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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

§ 25. Goldsmith’s personality and literary genius

Goldsmith’s physical likeness must be sought between the idealised portrait painted by Reynolds early in 1770, and the semi-grotesque “head” by Bunbury prefixed to the post-humous issue in 1776 of The Haunch of Venison. As to his character, it has suffered a little from the report of those to whom, like Walpole, Garrick, Hawkins and Boswell, his peculiarities were more apparent than his genius; though certain things must be admitted because he admits them himself. Both early and late, he confesses to a trick of blundering, a slow and hesitating utterance, an assumed pomposity which looked like self-importance. He had also a distinct brogue which he cultivated rather than corrected. But as to “talking like poor Poll,” the dictum requires qualification. It is quite intelligible that, in the dominating presence of Johnson, whose magisterial manner overrode both Burke and Gibbon, Goldsmith, who was twenty years younger, whose wit reached its flashing point but fitfully, and who was easily disconcerted in argument, should not have appeared at his best, though there were cases when, to use a colloquialism, he “got home” even on the great man himself—witness the happy observation that Johnson would make the little fishes of fable-land talk like whales. But evidence is not wanting that Goldsmith could converse delightfully in more congenial companies. With respect to certain other imputed shortcomings—the love of fine clothes, for instance—the most charitable explanation is the desire to extenuate physical deficiencies, inseparable from a morbid self-consciousness; while, as regards his extravagance, something should be allowed for the accidents of his education, and for the canker of poverty which had eaten into his early years. And it must be remembered that he would give his last farthing to any plausible applicant, and that he had the kindest heart in the world.

As a literary man, what strikes one most is the individuality—the intellectual detachment of his genius. He is a standing illustration of Boswell’s clever contention that the fowls running about the yard are better flavoured than those which are fed in coops. He belonged to no school; he formed none. If, in his verse, we find traces of Addison or Prior, of Lesage or Fielding in his novel, of Farquhar or Cibber in his comedies, those traces are in the pattern and not in the stuff. The stuff is Goldsmith—Goldsmith’s philosophy, Goldsmith’s heart, Goldsmith’s untaught grace, simplicity, sweetness. He was but forty-six when he died; and he was maturing to the last. Whether his productive period had ceased, whether, with a longer span, he would have gone higher—may be doubted. But, notwithstanding a mass of hackwork which his faculty of lucid exposition almost raised to a fine art, he contrived, even in his short life, to leave behind him some of the most finished didactic poetry in the language; some unsurpassed familiar verse; a series of essays ranking only below Lamb’s; a unique and original novel; and a comedy which, besides being readable, is still acted to delighted audiences. He might have lived longer and done less; but at least he did not live long enough to fall below his best.