The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 18. More Compilation
Meanwhile, he went on with a fresh course of that compilation which paid better than masterpieces. He edited Poems for Young Ladies and Beauties of English Poesy; he wrote An English Grammar; he translated A History of Philosophy. But, towards the close of 1766, his larger ambitions again began to bestir themselves, and, this time, in the direction of the stage, with all its prospects of payment at sight. Already we have seen, he had essayed a tragedy, which, if it were based or modelled on his favourite Voltaire, was, probably, no great loss. His real vocation was comedy; and, on comedy, his ideas were formed, having been, in great measure, expressed in the Enquiry and in other of his earlier writings. He held that comic art involved comic situations; he deplored the substitution for humour and character of “delicate distresses” and superfine emotion; and he heartily despised the finicking, newfangled variation of the French drame sérieux which, under the name of “genteel” or “sentimental” comedy, had gradually gained ground in England. At this moment, its advocates were active and powerful, while the defenders of the old order were few and feeble. But, in 1766, The Clandestine Marriage of Garrick and Colman seemed to encourage some stronger counterblast to the lachrymose craze; and Goldsmith began slowly to put together a piece on the approved method of Vanbrugh and Farquhar, tempered freely with his own gentler humour and wider humanity. He worked on his Good-Natur’d Man diligently at intervals during 1766, and, in the following year, it was completed. Its literary merits, as might be expected, were far above the average; it contained two original characters, the pessimist Croaker and the pretender Lofty; and, following the precedent of Fielding, it borrowed the material of one of its most effective scenes from those “absurdities of the vulgar” which its author held to be infinitely more diverting than the affected vagaries of so-called high life. The thing was to get it acted.