The Letters of Oliver Goldsmith, Michael Griffin and David O’Shaughnessy (eds), Cambridge University Press, 232 pp, £64.99, ISBN: 978-1107093539
The publication of Oliver Goldsmith’s letters in a new and definitive edition provides an opportunity to explore how and why Goldsmith should be read today. Locating him in any ready framework is no easy task, but the very complexity of his background in Ireland, of his social and political outlook and of his versatile oeuvre adds to the fascination which continues to attract scholars. Readers, however, have simply loved his graceful facility with the pen and his comic and satirical genius. He has never been out of print and has a claim to be among the most beloved of writers. His readers love “sipping at the honey-pot of his mind” to co-opt a phrase Yeats applied to him. Goldsmith studies in the last half-century or so have added greatly to our understanding of his writings and, as a result, readers today may have their perceptions radically challenged compared with how he was read, say, in the nineteenth century or well into the twentieth. It is valuable to explore how this deeper appreciation has occurred and is continuing to occur in the critical attention paid to Goldsmith.
The famous Latin epitaph to Goldsmith in Westminster Abbey, translated, reads in part:
“Poet, Naturalist, Historian,
who left scarcely any kind of writing
and touched nothing that he did not adorn:
whether smiles were to be stirred
commanding our emotions, yet a gentle master:
In genius lofty, lively, versatile,
In style weighty, clear, engaging-“
This tribute, composed by Dr Samuel Johnson, is what his best friends and companions wished to record about Goldsmith. He was indeed a genius, who wrote masterpieces in poetry such as The Traveller and The Deserted Village, plays such as She Stoops to Conquer and The Good-Natured Man, the novel The Vicar of Wakefield and essays, particularly The Citizen of the World. The Vicar is the world’s most illustrated novel in English, as the Kirby Collection of over 250 different editions, now held in Co Westmeath Library, demonstrates. Goldsmith’s versatility extended to histories, such as his two Histories of England and the Roman History, and to natural history such as his An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. Ralph M Wardle’s now somewhat dated biography, published in 1957, concludes correctly that his “cumulative achievement in criticism, the essay, biography, history, the novel, poetry, and drama entitles him to be honoured as the most versatile genius of all English literature”. Goldsmith’s transition from hack journalist and reviewer to his celebrity status in the 1760s has been deftly explored by Norma Clarke in Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (2016) and by Richard C Taylor in Goldsmith as Journalist (1993). Here Goldsmith appears quite different: angrier, tougher, more obviously Irish and more coherently serious. Clarke observes that “all the evidence suggests that Goldsmith was a shrewd operator, a survivor with a ruthless streak, gifted with very broad-ranging abilities”.
Given the canonical status of his major works it is clear that Goldsmith has suffered from both being misunderstood and underestimated by both contemporaries and later commentators and critics. In 1974, GS Rousseau, editing Goldsmith The Critical Heritage, from 1764 to 1912, observed:
Goldsmith’s critical heritage is neither fruitful nor sanguine. It has preoccupied itself so consistently with the author’s personal weaknesses and so triflingly with his strictly literary attainments, that one wonders ‑ especially an editor ‑ whether the ‘heritage’ is worth compiling.
This indicates one major Goldsmith problem: the critical focus has been, until it began slowly to change from the 1920s, on his frequently misunderstood life rather than on his literary achievement in so many genres. Critics, until quite recently, have generally not encompassed his whole oeuvre or understood the different imperatives that gave rise to each of Goldsmith’s works. However, from the mid-twentieth century and, markedly from the 1960s, critical attention to Goldsmith’s achievements as a writer has begun to alter greatly the way in which we might read him today. Rousseau concluded his introduction by observing: “We today are just beginning to ask the right questions about these works.” In 1967 Ricardo Quintana, in his Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study rightly observed that it was “time that we concerned ourselves less with his ugly face, his awkward social presence, and more with the actual nature of his achievement as a writer”. In 1969 Robert H Hopkins did just that with his pioneering The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith, which identified Goldsmith as a master craftsman and a satiric and comic genius. Numerous more recent scholars, whose work is summarised by Samuel H Woods in his Oliver Goldsmith A Reference Guide (1982), which surveys writings up to 1978, helped to revise many aspects of Goldsmith’s work. Irish critics such as John Montague, WJ McCormack, Declan Kiberd and Seamus Deane have, from the 1970s, provided a wide range of often divergent views on Goldsmith’s writings, on his Irish background and on the mind which he brought to bear on the issues of his time.
