The Life of Oliver Goldsmith, by Washington Irving

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Publication of the Deserted Village — Notices and Illustrations of it

Several years had now elapsed since the publication of The Traveler, and much wonder was expressed that the great success of that poem had not excited the author to further poetic attempts. On being questioned at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy by the Earl of Lisburn, why he neglected the muses to compile histories and write novels, “My Lord,” replied he, “by courting the muses I shall starve, but by my other labors I eat, drink, have good clothes, and can enjoy the luxuries of life.” So, also, on being asked by a poor writer what was the most profitable mode of exercising the pen, “My dear fellow,” replied he, good-humoredly, “pay no regard to the draggle-tailed muses; for my part I have found productions in prose much more sought after and better paid for.”

Still, however, as we have heretofore shown, he found sweet moments of dalliance to steal away from his prosaic toils, and court the muse among the green lanes and hedgerows in the rural environs of London, and on the 26th of May, 1770, he was enabled to bring his Deserted Village before the public.

The popularity of The Traveler had prepared the way for this poem, and its sale was instantaneous and immense. The first edition was immediately exhausted; in a few days a second was issued; in a few days more a third, and by the 16th of August the fifth edition was hurried through the press. As is the case with popular writers, he had become his own rival, and critics were inclined to give the preference to his first poem; but with the public at large we believe the Deserted Village has ever been the greatest favorite. Previous to its publication the bookseller gave him in advance a note for the price agreed upon, one hundred guineas. As the latter was returning home he met a friend to whom he mentioned the circumstance, and who, apparently judging of poetry by quantity rather than quality, observed that it was a great sum for so small a poem. “In truth,” said Goldsmith, “I think so too; it is much more than the honest man can afford or the piece is worth. I have not been easy since I received it.” In fact, he actually returned the note to the bookseller, and left it to him to graduate the payment according to the success of the work. The bookseller, as may well be supposed, soon repaid him in full with many acknowledgments of his disinterestedness. This anecdote has been called in question, we know not on what grounds; we see nothing in it incompatible with the character of Goldsmith, who was very impulsive, and prone to acts of inconsiderate generosity.

As we do not pretend in this summary memoir to go into a criticism or analysis of any of Goldsmith’s writings, we shall not dwell upon the peculiar merits of this poem; we cannot help noticing, however, how truly it is a mirror of the author’s heart, and of all the fond pictures of early friends and early life forever present there. It seems to us as if the very last accounts received from home, of his “shattered family,” and the desolation that seemed to have settled upon the haunts of his childhood, had cut to the roots one feebly cherished hope, and produced the following exquisitely tender and mournful lines:

“In all my wand’rings round this world of care,

In all my griefs — and God has giv’n my share —

I still had hopes my latest hours to crown,

Amid these humble bowers to lay me down;

To husband out life’s taper at the close,

And keep the flame from wasting by repose;

I still had hopes, for pride attends us still,

Amid the swains to show my book-learn’d skill,

Around my fire an ev’ning group to draw,

And tell of all I felt and all I saw;

And as a hare, whom hounds and horns pursue,

Pants to the place from whence at first she flew;

I still had hopes, my long vexations past,

Here to return — and die at home at last.”

How touchingly expressive are the succeeding lines, wrung from a heart which all the trials and temptations and buffetings of the world could not render worldly; which, amid a thousand follies and errors of the head, still retained its childlike innocence; and which, doomed to struggle on to the last amid the din and turmoil of the metropolis, had ever been cheating itself with a dream of rural quiet and seclusion:

“Oh, bless’d retirement! friend to life’s decline,

Retreats from care, that never must be mine,

How blest is he who crowns, in shades like these,

A youth of labor with an age of ease;

Who quits a world where strong temptations try,

And, since ’tis hard to combat, learns to fly!

For him no wretches, born to work and weep,

Explore the mine, or tempt the dangerous deep;

Nor surly porter stands, in guilty state,

To spurn imploring famine from the gate;

But on he moves to meet his latter end,

Angels around befriending virtue’s friend;

Sinks to the grave with unperceived decay,

While resignation gently slopes the way;

And all his prospects brightening to the last,

His heaven commences ere the world be past.”

Note

The following article, which appeared in a London periodical, shows the effect of Goldsmith’s poem in renovating the fortunes of Lissoy.

“About three miles from Ballymahon, a very central town in the sister kingdom, is the mansion and village of Auburn, so called by their present possessor, Captain Hogan. Through the taste and improvement of this gentleman, it is now a beautiful spot, although fifteen years since it presented a very bare and unpoetical aspect. This, however, was owing to a cause which serves strongly to corroborate the assertion that Goldsmith had this scene in view when he wrote his poem of The Deserted Village. The then possessor, General Napier, turned all his tenants out of their farms that he might inclose them in his own private domain. Littleton, the mansion of the general, stands not far off, a complete emblem of the desolating spirit lamented by the poet, dilapidated and converted into a barrack.

