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"It seems rational to hope,' says Johnson in the Life of Savage, that minds qualified for great attainments should first
⚫ endeavour their own benefit; and that they who are most able to teach others the way to happiness, should with most ⚫ certainty follow it themselves: but this expectation, however plausible, has been very frequently disappointed.' Perhaps not so frequently as the earnest biographer imagined. Much depends on what we look to for our benefit, much on what we follow as the way to happiness. It may not be for the one, and may have led us far out of the way of the other, that we had acted on the world's estimate of worldly success, and to that directed our endeavour.' So might we ourselves have blocked up the path, which it was our hope to have pointed out to others; and, in the straits of a selfish profit, made wreck of 'great attainments.'
OLIVER GOLDSMITH, whose Life and Adventures should be known to all who know his writings, must be held to have succeeded in nothing that the world would have had him succeed in. He was intended for a clergyman, and was rejected
when he applied for orders; he practised as a physician, and never made what would have paid for a degree. The world did not ask him to write, but he wrote and paid the penalty. His existence was a continued privation. The days were few, in which he had resources for the night, or dared to look forward to the morrow. There was not any miserable want, in the long and sordid catalogue, which in its turn and in all its bitterness he did not feel. The experience of those to whom he makes affecting reference in his Animated Nature, people who die really of hunger, in common language of a 'broken heart,' was his own. And when he succeeded at the last, success was but a feeble sunshine on a rapidly approaching decay, which was to lead him, by its flickering and uncertain light, to an early grave.
Self-benefit seems out of the question here: the way to happiness, distant indeed from this. But if we look a little closer, we shall see that he passes through it all without one enduring stain upon the childlike purity of his heart. Much misery vanishes when that is known: when it is remembered too, that in spite of it, a Vicar of Wakefield was written; nay, that without it, in all human probability, a Vicar of Wakefield could not have been written. Fifty-six years after its author's death, a great German thinker, and wise man, recounted to a friend how much he had been indebted to the celebrated
Irishman. It is not to be described,' wrote Goethe to Zelter, in 1830, the effect that Goldsmith's Vicar had upon me, just
at the critical moment of mental development. That lofty
and benevolent irony, that fair and indulgent view of all
infirmities and faults, that meekness under all calamities, that equanimity under all changes and chances, and the 'whole train of kindred virtues, whatever names they bear, 'proved my best education; and in the end,' he added with sound philosophy, these are the thoughts and feelings which I have reclaimed us from all the errors of life.'
And why were they so enforced in that charming book, but because the writer had undergone them all; because they had reclaimed himself, not from the world's errors only, but also from its suffering and care; and because his own Life and Adventures had been the same chequered and beautiful romance of the triumph of good over evil.
Though what is called worldly success, then, was not attained by Goldsmith, it may be that the way to happiness was not missed wholly. The sincere and sad biographer of Savage, might have profited by the example. His own 'benefit' he had not successfully endeavoured,' when the gloom of his early life embittered life to the last, and the trouble he had endured was made excuse for a sorrowful philosophy, and for manners that were an outrage to the kindness of his heart. Goldsmith had borne what Johnson bore. Of the calamities to which the literary life is subject,
'Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the gaol,'
none had been spared to him. But they found him, and left him, gentle; and though the discipline that taught him charity had little contributed to his social ease, by unfeigned sincerity and unaffected simplicity of heart he diffused every social
enjoyment. When his conduct least agreed with his writings, these characteristics failed him not. What he gained, was the gain of others; what he lost, concerned only himself; he suffered, but he never inflicted, pain. Insensibility was what he wanted most; and it is amazing to think how small an amount of it would have exalted Doctor Goldsmith's position in the literary circles of his day. He lost caste because he could not acquire it. He could not assume the habit of indifference, or trade upon the gravity of his own repute. Admirers in a room, whom his entrance had struck with ' awe,' might be seen riding out upon his back.' It was hard, he said to Reynolds, that literary fame should intercept people's liking and fondness; and for this, no doubt, he forfeited much dignity and fame. He is an inspired idiot,' cried Walpole. He does not know the difference of a turkey from 'a goose,' said Cumberland. 'Sir,' shouted Johnson, 'he 'knows nothing. He has made up his mind about nothing.' Few cared to think or speak of him but as little Goldy, honest Goldy; and every one laughed at him for the oddity of his blunders, and the awkwardness of his manners.
But I invite the reader to his Life and Adventures. No uninstructive explanation of all this may possibly await us there. We will together review the scene, and move among its actors as they play their parts.