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INTRODUCTION TO THE DESERTED VILLAGE AND THE TRAVELLER
Political Events and History. The chief political events of the years of the eighteenth century in which Goldsmith lived and wrote need little comment. The House of Hanover was newly on the English throne, George II becoming king in 1727, and George III in 1760. The policies of the nation were determined largely by her statesmen, notably Robert Walpole, prime minister from 1721 till 1742, and William Pitt, who became prime minister in 1757. Walpole's policy was to keep peace abroad and to conciliate party and religious differences at home, that the new line of kings might be firmly established and the internal resources of the country be developed. His methods involved much bribery and corruption, in reaction against which a new spirit of patriotism was awakened by Pitt; but under his peaceful guidance the country grew in material wealth as never before. Toward the end of the reign of George II, and in the reign of George III, came more stirring events, and there was still greater national expansion. A vast colonial trade was built up, and commerce and the wealth based upon it became of more and more importance. By the victory of Lord Clive in 1757, firmly establishing the British power in India, and by the capture of Quebec from the French in the same year, establishing British power in Canada, England gained complete control of the vast domains of India and North America, and took the place as a world power which she has since retained among the nations. Under George III the country was less contented than under his predecessor. The
borrowing of vast sums of money to carry on her wars increased the national debt of England to alarming proportions, and in many ways public affairs were mismanaged.
Industrial England. The Deserted Village is in unusual degree the product of the age in which it was written, especially of contemporary industrial conditions. The marked growth in commerce, during the eighteenth century, had made it the serious rival of agriculture. Manufacturing also was growing rapidly, the two constituting what Goldsmith calls "trade." The so-called industrial revolution, consequent upon the invention of new machinery, the utilization of steam and water power, and improved methods of transportation and communication, was beginning, although it was to come mainly after Goldsmith's day. The year 1770, when the poem was written, was a period of strong depression with regard to the national future. England was thought to be on the verge of bankruptcy, because of the vast proportions of the national debt; the frequent emigration, really a sign of growing population, was thought ominous; and in particular the country was erroneously believed to be depopulating. Arthur Young, the traveler, wrote in this same year :
It is asserted by those writers who affect to run down our affairs, that, rich as we are, our population has suffered; that we have lost a million and a half people since the Revolution; and that we are at present declining in numbers.1
Another characteristic feature of the time was the inclosure of the old public lands.2 Innumerable inclosure acts were passed by Parliament between 1760 and 1774; and though the inclosure system was beneficial in the long run, the change caused at the time much suffering. Working classes that had
1 Tour of the North of England, Letter XL.
2 Gibbins, Industry in England, 274, 335.
pastured their cattle on the old common fields lost their privilege when the land was inclosed. Many who had been small farmers were forced to become laborers on the lands of others, to go to factory towns, or to emigrate. Thus a large class of small farmers disappeared. The historian Lecky, citing a contemporary document in proof, writes that "whole villages which had depended on free pasture land and fuel dwindled and perished, and a stream of emigrants passed to America." 1 Others think the conditions sketched in Goldsmith's poem less typical; but there was undoubtedly much suffering.
Literary Conditions. Goldsmith lived and wrote in the transitional period linking the age of Pope, generally called the classical age, with the romantic reaction to be ushered in by Burns, Cowper, and Wordsworth. Literary historians often call this period the "Age of Dr. Johnson," from Goldsmith's friend, Samuel Johnson, the dictionary maker and essayist, who was its literary lawgiver. The social and intellectual ideas of the time were on the whole much the same as in the age preceding, that is, critical rather than creative, showing respect for convention, the centering of interest on form, and the exaltation of "reason" and "common sense" at the expense of individuality and spontaneity. It was not an especially productive period for letters. Among prose writers Goldsmith's leading contemporaries were Dr. Johnson, Gibbon the historian, Burke the orator and essayist, and Sheridan the dramatist. In poetry were Collins, Gray, Young, and Chatterton; thus the showing was even slenderer for poetry than for prose.
Professional writers of this period were likely to encounter many hardships, and much in their lot was sordid and unenviable. They were breaking away from the patronage system previously prevailing, and were now dependent on booksellers, the better modern system of allowing authors a percentage of the profits 1 History of England in the Eighteenth Century (1903), VII, 260.
on their books being not yet evolved. In the Restoration period literature had been close to politics. The author was dependent, not on the sale of his books to a bookseller, or to the public, but on the munificence of some patron. He sought to attach himself to some distinguished man or to some party. Dryden, Swift, Addison, and Steele all had patronage bestowed upon them in return for some political service. In the time of Dr. Johnson, men of letters became less subservient to patrons or to parties; hence they could be freer and more sincere; but prices were low and uncertain, and an income that was derived from literary drudgery, hack writing on assigned themes regardless of equipment, was likely to be as precarious as it was hard-earned.
Early Years. Oliver Goldsmith was born November 10, 1728, in the small village of Pallas, County Longford, Ireland, the fifth child and second son in a family of eight. The Goldsmiths were of English descent, but the family had been for some generations settled in Ireland. The Reverend Charles Goldsmith, Oliver's father, was a humble Protestant curate, whose income averaged forty pounds a year, a not unusual revenue in that period for a country parson. When Oliver was two years old his father succeeded to a more lucrative living at Lissoy, County Westmeath, almost in the geographical center of Ireland, and here the future poet passed the larger part of his boyhood. Oliver was awkward and unattractive as a child, nor did his physical appearance improve with years. He was short, thickset, and ugly, and his face was permanently disfigured, with more than the usual severity, by an attack of the smallpox in his eighth year. He was not a precocious child. His youth gave signs enough of the thoughtless generosity, the
good nature, and the improvidence that were always to characterize him, but gave few or no signs of his literary genius. For the former traits his father was perhaps in part responsible. In A Citizen of the World, much of which is autobiographical, Goldsmith writes, presumably of his bringing up by his father:
We were told that universal benevolence was what first cemented society; we were taught to consider all the wants of mankind as our own he wound us up to be mere machines of pity, and rendered us incapable of withstanding the slightest impulse, made either by real or fictitious distress. In a word, we were perfectly instructed in the art of giving away thousands before we were taught the necessary qualifications of getting a farthing.1
Goldsmith has pictured some of his own or his father's traits in the character of Dr. Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield, in Honeywood in The Good-Natured Man, and in the preacher in The Deserted Village.
Goldsmith as a Student. Goldsmith's school career was throughout undistinguished. He was taught his letters by a maidservant and relative, who pronounced him very stupid. At the age of six he was sent to the village school, where his master was an ex-soldier, Thomas or Paddy" Byrne, the original of the schoolmaster in The Deserted Village. He studied under several later masters in schools at Elphin, Athlone, and elsewhere, leaving apparently a record for little more than dullness and awkwardness. His college career was similarly inglorious. Owing to his father's crippling the means of the family to provide Goldsmith's sister with an extravagant marriage portion, Oliver entered Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of seventeen, as a sizar, passing the necessary entrance examination the lowest in the list. The sizar was part student, part servant, and as such Goldsmith waited at table and 1 Letter XXVII.