The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Seventeen

Publication of the Vicar of Wakefield — Opinions Concerning it — Of Dr. Johnson — Of Rogers the Poet — Of Goethe — Its Merits — Exquisite Extract — Attack by Kenrick — Reply — Book-Building — Project of a Comedy

The success of the poem of The Traveler, and the popularity which it had conferred on its author, now roused the attention of the bookseller in whose hands the novel of The Vicar of Wakefield had been slumbering for nearly two long years. The idea has generally prevailed that it was Mr. John Newbery to whom the manuscript had been sold, and much surprise has been expressed that he should be insensible to its merit and suffer it to remain unpublished, while putting forth various inferior writings by the same author. This, however, is a mistake; it was his nephew, Francis Newbery, who had become the fortunate purchaser. Still the delay is equally unaccountable. Some have imagined that the uncle and nephew had business arrangements together, in which this work was included, and that the elder Newbery, dubious of its success, retarded the publication until the full harvest of The Traveler should be reaped. Booksellers are prone to make egregious mistakes as to the merit of works in manuscript; and to undervalue, if not reject, those of classic and enduring excellence, when destitute of that false brilliancy commonly called “effect.” In the present instance, an intellect vastly superior to that of either of the booksellers was equally at fault. Dr. Johnson, speaking of the work to Boswell, some time subsequent to its publication, observed, “I myself did not think it would have had much success. It was written and sold to a bookseller before The Traveler, but published after, so little expectation had the bookseller from it. Had it been sold after The Traveler, he might have had twice as much money; though sixty guineas was no mean price.”

Sixty guineas for the Vicar of Wakefield! and this could be pronounced no mean price by Dr. Johnson, at that time the arbiter of British talent, and who had had an opportunity of witnessing the effect of the work upon the public mind; for its success was immediate. It came out on the 27th of March, 1766; before the end of May a second edition was called for; in three months more a third; and so it went on, widening in a popularity that has never flagged. Rogers, the Nestor of British literature, whose refined purity of taste and exquisite mental organization rendered him eminently calculated to appreciate a work of the kind, declared that of all the books which, through the fitful changes of three generations, he had seen rise and fall, the charm of the Vicar of Wakefield had alone continued as at first; and could he revisit the world after an interval of many more generations, he should as surely look to find it undiminished. Nor has its celebrity been confined to Great Britain. Though so exclusively a picture of British scenes and manners, it has been translated into almost every language, and everywhere its charm has been the same. Goethe, the great genius of Germany, declared in his eighty-first year that it was his delight at the age of twenty, that it had in a manner formed a part of his education, influencing his taste and feelings throughout life, and that he had recently read it again from beginning to end — with renewed delight, and with a grateful sense of the early benefit derived from it.

It is needless to expatiate upon the qualities of a work which has thus passed from country to country, and language to language, until it is now known throughout the whole reading world, and is become a household book in every hand. The secret of its universal and enduring popularity is undoubtedly its truth to nature, but to nature of the most amiable kind; to nature such as Goldsmith saw it. The author, as we have occasionally shown in the course of this memoir, took his scenes and characters in this as in his other writings, from originals in his own motley experience; but he has given them as seen through the medium of his own indulgent eye, and has set them forth with the colorings of his own good head and heart. Yet how contradictory it seems that this, one of the most delightful pictures of home and homefelt happiness, should be drawn by a homeless man; that the most amiable picture of domestic virtue and all the endearments of the married state should be drawn by a bachelor, who had been severed from domestic life almost from boyhood; that one of the most tender, touching, and affecting appeals on behalf of female loveliness should have been made by a man whose deficiency in all the graces of person and manner seemed to mark him out for a cynical disparager of the sex.

We cannot refrain from transcribing from the work a short passage illustrative of what we have said, and which within a wonderfully small compass comprises a world of beauty of imagery, tenderness of feeling, delicacy and refinement of thought, and matchless purity of style. The two stanzas which conclude it, in which are told a whole history of woman’s wrongs and sufferings, is, for pathos, simplicity, and euphony, a gem in the language. The scene depicted is where the poor Vicar is gathering around him the wrecks of his shattered family, and endeavoring to rally them back to happiness.

“The next morning the sun arose with peculiar warmth for the season, so that we agreed to breakfast together on the honeysuckle bank; where, while we sat, my youngest daughter at my request joined her voice to the concert on the trees about us. It was in this place my poor Olivia first met her seducer, and every object served to recall her sadness. But that melancholy which is excited by objects of pleasure, or inspired by sounds of harmony, soothes the heart instead of corroding it. Her mother, too, upon this occasion, felt a pleasing distress, and wept, and loved her daughter as before. ‘Do, my pretty Olivia,’ cried she, ‘let us have that melancholy air your father was so fond of; your sister Sophy has already obliged us. Do, child; it will please your old father.’ She complied in a manner so exquisitely pathetic as moved me.

“‘When lovely woman stoops to folly,

And finds too late that men betray,

What charm can soothe her melancholy.

What art can wash her guilt away?

“‘The only art her guilt to cover,

To hide her shame from every eye,

To give repentance to her lover,

And wring his bosom — is to die.’”

Scarce had the Vicar of Wakefield made its appearance and been received with acclamation than its author was subjected to one of the usual penalties that attend success. He was attacked in the newspapers. In one of the chapters he had introduced his ballad of the Hermit, of which, as we have mentioned, a few copies had been printed some considerable time previously for the use of the Countess of Northumberland. This brought forth the following article in a fashionable journal of the day:

To the Printer of the ‘St. James’s Chronicle.’

