« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
or the forgotten scholiast. Such histories as these were neither contemplated nor desired; he wished to produce a popular manual and epitome, in which the youthful reader might behold reflected the features of the age; and in this light they received the commendation of Johnson. Gray was of opinion that the History of England, based upon Rapin, and written in a lively and agreeable style, would be a work of great value and interest. If Goldsmith could have treated Thirwall in the same manner, his histories might have lived with those of Southey or of Hume. In their present form they present an outline, for the most part correctly drawn, of the people they profess to describe; the narrative is easy and elegant, embellished by beautiful sentiments and reflections of a simple but healthful philosophy. We may pick our way along the ruggedness and obscurity of many a quarto, without finding such passages as these from his History of England. Flattery.—“ The most savage countries understand flattery, almost as well as the most polite; since to be sufficiently servile seems to be the whole of the art, and the truest way of pleasing.” So also upon Punishment.-—“ A king who can reign without punishing, is happy; but that monarch must be certainly wrong, who, through fear or ill-timed lenity, suffers repeated crimes to pass without notice. When a country becomes perfectly illicit, 'punishments then only serve to strengthen the weak, and prepare for a new harvest of virtues." Once more, upon Success." Happy if we know where to bound our successes; if we can distinguish between victories and advantages; if we can be convinced that when a nation shines brightest with conquest, it may then, like a wasting taper, be only hastening to decay!” The same beauties, in greater abundance, are displayed in his Essays, and the Citizen of the World; with a vein of humour frequently rivalling that of Addison, we see combined a terseness of expression and a strength of manner, not common in that accomplished writer. His irony has something of Horatian delicacy; correcting without a wound: his observations upon life are the fruit of experience; he shows vice and virtue their own images; never veiling the one, nor gilding the other. The miscellaneous works of Johnson may contain particular passages of deeper splendour and more diligent elaboration; but, as a collection, they must yield to Goldsmith in grace, variety, and amusement. In point of moral excellence they can claim no superiority; every reader of Goldsmith falls in love with Truth, with Innocence, and Simplicity. Hear his reflections upon afflictions. “ We should feel sorrow, but not sink under its oppression; the heart of a wise man should resemble a mirror, which reflects every object without being sullied by any. We should hold the immutable mean which lies between insensibility and anguish ; our attempts should be not to extinguish nature, but to repress it; not to stand unmoved at distress, but endeavour to turn every disaster to our own advantage. Our greatest glory is, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Nor is the disquisition upon Ridicule less admirable in the conception, or less vigorous in the delineation. Ridicule has ever been the most powerful enemy of enthusiasm, and properly the only antagonist that can be opposed to it with success. Persecution only serves to propagate new religions; they acquire fresh vigour beneath the executioner and the axe, and, like some vivacious insects, multiply by dissection. It is also impossible to combat enthusiasm with reason; for, though it makes a show of resistance, it soon eludes the pressure, refers you to distinctions not to be understood, and feelings which it cannot explain. The only way to conquer a visionary, is to despise him; the stake, the faggot, and the disputing doctor, in some measure ennoble the opinions they are brought to oppose; they are harmless against innovating pride;, contempt alone is truly dreadful. Hunters generally snow the most vulnerable parts of the beasts they pursue, by the care which every animal takes to defend the side which is weakest; on what side the enthusiast is most vulnerable, may be known by the care which he takes in the beginning to work his disciples into gravity, and guard them against the power of ridicule. It
It may be objected that he has portrayed no character like Sir Roger de Coverley, in the Spectator, in which the design and the colouring are equally original; but without competing with that venerable knight, the merits of Beau Tibbs will not be forgotten by the reader of the Citizen of the World; frivolous and self-important, impudent yet good-humoured, a pretender to fashion though utterly obscure, he forms an amusing specimen, Mr. Prior remarks, of a class sometimes found in a great metropolis. The original of the picture is reported to have been a person named Thornton, an acquaintance of Goldsmith, and formerly in the army. His History of Animated Nature is obnoxious to the same objections as the Treatises upon Greece and Rome. With that minuteness of research which imparts so much interest to the works of some of our modern naturalists, he was utterly unacquainted. His knowledge, such as it was, came from books.
It is in the poetical touches of a most pure and delicate fancy, and the glimpses he sometimes affords of his early history and feelings, that the chief charm of the work consists. What, for example, can be more delightful than the following passage, more happy in its imagery, more vivid in its colouring :
“ T'he music of every bird in captivity produces no very pleasing sensations; it is but the mirth of a little animal insensible of its unfortunate situation; it is the landscape, the grove, the golden break of day, the contest upon the hawthorn, the fluttering from branch to branch, the soaring in the air, and the
answering of its young, that gives the bird's song its true relish. These united, improve each other, and raise the mind to a state of the highest, yet most harmless exultation. Nothing can in this situation of mind be more pleasing than to see the lark warbling on the wing, raising its note as it soars, until it seems lost in the immense heights above us; the note continuing, the bird itself unseen; to see it then descending with a swell, as it comes from the clouds, yet sinking by degrees as it approaches its nest, the spot where all its affections are centred, the spot that has prompted all this joy.” For an interesting reference to his own life, we may notice a passage in the sixth volume, which forms an interesting commentary on that beautiful couplet in the Deserted Village :-
Along the glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest." “ Those,” he says, “ who have walked at night by the sedgy sides of unfrequented rivers, must remember a variety of notes from different water fowls: the loud scream of the wild goose, the croaking of the mallard, the whining of the lapwing, and the tremulous neighing of the jacksnipe; but of all these sounds there is none so dismally hollow as the booming of the bittern; and I remember in the place where I was a boy, with what terror this bird's note affected the whole village; they considered it as the presage of some sad event, and generally found or made one to succeed it.”