There was an important Goldsmith bicentenary seminar over a week in “Goldsmith country” in 1974 at which some seminal papers were given especially an important one on Goldsmith’s Irish background by the late Dr JG Simms. This seminar sparked my own lifelong interest in Goldsmith’s “honey-pot mind”. Goldsmith, early in the 1980s, was the subject of an important RTÉ Thomas Davis Lectures series in which the late John Montague provided a very insightful study of Goldsmith’s poetry and Thomas Kilroy reflected on his plays: appropriately the published volume of the lectures is entitled Goldsmith: The Gentle Master, edited by Sean Lucy for Cork University Press (1984). Since 1985 the annual Goldsmith International Literary Festival in “Goldsmith country” has engaged a wide range of scholars, including Norma Clarke and Samuel H Woods, in reflecting on key themes found in the works. One of the editors of The Letters of Oliver Goldsmith, Michael Griffin, is a frequent speaker at the festival. He is the foremost Goldsmith scholar of our time and his Enlightenment in Ruins: The Geographies of Oliver Goldsmith (2013) has put Goldsmith studies on a new plane and greatly helps our fuller understanding both of the Enlightenment and of the Irish contexts shaping Goldsmith’s oeuvre.
Goldsmith – ‘the gentle master’ as recorded in his epitaph ‑ was perceived by Yeats in “The Seven Sages” as a founder of Anglo-Irish thought: one of the “four great minds” that hated “whiggery”: Goldsmith, Berkeley, Swift and Burke. In ‘”Blood and the Moon” Yeats speaks of “Goldsmith deliberately sipping at the honey-pot of his mind”. Whatever about the inaccurate Yeatsian uses of Goldsmith for ideological purposes, at least he was correct in one thing: Goldsmith hated “whiggery” ‑ which yields another Goldsmith problem concerning how best to understand the uses of the eighteenth century words whig and tory in the context of Goldsmith’s social and political outlook.
Goldsmith was a political writer in Orwell’s sense in that he wrote to push the world in a certain direction and to alter people’s ideas of the kind of society which they should strive to preserve. Goldsmith understood that satire’s business was, and is, to laugh the world into better shape. The major shift that we are required now to make as we read Goldsmith is one from the pervasive romantic and sentimental perspective from which his life and works were viewed by nineteenth writers to one which considers the literary, moral and political salience of his achievement. We do well to sip at the honey-pot of his mind: as we do, I believe, it will be found that Goldsmith’s personality and his classical works, authored in his own name, are more coherent and consistent. He remains very relevant to the issues which vex our own times. We now know that we should ignore Garrick’s mocking caricature that “he wrote like an angel but talked like poor Poll” and Horace Walpole’s “inspired idiot” slur.
It is in this more recent critical context that this superb edition of the letters appears. At last Trinity College Dublin, Goldsmith’s alma mater, honours him through the expertise of David O’Shaughnessy, associate professor of English, who is equipped to cast fresh light on Goldsmith’s varied contexts. Griffin and O’Shaughnessy are a formidable team and their work, given the complexities of Goldsmith studies, amounts to a significant breakthrough for Goldsmith scholarship.
