Goldsmith on Burke and Gray

By Lutz, Alfred | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Goldsmith on Burke and Gray


Lutz, Alfred, Papers on Language & Literature


In recent years the fate of poetry in the decades after the deaths of Swift and Pope has received much attention. Rather than follow earlier scholarship in reading mid-eighteenth-century poetry in literary-historical terms, reading it, in other words, in its relationship to an earlier (Augustanism) or a later (Romanticism) period, recent scholarship has by and large abandoned this perspective and instead reads mid-eighteenth-century texts in relation to various aspects of the historical context in which they were produced.(1) This essay explores Goldsmith's poetry and his poetics in the context of mid-eighteenth-century cultural and economic trends rather than in reference to categories of literary-historical periodization.

My choice of texts--two of Goldsmith's early reviews--needs some explanation. Between 1757, the year following his return from his travels in Europe, and the early 1760s, the period during which Goldsmith abandoned various other options and became a professional writer, he contributed dozens of reviews to various magazines, including the Monthly Review and the Critical Review, the most respected review journals of the time.(2) I focus on these reviews--one of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in The Monthly Review in May, 1757, and one of Thomas Gray's Odes, published in the same journal in September, 1757--because they not only provide the clearest expression of Goldsmith's thinking on poetry and poets' social position but also inform the poetics of "The Traveller" and "The Deserted Village."(3)

I argue that Goldsmith engages neither in a "flight from history" (John Sitter's term) nor, as Marshall Brown suggests, in a "construction of an aesthetic realm that liberated literary form from its bondage to ideas and to ethics" (9). Rather, like Pope and Swift before him, he insists both on the ethical responsibility of poetry and poets to set moral standards for their particular historical moment and on poets' and poetry's fitness to perform that task. He also insists on the poet's right to occupy a position in society commensurate with the importance of this task, a position Goldsmith believed had been accorded to poets of earlier generations.(4)

However, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, such a position was simply no longer available; poets were no longer considered to be authoritative socio-moral commentators. Changes in the social and economic position of writers as a consequence of the slow decline of patronage, the professionalization of authorship, and the expansion of the reading public, on the one hand, and a narrowing of the discursive field in which poetry could operate, on the other, helped undermine poets' privileged position. Political economy, for example, began to assert itself as the only expert, the voice of truth, in Foucault's sense of the word, on economic issues, so that poets could no longer address economic issues with the self-confidence Pope had displayed in his "Moral Essays."(5) Goldsmith's response to these trends, which he vigorously opposed but also depended on, even benefited from, as a professional writer, is full of contradictions, contradictions he could not resolve in his work. To describe his work as "elegiac Augustanism," in which "lament or recrimination" take over from the "satiric voice," then, misrepresents it by measuring it in purely literary-historical terms (Dowling 152, note 6).

Goldsmith's work lays bare the conflicts that emerged out of changing social conditions within which and against which poets and poetry had to exist and define themselves. The isolation of the speakers in both of his major poems is a response to these changes. This isolation, though it is one of the most striking features of both "The Traveller" and "The Deserted Village," has none of the positive dimensions it acquires in Gray's work and in later Romantic poetry. His inability to offer poetic resolutions to these conflicts and his refusal of resolutions offered by others are a result of both the rejection in his major poems of purely aesthetic solutions for social problems and his own perplexity. …

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