Oliver Goldsmith
Washington Irving

Part 6 out of 6

from the deep convictions of the heart. When his fair traveling companions
at Paris urged him to read the Church Service on a Sunday, he replied that
"he was not worthy to do it." He had seen in early life the sacred offices
performed by his father and his brother, with a solemnity which had
sanctified them in his memory; how could he presume to undertake such
functions? His religion has been called in question by Johnson and by
Boswell; he certainly had not the gloomy hypochondriacal piety of the one,
nor the babbling mouth-piety of the other; but the spirit of Christian
charity breathed forth in his writings and illustrated in his conduct give
us reason to believe he had the indwelling religion of the soul.

We have made sufficient comments in the preceding chapters on his conduct
in elevated circles of literature and fashion. The fairy gifts which took
him there were not accompanied by the gifts and graces necessary to sustain
him in that artificial sphere. He can neither play the learned sage with
Johnson, nor the fine gentleman with Beauclerc, though he has a mind
replete with wisdom and natural shrewdness, and a spirit free from
vulgarity. The blunders of a fertile but hurried intellect, and the awkward
display of the student assuming the man of fashion, fix on him a character
for absurdity and vanity which, like the charge of lunacy, it is hard to
disprove, however weak the grounds of the charge and strong the facts in
opposition to it.

In truth, he is never truly in his place in these learned and fashionable
circles, which talk and live for display. It is not the kind of society he
craves. His heart yearns for domestic life; it craves familiar, confiding
intercourse, family firesides, the guileless and happy company of children;
these bring out the heartiest and sweetest sympathies of his nature.

"Had it been his fate," says the critic we have already quoted, "to meet a
woman who could have loved him, despite his faults, and respected him
despite his foibles, we cannot but think that his life and his genius would
have been much more harmonious; his desultory affections would have been
concentered, his craving self-love appeased, his pursuits more settled, his
character more solid. A nature like Goldsmith's, so affectionate, so
confiding--so susceptible to simple, innocent enjoyments--so dependent on
others for the sunshine of existence, does not flower if deprived of the
atmosphere of home."

The cravings of his heart in this respect are evident, we think, throughout
his career; and if we have dwelt with more significancy than others upon
his intercourse with the beautiful Horneck family, it is because we fancied
we could detect, amid his playful attentions to one of its members, a
lurking sentiment of tenderness, kept down by conscious poverty and a
humiliating idea of personal defects. A hopeless feeling of this kind--the
last a man would communicate to his friends--might account for much of that
fitfulness of conduct, and that gathering melancholy, remarked, but not
comprehended by his associates, during the last year or two of his life;
and may have been one of the troubles of the mind which aggravated his last
illness, and only terminated with his death.

We shall conclude these desultory remarks with a few which have been used
by us on a former occasion. From the general tone of Goldsmith's biography,
it is evident that his faults, at the worst, were but negative, while his
merits were great and decided. He was no one's enemy but his own; his
errors, in the main, inflicted evil on none but himself, and were so
blended with humorous, and even affecting circumstances, as to disarm anger
and conciliate kindness. Where eminent talent is united to spotless virtue,
we are awed and dazzled into admiration, but our admiration is apt to be
cold and reverential; while there is something in the harmless infirmities
of a good and great, but erring individual, that pleads touchingly to our
nature; and we turn more kindly toward the object of our idolatry, when we
find that, like ourselves, he is mortal and is frail. The epithet so often
heard, and in such kindly tones, of "Poor Goldsmith," speaks volumes. Few
who consider the real compound of admirable and whimsical qualities which
form his character would wish to prune away its eccentricities, trim its
grotesque luxuriance, and clip it down to the decent formalities of rigid
virtue. "Let not his frailties be remembered," said Johnson; "he was a very
great man." But, for our part, we rather say "Let them be remembered,"
since their tendency is to endear; and we question whether he himself would
not feel gratified in hearing his reader, after dwelling with admiration on
the proofs of his greatness, close the volume with the kind-hearted phrase,
so fondly and familiarly ejaculated, of "POOR GOLDSMITH."


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