There exists always a danger, given the impoverished critical heritage concerning Goldsmith which we have noted, that we refocus again mainly on the life rather than the works. The editors are alert to this danger and provide a fine introduction of over forty pages which places the works, which appeared in such a wide variety of genres, in the intellectual context of Goldsmith’s life insofar as it is prompted by the very small cache of letters available. We have known since Katherine C Balderston’s scholarly The Collected Letters of Oliver Goldsmith (1928) that Goldsmith’s surviving corpus of letters is relatively sparse for so famous a writer – Balderston had fifty-three and Griffin and O’Shaughnessy have increased this to sixty-six items. Unlike, say, Maria Edgeworth, who wrote letters which survive in their thousands, Goldsmith did not enjoy writing letters and many of those which survive are short indeed. Goldsmith’s letters in the 1760s became less effusive than those he had sent to family and friends when he first left Co Longford in the 1750s; when established in London he composed letters largely as or for favours, joking in 1764 that he never wrote a letter “except to a bookseller for money”. Griffin and O’Shaughnessy, however, provide for each letter comprehensive notes, many at considerable length, which provides illuminating detail and background especially helpful when reading the published works. This volume will be indispensable in the current more flourishing context for Goldsmith studies. It is good that the editors are working on editing a new Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, which will seek to expand and update the Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, edited by Arthur Friedman, published in five volumes in 1966: Friedman’s great contribution was to place the Goldsmith canon upon a new scholarly basis. We still await a major literary biography of Goldsmith which will take fully into account the relatively lately established and versatile canon, the relationships between the life and the works, and which will more accurately evaluate Goldsmith’s unique social, political and cultural contribution. Goldsmith made his contribution from a particular Irish and European Enlightenment context, shown by his love of Voltaire, for example, as well as from a broadly Christian humanist and “Tory’/Jacobite” perspective and each of these terms needs careful analysis. Such a biography presents a formidable challenge. One feels that Michael Griffin, aided by O’Shaughnessy, may well be the most accomplished Goldsmith scholar to attempt it.
It is somewhat ironic that so many critics have focused upon the quirky details of Goldsmith’s life when he himself lacked interest in his “biographical posterity” and indeed misled concerning his background, as Griffin and O’Shaughnessy note. However, in shaping Goldsmith’s mind certain biographical details are important to recover, as the editors do in their introduction. The “modest social class” of the Goldsmith’s family’s Protestantism involved little or no condescension to the Catholic culture which surrounded it in the Midlands. Goldsmith mixed easily and very sociably with his neighbours as a youth. The Goldsmith family were originally Roman Catholic and in Oliver’s time had been Protestant for less than a hundred years. Michael Griffin has identified the Jacobite strand in Goldsmith’s political outlook, noting that he was “a product of the cultural Jacobitism of the Irish midlands” and of the Swiftian patriotism which he absorbed in Dublin in the 1740s.
Laurence Whyte (d1753), born in “Goldsmith country” in the parish of Kilkenny West, Co Westmeath, is a key influence on Goldsmith: his published poems in 1740 and 1742, as Michael Griffin has demonstrated in his much needed critical edition of The Collected Poems of Laurence Whyte (Brucknell University Press, 2016) with their “pointed nostalgia for the fading culture and social integrity of rural Ireland” anticipates Goldsmith’s themes, notably in “The Deserted Village”. Whyte, like Goldsmith, “straddled the worlds of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish, of the rural midlands and the capital, of Catholic and Protestant”.
Goldsmith had an excellent knowledge of the classics, the sciences and of French; his facility with French was a bedrock of his professional work in translation and as reviewer in London as well as opening up for him the works of the French Enlightenment. In addition, his personal experiences in Europe provided a view from the underside of society, as he explains in his first published work, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759):
Countries wear very different appearances to travellers of different circumstances. A man who is whirled through Europe in a post chaise, and the pilgrim who walks the grand tour on foot, will form very different conclusions.
This awareness of “low life” and of the effects economic changes were having on the poorer classes is one key to his mind as reflected in his essays, such as “The Revolution in Low Life” and classically in “The Deserted Village”.