“Sir — In the Reliques of Ancient Poetry, published about two years ago, is a very beautiful little balled called A Friar of Orders Gray. The ingenious editor, Mr. Percy, supposes that the stanzas sung by Ophelia in the play of Hamlet were parts of some ballad well known in Shakespeare’s time, and from these stanzas with the addition of one or two of his own to connect them, he has formed the above-mentioned ballad; the subject of which is, a lady comes to a convent to inquire for her love who had been driven there by her disdain. She is answered by a friar that he is dead:

“‘No, no, he is dead, gone to his death’s bed.

He never will come again.’

“The lady weeps and laments her cruelty; the friar endeavors to comfort her with morality and religion, but all in vain; she expresses the deepest grief and the most tender sentiments of love, till at last the friar discovers himself:

“‘And lo! beneath this gown of gray

Thy own true love appears.’

“This catastrophe is very fine, and the whole, joined with the greatest tenderness, has the greatest simplicity; yet, though this ballad was so recently published in the Ancient Reliques, Dr. Goldsmith has been hardy enough to publish a poem called The Hermit, where the circumstances and catastrophe are exactly the same, only with this difference, that the natural simplicity and tenderness of the original are almost entirely lost in the languid smoothness and tedious paraphrase of the copy, which is as short of the merits of Mr. Percy’s ballad as the insipidity of negus is to the genuine flavor of champagne.

“I am, sir, yours, etc., DETECTOR.”

This attack, supposed to be by Goldsmith’s constant persecutor, the malignant Kenrick, drew from him the following note to the editor:

“Sir — As there is nothing I dislike so much as newspaper controversy, particularly upon trifles, permit me to be as concise as possible in informing a correspondent of yours that I recommended Blainville’s travels because I thought the book was a good one; and I think so still. I said I was told by the bookseller that it was then first published; but in that it seems I was misinformed, and my reading was not extensive enough to set me right.

“Another correspondent of yours accuses me of having taken a ballad I published some time ago, from one by the ingenious Mr. Percy. I do not think there is any great resemblance between the two pieces in question. If there be any, his ballad was taken from mine. I read it to Mr. Percy some years ago; and he, as we both considered these things as trifles at best, told me, with his usual good-humor, the next time I saw him, that he had taken my plan to form the fragments of Shakespeare into a ballad of his own. He then read me his little Cento, if I may so call it, and I highly approved it. Such petty anecdotes as these are scarcely worth printing; and were it not for the busy disposition of some of your correspondents, the public should never have known that he owes me the hint of his ballad, or that I am obliged to his friendship and learning for communications of a much more important nature.

“I am, sir, yours, etc.,

“OLIVER GOLDSMITH.”

The unexpected circulation of the Vicar of Wakefield enriched the publisher, but not the author. Goldsmith no doubt thought himself entitled to participate in the profits of the repeated editions; and a memorandum, still extant, shows that he drew upon Mr. Francis Newbery, in the month of June, for fifteen guineas, but that the bill was returned dishonored. He continued therefore his usual job-work for the booksellers, writing introductions, prefaces, and head and tail pieces for new works; revising, touching up, and modifying travels and voyages; making compilations of prose and poetry, and “building books,” as he sportively termed it. These tasks required little labor or talent, but that taste and touch which are the magic of gifted minds. His terms began to be proportioned to his celebrity. If his price was at anytime objected to, “Why, sir,” he would say, “it may seem large; but then a man may be many years working in obscurity before his taste and reputation are fixed or estimated; and then he is, as in other professions, only paid for his previous labors.”

He was, however, prepared to try his fortune in a different walk of literature from any he had yet attempted. We have repeatedly adverted to his fondness for the drama; he was a frequent attendant at the theaters; though, as we have shown, he considered them under gross mismanagement. He thought, too, that a vicious taste prevailed among those who wrote for the stage. “A new species of dramatic composition,” says he, in one of his essays, “has been introduced under the name of sentimental comedy, in which the virtues of private life are exhibited, rather than the vices exposed; and the distresses rather than the faults of mankind make our interest in the piece. In these plays almost all the characters are good and exceedingly generous; they are lavish enough of their tin money on the stage; and though they want humor, have abundance of sentiment and feeling. If they happen to have faults or foibles, the spectator is taught not only to pardon, but to applaud them in consideration of the goodness of their hearts; so that folly, instead of being ridiculed, is commended, and the comedy aims at touching our passions, without the power of being truly pathetic. In this manner we are likely to lose one great source of entertainment on the stage; for while the comic poet is invading the province of the tragic muse, he leaves her lively sister quite neglected. Of this, however, he is no ways solicitous, as he measures his fame by his profits. . . .

“Humor at present seems to be departing from the stage; and it will soon happen that our comic players will have nothing left for it but a fine coat and a song. It depends upon the audience whether they will actually drive those poor merry creatures from the stage, or sit at a play as gloomy as at the tabernacle. It is not easy to recover an art when once lost; and it will be a just punishment, that when, by our being too fastidious, we have banished humor from the stage, we should ourselves be deprived of the art of laughing.”

Symptoms of reform in the drama had recently taken place. The comedy of the Clandestine Marriage, the joint production of Colman and Garrick, and suggested by Hogarth’s inimitable pictures of “Marriage a la mode,” had taken the town by storm, crowded the theaters with fashionable audiences, and formed one of the leading literary topics of the year. Goldsmith’s emulation was roused by its success. The comedy was in what he considered the legitimate line, totally different from the sentimental school; it presented pictures of real life, delineations of character and touches of humor, in which he felt himself calculated to excel. The consequence was that in the course of this year (1766), he commenced a comedy of the same class, to be entitled the Good Natured Man, at which he diligently wrought whenever the hurried occupation of “book building” allowed him leisure.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/i/irving/washington/goldsmith/chapter17.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38