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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGoldsmith - Chapter 9. The Traveller
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Goldsmith - Chapter 9. The Traveller Post by :Joe_Coon Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1259

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Goldsmith - Chapter 9. The Traveller


This poem of the _Traveller_, the fruit of much secret labour and the consummation of the hopes of many years, was lying completed in Goldsmith's desk when the incident of the arrest occurred; and the elder Newbery had undertaken to publish it. Then, as at other times, Johnson lent this wayward child of genius a friendly hand. He read over the proof-sheets for Goldsmith; was so kind as to put in a line here or there where he thought fit; and prepared a notice of the poem for the _Critical Review_. The time for the appearance of this new claimant for poetical honours was propitious. "There was perhaps no point in the century," says Professor Masson, "when the British Muse, such as she had come to be, was doing less, or had so nearly ceased to do anything, or to have any good opinion of herself, as precisely about the year 1764. Young was dying; Gray was recluse and indolent; Johnson had long given over his metrical experimentations on any except the most inconsiderable scale; Akenside, Armstrong, Smollett, and others less known, had pretty well revealed the amount of their worth in poetry; and Churchill, after his ferocious blaze of what was really rage and declamation in metre, though conventionally it was called poetry, was prematurely defunct. Into this lull came Goldsmith's short but carefully finished poem." "There has not been so fine a poem since Pope's time," remarked Johnson to Boswell, on the very first evening after the return of young Auchinleck to London. It would have been no matter for surprise had Goldsmith dedicated this first work that he published under his own name to Johnson, who had for so long been his constant friend and adviser; and such a dedication would have carried weight in certain quarters. But there was a finer touch in Goldsmith's thought of inscribing the book to his brother Henry; and no doubt the public were surprised and pleased to find a poor devil of an author dedicating a work to an Irish parson with L40 a year, from whom he could not well expect any return. It will be remembered that it was to this brother Henry that Goldsmith, ten years before, had sent the first sketch of the poem; and now the wanderer,

"Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow."

declares how his heart untravelled

"Still to my brother turns, with ceaseless pain,
And drags at each remove a lengthening chain."

The very first line of the poem strikes a key-note--there is in it a pathetic thrill of distance, and regret, and longing; and it has the soft musical sound that pervades the whole composition. It is exceedingly interesting to note, as has already been mentioned, how Goldsmith altered and altered these lines until he had got them full of gentle vowel sounds. Where, indeed, in the English language could one find more graceful melody than this?--

"The naked negro, panting at the line,
Boasts of his golden sands and palmy wine,
Basks in the glare, or stems the tepid wave,
And thanks his gods for all the good they gave."

It has been observed also that Goldsmith was the first to introduce into English poetry sonorous American--or rather Indian--names, as when he writes in this poem,

"Where wild Oswego spreads her swamps around,
And Niagara stuns with thundering sound,"

--and if it be charged against him that he ought to have known the proper accentuation of Niagara, it may be mentioned as a set-off that Sir Walter Scott, in dealing with his own country, mis-accentuated "Glenaladale," to say nothing of his having made of Roseneath an island. Another characteristic of the _Traveller is the extraordinary choiceness and conciseness of the diction, which, instead of suggesting pedantry or affectation, betrays on the contrary nothing but a delightful ease and grace.

The English people are very fond of good English; and thus it is that couplets from the _Traveller and the _Deserted Village have come into the common stock of our language, and that sometimes not so much on account of the ideas they convey, as through their singular precision of epithet and musical sound. It is enough to make the angels weep, to find such a couplet as this--

"Cheerful at morn, he wakes from short repose,
Breasts the keen air, and carols as he goes,"

murdered in several editions of Goldsmith's works by the substitution of the commonplace "breathes" for "breasts"--and that, after Johnson had drawn particular attention to the line by quoting it in his Dictionary. Perhaps, indeed, it may be admitted that the literary charm of the _Traveller is more apparent than the value of any doctrine, however profound or ingenious, which the poem was supposed to inculcate. We forget all about the "particular principle of happiness" possessed by each European state, in listening to the melody of the singer, and in watching the successive and delightful pictures that he calls up before the imagination.

"As in those domes where Caesars once bore sway,
Defaced by time, and tottering in decay,
There in the ruin, heedless of the dead,
The shelter-seeking peasant builds his shed;
And, wondering man could want the larger pile,
Exults, and owns his cottage with a smile."

Then notice the blaze of patriotic idealism that bursts forth when he comes to talk of England. What sort of England had he been familiar with when he was consorting with the meanest wretches--the poverty stricken, the sick, and squalid--in those Fleet-Street dens? But it is an England of bright streams and spacious lawns of which he writes; and as for the people who inhabit the favoured land--

"Stern o'er each bosom reason holds her state,
With daring aims irregularly great;
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by."

"Whenever I write anything," Goldsmith had said, with a humorous exaggeration which Boswell, as usual, takes _au serieux_, "the public _make a point to know nothing about it." But we have Johnson's testimony to the fact that the _Traveller "brought him into high reputation." No wonder. When the great Cham declares it to be the finest poem published since the time of Pope, we are irresistibly forced to think of the _Essay on Man_. What a contrast there is between that tedious and stilted effort, and this clear burst of bird-song! The _Traveller_, however, did not immediately become popular. It was largely talked about, naturally, among Goldsmith's friends; and Johnson would scarcely suffer any criticism of it. At a dinner given long afterwards at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, and fully reported by the invaluable Boswell, Reynolds remarked, "I was glad to hear Charles Fox say it was one of the finest poems in the English language." "Why were you glad?" said Langton. "You surely had no doubt of this before?" Hereupon Johnson struck in: "No; the merit of the _Traveller is so well established, that Mr. Fox's praise cannot augment it, nor his censure diminish it." And he went on to say--Goldsmith having died and got beyond the reach of all critics and creditors some three or four years before this time "Goldsmith was a man who, whatever he wrote, did it better than any other man could do. He deserved a place in Westminster Abbey; and every year he lived would have deserved it better."

Presently people began to talk about the new poem. A second edition was issued; a third; a fourth. It is not probable that Goldsmith gained any pecuniary benefit from the growing popularity of the little book; but he had "struck for honest fame," and that was now coming to him. He even made some slight acquaintance with "the great;" and here occurs an incident which is one of many that account for the love that the English people have for Goldsmith. It appears that Hawkins, calling one day on the Earl of Northumberland, found the author of the _Traveller waiting in the outer room, in response to an invitation. Hawkins, having finished his own business, retired, but lingered about until the interview between Goldsmith and his lordship was over, having some curiosity about the result. Here follows Goldsmith's report to Hawkins. "His lordship told me he had read my poem, and was much delighted with it; that he was going to be Lord-lieutenant of Ireland; and that, hearing that I was a native of that country, he should be glad to do me any kindness." "What did you answer?" says Hawkins, no doubt expecting to hear of some application for pension or post. "Why," said Goldsmith, "I could say nothing but that I had a brother there, a clergyman, that stood in need of help,"--and then he explained to Hawkins that he looked to the booksellers for support, and was not inclined to place dependence on the promises of great men. "Thus did this idiot in the affairs of the world," adds Hawkins, with a fatuity that is quite remarkable in its way, "trifle with his fortunes, and put back the hand that was held out to assist him! Other offers of a like kind he either rejected or failed to improve, contenting himself with the patronage of one nobleman, whose mansion afforded him the delights of a splendid table and a retreat for a few days from the metropolis." It is a great pity we have not a description from the same pen of Johnson's insolent ingratitude in flinging the pair of boots down stairs.

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