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GOLDSMITH—"THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD"
I CHOSE my wife," says Dr. Primrose in the beginning of the
book, "as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine, glossy
surface, but such qualities as would wear well. To do her
justice, she was a good-natured, notable woman; and as for
breeding, there were few county ladies who could show more. She
could read any English book without much spelling; but for
pickling, preserving, and cooking, none could excel her. She
prided herself also upon being an excellent contriver in
housekeeping; though I could never find that we grew richer with
Of his children he says, "Our eldest son was named George, after
his uncle, who left us ten thousand pounds. Our second child, a
girl, I intended to call, after her aunt, Grissel; but my wife,
who had been reading romances, insisted upon her being called
Olivia. In less than another year we had another daughter, and
now I was determined that Grissel should be her name; but a rich
relation taking a fancy to stand god-mother, the girl was by her
direction called Sophia; so that we had two romantic names in the
family; but I solemnly protest I had no hand in it. Moses was
our next; and, after an interval of twelve years, we had two sons
more." These two youngest boys were called Dick and Bill.
This is the family we learn to know in the "Vicar." When the
story opens Olivia is just eighteen, Sophia
 seventeen, and they
are both very beautiful girls. At first Dr. Primrose is well off
and lives comfortably in a fine house, but before the story goes
far he loses all his money, and is obliged to go with his family
to a poor living in another part of the country. Here, instead
of their handsome house, they have a tiny four-roomed cottage,
with whitewashed walls and thatched roof, for a home. It is a
very quiet country life which they have now to live, and yet when
you come to read the book you will find that quite a number of
exciting things happen to them.
The dear doctor soon settles down to his changed life, but his
wife and her beautiful daughters try hard to be as fine as they
were before, and as grand, if not grander, than their neighbors.
This desire leads to not a few of their adventures. Among other
things they decide to have their portraits painted. This is how
Dr. Primrose tells of it: "My wife and daughters happening to
return a visit to neighbour Flamborough's, found that family had
lately got their pictures drawn by a limner, who travelled the
country, and took likenesses for fifteen shillings a-head. As
this family and ours had long a sort of rivalry in point of
taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us;
and, notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was
resolved that we should have our pictures done too.
"Having therefore engaged the limner (for what could I do?) our
next deliberation was, to show the superiority of our taste in
the attitudes. As for our neighbour's family, there were seven
of them; and they were drawn with seven oranges, a thing quite
out of taste, no variety in life, no composition in the world.
We desired to have something in a higher style, and after many
debates, at length came to a unanimous resolution, of being drawn
together, in one large historical
family-  piece . This would be
cheaper, since one frame would serve for all, and it would be
infinitely more genteel; for all families of any taste were now
drawn in the same manner.
"As we did not immediately recollect an historical subject to hit
us, we were contented each with being drawn as independent
historical figures. My wife desired to be represented as Venus,
and the painter was instructed not to be too frugal of his
diamonds in her stomacher and hair. Her two little ones were to
be as cupids by her side; while I in my gown and band, was to
present her with my books on the Whistonian controversy. Olivia
would be drawn as an amazon, sitting upon a bank of flowers,
dressed in a green Joseph,
richly laced with gold, and a whip in
her hand. Sophia was to be a shepherdess, with as many sheep as
the painter could put in for nothing; and Moses was to be dressed
out with a hat and white feather.
"Our taste so much pleased the Squire that he insisted on being
put in as one of the family, in the character of Alexander the
Great, at Olivia's feet. This was considered by us all as an
indication of his desire to be introduced into the family; nor
could we refuse his request. The painter was therefore set to
work; and as he wrought with assiduity and expedition, in less
than four days the whole was completed. The piece was large; and
it must be owned he did not spare his colours; for which my wife
gave him great encomiums.
"We were all perfectly satisfied with his performance; but an
unfortunate circumstance had not occurred until the picture was
finished, which now struck us with dismay. It was so very large,
that we had no place in the house to fix it. How we all came to
disregard so material a point is inconceivable; but certain it
is, we had been all greatly remiss. The picture, therefore,
instead of gratifying our
 vanity, as we hoped, leaned, in a most
mortifying manner, against the kitchen wall, where the canvas was
stretched and painted, much too large to be got through any of
the doors, and the jest of all our neighbours. One compared it
to Robinson Crusoe's long-boat, too large to be removed; another
thought it more resembled a reel in a bottle; some wondered how
it could be got out, but still more were amazed how it ever got
For the rest of the troubles and adventures of the good Vicar and
his family you must go to the book itself. In the end all comes
right, and we leave the Vicar surrounded by his family with Dick
and Bill sitting on his knee. "I had nothing now this side the
grave to wait for," he says; "all my cares were over; my pleasure
was unspeakable." Even if you do not at first understand all of
this book I think it will repay you to read it, for on almost
every page you will find touches of gentle humor. We feel that
no one but a man of simple childlike heart could have written
such a book, and when we have closed it we feel better and
happier for having read it.
But delightful though we find the Vicar of Wakefield, the
bookseller who bought it did not think highly enough of it to
publish it at once. Meanwhile Goldsmith published a poem called
The Traveller. His own wanderings on the Continent gave him the
subject for this poem, for Goldsmith, like Milton, put something
of himself into all his best works. The Traveller was such a
success that the bookseller though it worth while to publish the
Vicar of Wakefield.
Goldsmith was now famous, but he was still poor. He lived in a
miserable garret doing all manner of literary work for bread.
Among the things he wrote was a play called The Good Natured Man.
It was a success, and brought him in 500 pounds.
