Friday, November 10, 2017

`In Style, Clear, Elevated, Elegant'

In 1973, in a small, English-language bookshop in Chambéry, France, I bought a paperback King Lear and the Penguin edition of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. The former is long gone. The latter has turned attractively brown but remains readable, though Billy Budd is the one Melville title I’m unlikely ever to read again. I did reread it that summer out of desperation for print, and that’s how I discovered Oliver Goldsmith. The narrator in Billy Budd writes of Claggart: “But everybody taking his remark as meant for humorous, and at which therefore as coming from a superior they were bound to laugh ‘with counterfeited glee,’ acted accordingly.”

In his notes, the collection’s editor, Harold Beaver, identifies the source of the quote within the quote as Goldsmith’s 430-line “The Deserted Village” (1770). The passage describes the reaction of his pupils to the village schoolmaster (“A man severe he was, and stern to view”):

“Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day's disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he.”

That fall, back in the U.S., I read “The Deserted Village,” The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and a smattering of the other work. In his brief life, Goldsmith was plagued with money worries, and resorted to prolific freelancing. In 1774, he produced the presumptuously titled A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. Other titles reflect his industriousness: A Concise History of Philosophy and Philosophers (1766) and The History of England (1771). Before encountering Goldsmith in Melville, I had known him only as an Irish-born friend of Dr. Johnson. His work is spotty in quality. He had a minor gift for occasional poems verging on light verse, as in “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” with its memorable conclusion: “The man recover’d of the bite; / The dog it was that died.” “The Deserted Village,” which deals with rural depopulation and the effects of the enclosure movement, is his finest poem:

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,          
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.      
princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;     
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.”

Yeats touted Goldsmith, with Swift, Bishop Berkeley and Burke, as an Irish hero:

“Oliver Goldsmith sang what he had seen,
Roads full of beggars, cattle in the fields,
But never saw the trefoil stained with blood,
The avenging leaf those fields raised up against it.”

Goldsmith was born on this date, Nov. 10, in 1728, and died at age forty-five. He was buried at the Temple Church in London, where his monument was destroyed in 1941 during a German air raid. Members of The Club (later, The Literary Club), including Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds, erected a memorial to Goldsmith in Westminster Abbey. The epitaph, one any writer would envy, was written in Latin by Johnson. Here is a translation:

“Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant.”

1 comment:

Alan Vanneman said...

Sorry you didn't like Billy Budd. How could you write about Goldsmith without Johnson's comment on his debts: "Was ever a poet so trusted?" (More or less)

Goldsmith was once famous for having written a famous novel (The Vicar of Wakesfield), a famous poem (The Deserted Village), and a famous play (She Stoops to Conquer). None now are as famous as Billy Budd, I would guess.