Goldsmith, like Samuel Johnson, was physically unattractive due in his case to a dose of smallpox which maimed him for life. Both Johnson and Goldsmith knew what it was to be penniless outsiders who were often socially isolated; hence, they appreciated friendship as they relished supportive colleagues most famously in the Club from 1764. Indeed, it worth noting the similarities between Johnson and Goldsmith: each started as hack-workers but knew that they had enormous literary talent. Neither had time for the claptrap of patriotism ‑ “the last refuge of the scoundrel” as Johnson put it ‑ because it was used by a Whig oligarchy as they exploited the colonies and the poor. They were both anti-imperialists at a time of unprecedented global expansion of the British empire. As “Tories” they tended to hate expensive colonial adventures which eroded freedom at home and abroad. Both believed constitutional monarchy to be preferable to the actual republican oligarchies Goldsmith had encountered on his travels. They felt monarchy was an institution which was singularly answerable when government was balanced between king, lords and commons.
The editors note the “tension between local attachment, national sentiment and cosmopolitanism” which infuses a great deal of Goldsmith’s writing, not least in his epistolary classic, The Citizen of the World (1762). This is where Griffin’s Enlightenment in Ruins exploration of what kind of Enlightenment figure Goldsmith became is so helpful. Goldsmith was “an enlightened anti-imperialist” grappling with the emerging modernity of the industrial and agricultural revolutions. His ethical universalism does not preclude cultural diversity or respect for diverse cultures existing on their own terms. He was interested in cultural comparison, and as Griffin observes “adept and accomplished at imaginative explorations of discrepancies between ways of thinking and being, between East and West, between Irish, Scottish, Dutch, English and French”.
In respect, then, of understanding Goldsmith’s outlook certain biographical details are important but it has been too easy for commentators to get side-tracked into the many colourful stories of his social “blunders” or his debts, arising from both his generosity and his extravagance: his various misadventures always make colourful copy. Boswell’s Life of Johnson enshrined a reading of Goldsmith as the simple foil to the great man, Johnson. No one knew Goldsmith better than Sir Joshua Reynolds, the leading portrait painter of the day. For the last ten years of Goldsmith’s life they were constantly together. Goldsmith dedicated “The Deserted Village” to Reynolds, who wrote a short portrait of his friend which was only published in 1952, having been discovered in 1940 in a stable-loft among the Boswell papers at Malahide Castle. It was published in Portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds as edited by Frederick W Hilles of Yale University. Reynolds relates in the 1770s that Goldsmith’s “genius is universally acknowledged” and he sought “to show what indeed is self-apparent, that such a genius could not be a fool or such a weak man as many people thought him”. Reynolds makes it clear that Goldsmith’s follies were not those of a fool but “proceeded from principle”. The three of Goldsmith’s contemporaries who knew him best, Reynolds, Johnson and Bishop Percy held a generally consistent view that he was a great writer and a great man, especially notable, as Percy remarked, for his compassion and generosity.
Goldsmith, as closely observed by Reynolds, was of a “sociable disposition”, with “a very strong desire” to be liked and to have his company sought after by his friends. The principle he followed in company, says Reynolds, was “that he abandoned his respectable character as a writer or a man of observation to that of a character which nobody was afraid of being humiliated” by. Of course, as Reynolds points out, Goldsmith came “late into the great world” and retained many of the old habits of his life among the lower classes – Reynolds calls them revealingly “mean people”. So, Goldsmith, as a sort of one-man entertainer, experimented in company with how to amuse his companions from time to time and, as Reynolds noted, ‘he was sought after with greediness’ by all who knew him:
No man’s company was ever more greedily sought after, for in his company the ignorant and illiterate were not only easy and free from any mortifying restraint, but even their vanity was gratified to find so admirable a writer so much upon a level, or inferior to themselves, in the arts of conversation.
Wherever Goldsmith was in company “the conversation was never known to languish” and when he was “in company with the philosophers, he was grave, wise and very inclinable to dispute established opinions”.