The first work which procured for Goldsmith the public ear was the Traveller. The object of the poem he briefly explained in the very affecting dedication of it to his brother, the village curate, “passing rich with forty pounds a-year.” Without enlisting in any party, he attempted to moderate the passions of all; to show that equal happiness may be found in states whose government differs from our own, and that every nation has a particular principle of happiness, which may in each be carried to a mischievous excess. The poem was commenced in Switzerland, and though finished in London, retains all the freshness of sketches taken upon the spot. But it is Goldsmith's highest praise that his pictures are philosophical rather than descriptive; his study is emphatically-man. Our days have witnessed the pilgrimage of a dark and turbulent spirit, carrying a cloud wherever he went, and still continuing to exercise a most baneful influence over the popular mind. The world appears to possess its own Powers of Darkness, of whom Byron was one; with such minds the pure and amiable spirit of Goldsmith has no fellowship; his Traveller bears no resemblance to the Childe. It may be conceded, indeed, that in fervour of imagination, vitality of painting, variety of scenery, and force of description, Goldsmith sinks far below his celebrated successor. In his verse no goddess loves in stone; no celestial archer flings his arrows with “beautiful disdain ;” no “hell of waters” boils upon the ear; no Etrurian Athens opens her voluptuous arms to the imagination; in the Traveller all is serene, reflective, and pathetic: particular passages glow with intense beauty ; but the characteristic of the whole is a clear, luminous, unbroken simplicity; the language, without being learned or elaborate, always rises with the theme; the imagery is chaste and appropriate.
The first hint of a poem which should unite the description of scenery with portraits of the inhabitants and philosophical or moral applications, is contained in a letter from Thomson to Bubb Doddington, who had noticed the singular fact, that scarcely any traveller was to be met with who had looked out upon the scenes through which he had passed with “the muse's eye." “ It seems to me,” was the observation of Thomson, “ that such a poetical landscape of countries and people would not be an ill-judged undertaking; but then the description of the different face of nature in different countries must be particularly marked and characteristic—the portrait-painting of nature.” It may be regretted that the poet of the Seasons never attempted what he so well understood. Denham, in Cooper's Hill, had, indeed, already shown the pleasure which a view of local features was calculated to bestow; but Addison, in his Letter from Italy, first embodied the idea, subsequently expressed in the Letter to Doddington; although the second book of Blackmore's poem, The Nature of Man, with the motto, Quid quæque ferat regio, quid quæque recusat, is occupied with similar topics; and Sir Egerton Brydges has quoted two lines, apparently referring to the French, which bear some resemblance to the style of Goldsmith
“ Still in extremes, their passions they employ,
Abject their grief, and insolent their joy." The Letter from Italy resembles the Traveller also in being addressed to Lord Halifax, as Goldsmith's poem was to his brother; but its plan is, of course, more circumscribed, and its composition bears sufficient proof of epistolary carelessness. It contains, however, a few lines which have passed into universal circulation, and have been perused by many who are unacquainted with their source, particularly the lines alluding to the poetical celebrity of Italy :
“ For here the Muse so oft her harp has strung,
That not a mountain rears its head unsung." And again,
“ Sometimes misguided by the tuneful throng,
I look for streams immortalized in song,
That lost in silence and oblivion lie;
And in the smooth description murmur still." Dr. Wharton, who was not a favourable critic of Addison's poetry, has commended the picture of a Roman Amphitheatre as more excellent than Pope's. It ought to be recollected that Addison claimed for his production no higher merit than belongs to a sketch, made, as he informed a friend, during his passage over the mountains ; so that, as he pleasantly observed, he was perhaps the first person who had thought of Parnassus on Mount Cenis. The most delightful and enduring memorial of his wanderings is the Hymn on the Conclusion of his Travels, where, in a strain of fervid and humble piety, he returns his thanks to Him above:
Thy mercy sweeten'd every soil,
Made every region please;
And smooth’d the Tyrrhene seas. The versification of the Traveller is more in the manner of Dryden than the Deserted Village; masculine, free, and energetic; the pauses varied and happily placed; the diction remarkably select, pure, and expressive. In this poem the excellencies of Dryden and Pope seem to be combined; it is more polished than the first, more natural than the second. Never was the toil of art more successfully concealed, or all the resources of ingenious diligence made to assume a complete
* A strong similiarity of sentiment, if not of expression, will be discerned between the lines in the Traveller upon Italy, beginning
“ Could nature's bounty satisfy the breast,” and the following passage by Addison :
“How has kind Heaven adorn'd the happy land,
And scatter'd blessings with a wasteful hand!
And in the loaden vineyard dies for thirst,"