Monday 15 August 2011

Goldsmith Season: Why I Love Oliver Goldsmith

Poor Oliver Goldsmith, he has spent his entire life and posthumous reputation in Samuel Johnson’s shadow and it’s easy to see why. Samuel Johnson was a deeply complex man with a firm and muscular command of the English language. A writer of such strong and sensible moral force that I (personally) can’t find anyone to have written better on the subject since. A man who wrote the authoritative dictionary in English (that retained that position for over one hundred years) almost single-handedly and a man with so many quotable nuggets that he is second only to the Bible in entries in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Add to this, Samuel Johnson was well served by three biographies, including Boswell’s, one of the most influential biographies in English and where most people get an introduction to the character of Oliver Goldsmith, where he serves as the clown.
But Goldsmith is a fantastic writer himself. He might have less moral weight then Johnson, but he is far more readable and entertaining. Even his contemporaries, who found him a rather laughable person, admired the clarity and pleasurableness of his writing. Goldsmith made a lot his money by creating ‘compilations’, where he would read and condense research on a subject in a way that was entertaining and vivid. His compilations of the histories of Greece and Rome were standard school textbooks for nearly the same length of time that Johnson’s was the standard dictionary.
His essays collections, ‘The Bee’ and ‘The Citizen of the World’ are still enjoyable today, especially the latter. Where Johnson’s essays are powerful calls to moral arms, Goldsmiths are largely light, silly pieces about some very contemporary issue. What is incredible is that Goldsmith’s eye for the universal human detail means that these essays can still make a reader laugh. 
Goldsmith’s novel ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ was read throughout the nineteenth century as a masterful example of the sentimental novel - this reputation has harmed it’s readership in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, it seems pretty clear to a modern reader that Goldsmith is actually taking a very arch look at the beliefs of sentimentalism, and there is a cut and thrust in the book that is very appealing to today’s reader.
Add to this his plays and poems. Although his longer poems do not do much for me, they are rather dry and plainly descriptive (though were actually the making of his reputation in his day) the unfinished poem ‘Retribution’ is a hilariously snarky look at his friends - where he creates a humorous epitaph for each one. His short poems, and little off the cuff things are also funny and often quite silly. His plays, still performed today were part of an attack against polite comedy and for what Goldsmith called ‘laughing’ comedy - though to my shame I have yet to see any, so I can’t comment.
Finally, the person of Goldsmith is so appealing. A man who was honest about his tendency to feel jealous about other people, who made jokes about this tendency. Who knew that the way to make people laugh was to start with himself. A man who had this to say about himself, “An ugly and a poor man is society only for himself and such society the world let’s me enjoy in great abundance...I may sit down and laugh at the world, and at myself - the most ridiculous object in it.”
Maybe my love for Goldsmith is something more primal and hiding behind admiration for his writing. Maybe us poor, ugly and ridiculous people need to search each other out through time, bundle together and admire each other - because no one else will do it for us.


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