Goldsmith now left his garret, took a fine set of rooms,
 furnished them grandly, and gave dinner-parties and card-parties
to his friends. These were the days of Goldy's splendor. He no
longer footed it in the great world in rust black and tarnished
gold, but in blue silk breeches, and coat with silken linings and
golden buttons. He dined with great people; he strutted in
innocent vanity, delighted to shine in the world, to see and be
seen, although in Johnson's company he could never really shine.
Sam was a great talker, and it was said Goldsmith "wrote like an
angel and spoke like poor Poll." His friends called him Doctor,
although where he took his medical degree no one knows, and he
certainly had no other degree given to him as an honor as Johnson
had. So Johnson was Dr. major, Goldsmith only Dr. minor.
But soon these days of wealth were over; soon Goldsmith's money
was all spent, and once again he had to sit down to grinding
work. He wrote many things, but the next great work he published
was another poem, The Deserted Village.
The Deserted Village, like The Traveller, is written in the
heroic couplet which, since the days of Dryden, had held its
ground as the best form of English poetry. In these poems the
couplet has reached its very highest level, for although his
rimes are smooth and polished Goldsmith has wrought into them
something of tender grace and pathos which sets them above the
diamond-like glitter of Pope's lines. His couplets are
transformed by the Celtic touch.
The poem tells the story of a village which had once been happy
and flourishing, but which is now quite deserted and fallen to
ruins. The village is thought by some people to have been
Lissoy, where Oliver had lived as a boy, but others think this
cannot be, for they say no Irish village was ever so peaceful and
industrious as Goldsmith pictures his village to have been. But
we must remember that
 the poet had not seen his home since
childhood, and that he looked back upon it through the golden
haze of memory. It is in this poem that we have the picture of
Oliver's old schoolmaster which I have already given you. Here,
too, we have a picture of the kindly village parson who may be
taken both from Oliver's father and from his brother Henry.
Probably he had his brother most in mind, for Henry Goldsmith had
but lately died, "and I loved him better than most other men,"
said the poet sadly in the dedication of this poem—
"Near yonder copse, where once the garden smiled,
And still where many a garden flower grows wild;
There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,
The village preacher's modest mansion rose.
A man he was to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year;
Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Nor e'er had changed, nor wish'd to change, his place:
Unpractis'd he to fawn, or seek for power,
By doctrines fashion'd to the varying hour;
Far other aims his heart had learn'd to prize,
More skill'd to raise the wretched than to rise.
His house was known to all the vagrant train;
He chid their wand'rings, but relieved their pain:
The long-remember'd beggar was his guest,
Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;
The ruin'd spendthrift, now no longer proud,
Claim'd kindred there, and had his claims allow'd;
The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,
Sat by his fire, and talk'd the night away,
Wept o'er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,
Shoulder'd his crutch, and shoed how fields were won.
Pleased with his guests, the good man learn'd to glow,
And quite forgot their vices in their woe;
Careless their merits or their faults to scan,
His pity gave ere charity began.
Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,
And ev'n his failings lean'd to virtue's side;
But in his duty prompt, at every call,
He watch'd and wept, he pray'd and felt for all;
At church, with meek and unaffected grace,
His looks adorn'd the venerable place;
Truth from his lips prevail'd with double sway,
And fools, who came to scoff, remain'd to pray.
The service past, around the pious man,
With steady zeal, each honest rustic ran;
Ev'n children followed with endearing wile,
And pluck'd his gown, to share the good man's smile.
His ready smile a parent's warmth exprest;
Their welfare pleased him, and their cares distrest:
To them his heart, his love, his griefs were given,
But all his serious thoughts had rest in heaven.
As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form,
Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread,
Eternal sunshine settles on its head."
Goldsmith's last great work was a comedy named She Stoops to
Conquer. It is said that the idea for this play was given to him
by something which happened to himself when a boy.
The last time that Goldsmith returned home from school he made
his journey on horseback. The horse was borrowed or hired, but
he had a guinea in his pocket, and he felt very grown up and
grand. He had to spend one night on the way, and as evening came
on he asked a passing stranger to direct him to the best house,
meaning the best in the neighborhood. The stranger happened to
be the village wag, and seeing the schoolboy swagger, and the
manly airs of sixteen, he, in fun, directed him to the squire's
house. There the boy arrived, handed over his horse with a
lordly air to a groom, marched into the house and ordered supper
and a bottle of wine. In the manner of the times in drinking his
wine he invited his landlord to join him as a real grown-up man
might have done. The squire saw the joke and fell in with it,
and not until next morning did the boy discover his mistake.
 The comedy founded on this adventure was a great success, and no
wonder, for it bubbles over with fun and laughter. Some day you
will read the play, perhaps too, you may see it acted, for it is
still sometimes acted. In any case it makes very good reading.
But Goldsmith did not long enjoy the new fame this comedy brought
him. In the spring of 1774, less than a year after it appeared,
the kindly spendthrift author lay dead. He was only forty-five.
The beginning of Goldsmith's life had been a struggle with
poverty; the end was a struggle with debt. By his writing he
made what was in those days a good deal of money, but he could
not keep it. To give him money was like pouring water into a
sieve. "Is your mind at ease," asked his doctor as he lay dying.
"No, it is not," answered Goldsmith. Those were his last words.
"Of poor dear Dr. Goldsmith," wrote Johnson, "there is little to
be told more than the papers have made public. He died of a
fever, made, I am afraid, more violent by uneasiness of mind.
His debts began to be heavy, and all his resources were
exhausted. Sir Joshua
is of opinion that he owed not less than
two thousand pounds. Was ever poet so trusted before?"
Goldsmith was buried in the graveyard of the Temple church, but
his tomb is unmarked, and where he lies no one knows. His
sorrowing friends, however, placed a tablet to his memory in
Westminster, so that his name at least is recorded upon the roll
of the great dead who lie gathered there.
BOOK TO READ
The Vicar of Wakefield (Everyman's Library).