Goldsmith loved to tell a story or sing a song and his favourites were “Johnny Armstrong”, “Barbara Allen” and “Death and the Lady”. Hugh Shields has written an important article on “Oliver Goldsmith and Popular Song” not noted by Griffin and O’Shaughnessy (Long Room, No 26-27, 1983 and republished by Folk Music Society of Ireland in 1985). Goldsmith was no fool but a keen observer of character as his great poem “Retaliation” illustrates: he assesses his friends through character sketches poised between panegyric and satire all the while tempering his deep understanding with affection. Who can ever forget the apt lines on Edmund Burke:
Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such,
We scarcely can praise it, or blame it too much;
Who, born for the Universe, narrow’d his mind,
And to party gave up, what was meant for mankind.
Reynolds stresses that Goldsmith when writing “governed himself by an internal feeling of the right rather than by any written rules of art”. Indeed Goldsmith’s style is remarkable and he is a “real genius”, as Reynolds states, feeling “with great exactness” how to communicate with his readers: he was “never languid, tedious, or insipid” but always “sprightly and animated” and “he knew very well the art of captivating the attention of the reader, both by his choice of matter and the lively narration with which it is accompanied”.
It is important to support the Reynolds prose portrait of Goldsmith with what Boswell wrote in his journal after dining at General Oglethorpe’s with Johnson and Goldsmith, “so distinguished in literature” on April 10th, 1772, which he did not include in the Life of Johnson: “I felt a completion of happiness. I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind.” With this more authoritative evidence we begin to see Goldsmith’s literary talents and social personality merging into a coherent, comprehensible whole and perhaps are in a position to give greater attention to what he has to say in the classical works authored under his own name.
In their introduction Griffin and O’Shaughnessy twice refer to “peripheral Goldsmith” even as he approached the apex of his fame, having published The Traveller and The Vicar of Wakefield as well as ensuring his place at the top table of London’s literary world. He was indeed as they say “a man on the fringes” of his society and for a writer conscious of the underside of that society his “peripheral vision” is amongst the most valuable of his attributes. Goldsmith never sold his gifts as a writer to any party for advantage. His angle of vision was that of the alert outsider aware of the exploitation of the Whig nabobs and of the poverty which resulted. He was to an important extent the literary voice of the world drawn by Hogarth. He greatly admired Voltaire, as an enlightened model of the courageous independent writer who endures exile for his beliefs, and Goldsmith saw the role of the independent author “as a merciful substitute to the legislature. He acts, not by punishing crimes, but preventing them”; such an author finds “growing employment for ridicule or reproof, for persuasion or satire”. As he told the Earl of Northumberland, who offered to do him “any kindness”, he wished to have “no dependence on great men”. Writing to Mrs Jane Lawder, his cousin, in August 1758, he said: “Those who know me at all, know that I have always been actuated by different principles from the rest of Mankind, and while none regarded the interests of his friends more, no man on earth regarded his own less.”
Goldsmith wrote at precisely the turning point between the ancien regime and the modern world. The early phase of globalism was under way and Goldsmith was very conscious of the dehumanising effects of colonial expansion and the commercial, industrial and agricultural revolutions which were then at an early phase: the “love of gain” brought “convenience, plenty, elegance and arts’ but when “viewed closer” “craft and fraud appear” while liberty is bartered resulting in “a land of tyrants and a den of slaves” (The Traveller). Goldsmith is significant as a writer due to his sensitivity to such radical changes and his prophecy as to their effects. It is of note that John Montague entitled his important essay on him “The Sentimental Prophecy: A Study of The Deserted Village” (The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, ed Andrew Swarbrick, 1984). He judges this poem as probably “the most distinguished long poem by an Irishman”:
A song of exile from Lissoy, a protest against the Enclosure Acts and/or the new commercial oligarchy, a vision of the ills of Ireland: the poem does indeed answer partly to each of these descriptions.