“The chief object of attraction is Lissoy, once the parsonage house of Henry Goldsmith, that brother to whom the poet dedicated his Traveler, and who is represented as the village pastor,

“‘Passing rich with forty pounds a year.’

“When I was in the country, the lower chambers were inhabited by pigs and sheep, and the drawing-rooms by oats. Captain Hogan, however, has, I believe, got it since into his possession, and has, of course, improved its condition.

“Though at first strongly inclined to dispute the identity of Auburn, Lissoy House overcame my scruples. As I clambered over the rotten gate, and crossed the grass-grown lawn or court, the tide of association became too strong for casuistry; here the poet dwelt and wrote, and here his thoughts fondly recurred when composing his Traveler in a foreign land. Yonder was the decent church, that literally ‘topped the neighboring hill.’ Before me lay the little hill of Knockrue, on which he declares, in one of his letters, he had rather sit with a book in hand than mingle in the proudest assemblies. And, above all, startlingly true, beneath my feet was

“‘Yonder copse, where once the garden smiled,

And still where many a garden-flower grows wild.’

“A painting from the life could not be more exact. ‘The stubborn currant-bush’ lifts its head above the rank grass, and the proud hollyhock flaunts where its sisters of the flower-knot are no more.

“In the middle of the village stands the old ‘hawthorn-tree,’ built up with masonry to distinguish and preserve it; it is old and stunted, and suffers much from the depredations of post-chaise travelers, who generally stop to procure a twig. Opposite to it is the village alehouse, over the door of which swings ‘The Three Jolly Pigeons.’ Within everything is arranged according to the letter:

‘The whitewash’d wall, the nicely-sanded floor,

The varnish’d clock that click’d behind the door:

The chest, contrived a double debt to pay,

A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day;

The pictures placed for ornament and use,

The twelve good rules, the royal game of goose.’

“Captain Hogan, I have heard, found great difficulty in obtaining ‘the twelve good rules,’ but at length purchased them at some London bookstall to adorn the whitewashed parlor of ‘The Three Jolly Pigeons.’ However laudable this may be, nothing shook my faith in the reality of Auburn so much as this exactness, which had the disagreeable air of being got up for the occasion. The last object of pilgrimage is the quondam habitation of the schoolmaster,

“‘There, in his noisy mansion, skill’d to rule.’

“It is surrounded with fragrant proofs of identity in

“‘The blossom’d furze, unprofitably gay.’

“There is to be seen the chair of the poet, which fell into the hands of its present possessors at the wreck of the parsonage-house; they have frequently refused large offers of purchase; but more, I daresay, for the sake of drawing contributions from the curious than from any reverence for the bard. The chair is of oak, with back and seat of cane, which precluded all hopes of a secret drawer, like that lately discovered in Gay’s. There is no fear of its being worn out by the devout earnestness of sitters — as the cocks and hens have usurped undisputed possession of it, and protest most clamorously against all attempts to get it cleansed or to seat one’s self.

“The controversy concerning the identity of this Auburn was formerly a standing theme of discussion among the learned of the neighborhood; but, since the pros and cons have been all ascertained, the argument has died away. Its abettors plead the singular agreement between the local history of the place and the Auburn of the poem, and the exactness with which the scenery of the one answers to the description of the other. To this is opposed the mention of the nightingale,

“‘And fill’d each pause the nightingale had made’;

there being no such bird in the island. The objection is slighted, on the other hand, by considering the passage as a mere poetical license. ‘Besides,’ say they, ‘the robin is the Irish nightingale.’ And if it be hinted how unlikely it was that Goldsmith should have laid the scene in a place from which he was and had been so long absent, the rejoinder is always, ‘Pray, sir, was Milton in hell when he built Pandemonium?’

“The line is naturally drawn between; there can be no doubt that the poet intended England by

“‘The land to hast’ning ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay.’

“But it is very natural to suppose that, at the same time, his imagination had in view the scenes of his youth, which give such strong features of resemblance to the picture.”

Best, an Irish clergyman, told Davis, the traveler in America, that the hawthorn-bush mentioned in the poem was still remarkably large. “I was riding once,” said he, “with Brady, titular Bishop of Ardagh, when he observed to me, ‘Ma foy, Best, this huge overgrown bush is mightily in the way. I will order it to be cut down.’ ‘What, sir!’ replied I, ‘cut down the bush that supplies so beautiful an image in The Deserted Village?’—‘Ma foy!’ exclaimed the bishop, ‘is that the hawthorn-bush? Then let it be sacred from the edge of the ax, and evil be to him that should cut off a branch.’ “— The hawthorn-bush, however, has long since been cut up, root and branch, in furnishing relics to literary pilgrims.

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