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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IX. Oliver Goldsmith

§ 11. An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe and its Reception

Anonymous or pseudonymous, Marteilhe’s Memoirs had little effect on Goldsmith’s fortunes; and the twenty pounds he received for the MS. in January, 1758, must have been quickly spent, for he was shortly at Peckham again, vaguely hoping that his old master would procure him a medical appointment on a foreign station. It was, no doubt, to obtain funds for his outfit that he began to plan his next book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, for we find him in this year soliciting subscriptions from his friends in Ireland. When, at last, the nomination arrived, it was merely that of physician to a Coromandel factory. What was worse, for some obscure reason, it came to nothing; and his next move was to present himself at Surgeons’ hall—like Smollett’s Roderick Random—as a ship’s hospital mate, with the result that, in December, he was rejected as “not qualified.” To put the seal on his embarrassments, this new effort involved him in fresh difficulties with his former employer, Griffiths, who had helped him to appear in decent guise before the examiners—difficulties from which he only extricated himself with much humiliation by engaging to write a life of Voltaire.

We next find him domiciled at 12 Green Arbour court, Little Old Bailey, where, in March, 1759, Percy, who had recently made his acquaintance through Grainger of The Sugar Cane, one of the staff of The Monthly Review, paid him a visit. He discovered him in a miserable room, correcting the proofs of his Enquiry, which appeared in the following month. For a small duodecimo of two hundred pages, it is, beyond doubt, ambitiously labelled. The field was too wide for so brief a survey; and, although the author professed that his sketch was mostly “taken upon the spot,” it was obvious that he was imperfectly equipped for his task. What he had himself seen he described freshly and forcibly; and what he knew of the conditions of letters in England he depicted with feeling. He might talk largely of the learning of “Luitprandus” and the “philological performances” of Constantinus Afer; but what touched him more nearly was the mercantile avidity and sordid standards of the London bookseller, the hungry rancour of the venal writers in his pay, the poverty of the poets, the slow rewards of genius. Perhaps the most interesting features of the Enquiry are, primarily, that it is Goldsmith’s earliest original work; and, next, that it is wholly free from that empty orotundity, that “didactic stiffness of wisdom,” which his French models had led him to regard as the crying sin of his English contemporaries. To be “dull and dronish,” he held, was “an encroachment on the prerogative of a folio.” “The most diminutive son of fame, or of famine, has his we and his us, his firstlys and his secondlys as methodical as if bound in cowhide, and closed with clasps of brass.” On the whole, the little book was well received, notwithstanding its censure of the two leading Reviews, and the fact that the chapter “Of the Stage,” enforcing, as it did, Ralph’s earlier Case of Authors by Profession gave Garrick lasting offence—a circumstance to which may be traced not only some of Goldsmith’s later dramatic difficulties, but that popular “poor Poll” couplet of which the portable directness rather than the truth has done much wrong to Goldsmith’s reputation. To be as easily remembered as a limerick is no small help to a malicious epigram.