Montague finds it to have “the force of a final statement, the culminating vision of that decay in his own time, which haunted him from his earliest essay, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning (1759) onwards”. Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, is, as Montague notes, “one of the first statements of a great modern theme: the erosion of traditional values [“the rural virtues”] and natural rhythms in a commercial society”. One thinks today of comparing him with a versatile modern writer such as Wendell Berry (b1934) the novelist, essayist and poet whose themes might well be described as Goldsmithian, especially the key theme concerning the erosion of the moral fabric of local communities. Goldsmith identified the evils of imperial greed in the first great anti-imperialistic poem of the period of England’s greatest imperial expansion. Montague was influenced greatly by Goldsmith particularly in writing The Rough Field.
It may puzzle us today that Goldsmith supported monarchy in order to protect freedom and a more equal society against the exploitation of the Whig oligarchy and the newly rich commercial interests. It may help us to note briefly what Boswell records in his Journal of a conversation between Edmund Burke and Goldsmith:
Goldsmith in high spirits: spoke of equality. Said Burke, ‘Here’s our monarchy man growing Republican. Oliver Cromwell, not Oliver Goldsmith.’ Said Goldsmith, ‘I’m for Monarchy to keep us equal.’
Goldsmith’s egalitarian views are expounded in chapter nineteen of The Vicar of Wakefield, where Dr Primrose advocates the equality of all as “the opinion of a set of honest men who were called Levellers”, recalling the radical group of the 1640s. Primrose argues that monarchy is a protection from exploitation by those who have accumulated wealth and power and upset a balanced constitution where all classes were justly treated. Goldsmith lamented the emerging order “where the laws grind the poor, and the rich govern the law”. This “Tory” attachment to the monarchy saw it as a key counterweight to the rapacious “Whig” factions who operated through patronage and corruption to control parliament in their own interest.
The letters which have survived, however few, give us access to Goldsmith’s “interior voice”, to use David O’Shaughnessy’s apt phrase, or as close as we can hope to get, at key moments of his intellectual development from his time at medical schools in Edinburgh and Leiden through his two decades of literary life in London. Goldsmith had spent about twenty-four years in Ireland before this and his Irish formation, and particularly his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin in the 1740s. were formative is so many ways. It is also important to recall that Goldsmith died in 1774 a relatively young man, in his mid-forties, in the midstream of his literary career. His experience as a poor jobless migrant is captured in his letter to his brother-in-law, Daniel Hodson, on December 27th, 1757:
You may Easily imagine what difficulties I had to encounter, left as I was without Friends, recommendations, money, or impudence and that in a Country where my being born an Irishman was sufficient to keep me unemploy’d. Many in such circumstances would have had recourse to the Friar’s cord, or suicide’s halter. But with all my follies I had principle to resist the one, and resolution to combat the other.
The letters give us a fuller sense of the difficulties of his daily grind and the true measure of his achievement and his hard work on so many literary tasks. He was always ready to help newly arrived Irish migrants and he was viewed as an Irish writer for other Irish writers of the period, who saw in him the goal they aspired to for themselves.
It is highly significant that Goldsmith, given his need for money, stayed out of the political pamphlet wars of the 1760s and never used his pen in the direct service of party or faction in return for patronage. His letter to Bennet Langton of September 4th, 1771 gives an indication of his hard work and his independence of his mind: Goldsmith was busy, having just written She Stoops to Conquer, finishing his natural history:
God knows I’m tired of this kind of kind of finishing, which is but bungling work, and that is not so much my fault as the fault of my scurvy circumstances. They begin to talk in town of the opposition’s gaining ground, the cry of Liberty is still as loud as ever. I have published or Davis has published for me an Abridgement of the History of England for which I have been a good deal abused in the newspapers for betraying the liberties of the people. God knows I had no thoughts of being for or against liberty in my head. My whole aim being to make up a book of a decent size that as Squire Richard would say would do no harm to nobody. However they set me down as an arrant Tory and consequently no honest man. When you come to look at any part of it you’l say that I am a soure Whig.
