spectator. These were afterwards collected and published in a volume entitled The Citizen of the World. And besides the pleasure of biography, and the humor of the presentment, his Life of Beau Nash introduces us to Bath and its frequenters with historical power. The life at the Spring is one and a very valuable phase of English society.
As a dramatist, he was more than equalled by Sheridan; but his two plays, The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer, are still favorites upon the stage.
The irregularities of Goldsmith's private life seem to have been rather defects in his character than intentional wrong-doings. Generous to a fault, squandering without thought what was due to his creditors, losing at play, he lived in continual pecuniary embarrassment, and died unhappy, with a debt of L1000, the existence of which led Johnson to ejaculate, “Was ever poet so trusted before?” He lived a bachelor; and the conclusion seems forced upon us that had he married a woman who could have controlled him, he, would have been a happier and more respectable man, but perhaps have done less for literature than he did.
While Goldsmith was a type and presenter of his age, and while he took no high flights in the intellectual realms, he so handled what the age presented that he must be allowed the claim of originality, both in his poems and in the Vicar; and he has had, even to the present day, hosts of imitators. Poems on college gala-days were for a long time faint reflections of his Traveller, and simple, causal stories of quiet life are the teeming progeny of the Vicar, in spite of the Whistonian controversy, and the epitaph of his living wife.
A few of his ballads and songs display great lyric power, but the most of his poetry is not lyric; it is rather a blending of the pastoral and epic with rare success. His minor poems are few, but favorites. Among these is the beautiful ballad entitled Edwin and Angelina, or The Hermit, which first appeared in The Vicar of Wakefield, but which has since been printed separately among his poems. Of its kind and class it has no superior. Retaliation is a humorous epitaph upon his friends and co-literati, hitting off their characteristics with truth and point; and The Haunch of Venison—upon which he did not dine—is an amusing incident which might have happened to any Londoner like himself, but which no one could have related so well as he.
He died in 1774, at the age of forty-five; but his fame—his better life—is more vigorous than ever. Washington Irving, whose writings are similar in style to those of Goldsmith, has extended and perpetuated his reputation in America by writing his Biography; a charming work, many touches of which seem almost autobiographical, as displaying the resemblance between the writer and his subject.
MACKENZIE.—From Sterne and Goldsmith we pass to Mackenzie, who, if not a conscious imitator of the former, is, at least, unconsciously formed upon the model of Sterne, without his genius, but also without his coarseness: in the management of his narrative, he is a medium between Sterne and Walter Scott; indeed, from his long life, he saw the period of both these authors, and his writings partake of the characteristics of both.
Henry Mackenzie was born at Edinburgh, in August, 1745, and lived until 1831, to the ripe age of eighty-six. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, and afterwards studied law. He wrote some strong political pamphlets in favor of the Pitt government, for which he was rewarded with the office of comptroller of the taxes, which he held to the day of his death.
THE MAN OF FEELING.—In 1771 the world was equally astonished and delighted by the appearance of his first novel, The Man of Feeling. In this there are manifest tokens of his debt to Sterne'sSentimental Journey, in the journey of Harley, in the story of the beggar and his dog, and in somewhat of the same forced sensibility in the account of Harley's death.
In 1773 appeared his Man of the World which was in some sort a sequel to the Man of Feeling, but which wearies by the monotony of the plot.
In 1777 he published Julia de Roubigne, which, in the opinion of many, shares the palm with his first novel: the plot is more varied than that of the second, and the language is exceedingly harmonious—elegiac prose. The story is plaintive and painful: virtue is extolled, but made to suffer, in a domestic tragedy, which all readers would be glad to see ending differently.
At different times Mackenzie edited The Mirror and The Lounger, and he has been called the restorer of the Essay. His story of the venerable La Roche, contributed to The Mirror, is perhaps the best specimen of his powers as a sentimentalist: it portrays the influence of Christianity, as exhibited in the very face of infidelity, to support the soul in the sorest of trials—the death of an only and peerless daughter.
His contributions to the above-named periodicals were very numerous and popular.
The name of his first novel was applied to himself as a man. He was known as the man of feeling to the whole community. This was a misnomer: he was kind and affable; his evening parties were delightful; but he had nothing of the pathetic or sentimental about him. On the contrary, he was humorous, practical, and worldly-wise; very fond of field sports and athletic exercises. His sentiment—which has been variously criticized, by some as the perfection of moral pathos, and by others as lackadaisical and canting—may be said to have sprung rather from his observations of life and manners than to have welled spontaneously from any source within his own heart.
Sterne and Goldsmith will be read as long as the English language lasts, and their representative characters will be quoted as models and standards everywhere: Mackenzie is fast falling into an oblivion from which he will only be resuscitated by the historian of English Literature.