Goldsmith was neither “an arrant Tory” nor a “sour Whig”: John Lucas (in Oliver Goldsmith Selected Writings, 1988) has indeed questioned to what extent he was an unquestioning Tory monarchist. The episode where Goldsmith was approached at the end of the 1760s, noted by A Lytton Sells in his Oliver Goldsmith: His Life and Works, to write on behalf of the North government reports him as saying: “I can earn as much as will supply my wants without writing for any party; the assistance you offer, is unnecessary to me.” His “Tory monarchism” had its limits and he was not going to be manoeuvred into a position that would make him a tame “English” writer for patronage and party.
Goldsmith’s four-volume History of England, published in 1771, went through twelve editions in the following fifty years and twice as many in the one-volume abridgement he later published. As Griffin and O’Shaughnessy note, his history-writing stands in need of critical attention given the great popularity it achieved and that it was completed when figures such as David Hume and Tobias Smollett contested the market. It will be important in any scholarly assessment of his historical works to consider the ways in which Goldsmith relates aspects of Irish history in the context of British history.
Goldsmith’s political sentiments remain pertinent. It should not be forgotten that Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) set out an extensive treatment of the need for moral values that ought to frame the market in which self-seeking and the profit motive dominate: humanitarian concerns, justice, generosity and public spirit in the public sphere ought to form the context for the market more famously analysed in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The “social emotions” are needed to frame the “selfish passions”, to use Smith’s phrases, which are very apt in respect of what Goldsmith believed. As Roger Lonsdale has pointed out, Goldsmith’s true concern in poems such as The Traveller is with “moral landscapes” rather than geographical ones. Donald Davie has described The Traveller as “the most caustic indictment of the world of ‘free enterprise’, unstructured and unrestricted competitiveness, the morality of the market ‑ in ideas, in status, and in feelings, as well as commodities”. (“Notes on Goldsmith’s Politics” in The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, ed Andrew Swarbrick, 1984).
The salience of Goldsmith’s social and political sentiments was not lost on the late Tony Judt when he wrote his tract for our times with the title taken from The Deserted Village: Ill Fares The Land: A Treatise On Our Present Discontents. Goldsmith has a universal message, especially in our age of globalism accompanied by widespread popular discontent. He was alert to the “ties that bind and sweeten life” and the need for what we today might term “social capital” – the norms and values that enable humankind to co-operate and flourish. His concern for social justice is woven into his masterpieces as well as his essays. He wrote an essay “On Justice and Generosity” as editor of The Bee in October 1759 in which he says:
Mankind in general are not sufficiently acquainted with the import of the word justice: it is commonly believed to consist only in a performance of those duties to which the laws of society can oblige us … but there is a justice still more extensive, and which can be shown to embrace all the virtues united.
Justice may be defined to be that virtue which impels us to give to every person what is his due. In this extended sense of the word, it comprehends the practice of every virtue which reason prescribes, or society should expect. Our duty to our Maker, to each other, and to ourselves, are fully answered, if we give them what we owe them. Thus justice, properly speaking, is the only virtue, and all the rest have their origin in it.
Goldsmith spoke in an essay, “The Indigent Philosopher, The Author’s Motives for Writing” (Lloyd’s Evening Post, January 1762) of making “truth wear the face of entertainment”. He achieved this as comic satirist and as a “gentle master” of the literary arts. Let us continue to “sip at the honey-pot of his mind” for our enjoyment but also to learn important lessons about our well-being and our well-doing.
Dr Fergus O’Ferrall, author and historian, has addressed the Goldsmith International Literary Festival on three occasions, a number of which have been published: “‘Rethinking Home’: the Search for a New Vision For Rural Ireland”, Studies Vol.105 No.420, Winter 2016/17, pp 469-488, which draws upon Goldsmith, Heaney and Kavanagh and “Reflections on Goldsmith and Politics” in Teathbha, Journal of the County Longford Society, Vol. 3, No IV, 2011, pp.30-34; he has contributed to the Dublin Review of Books on a number of topics.