Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

14
Goldsmith as Monarchist

In 1771, in his preface to The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, Oliver Goldsmith wrote:

It is not yet decided in politics, whether the diminution of kingly power in England tends to encrease the happiness, or the freedom of the people. For my own part, from seeing the bad effects of the tyranny of the great in those republican states that pretend to be free, I cannot help wishing that our monarchs may still be allowed to enjoy the power of controlling the encroachments of the great at home. A king may easily be restrained from doing wrong, as he is but one man; but if a number of the great are permitted to divide all authority, who can punish them if they abuse it? Upon this principle, therefore, and not from any empty notion of divine or hereditary right, some may think I have leaned towards monarchy.1

This had indeed been consistently Goldsmith's principle. But he had not always avowed it so guardedly and suavely as he does here. Eight years before, in The Traveller, he had been much more vehement:

Yes, brother, curse with me that baleful hour
When first ambition struck at regal power;
And thus, polluting honour in its source,
Gave wealth to sway the mind with double force.
Have we not seen, round Britain's peopled shore,
Her useful sons exchang'd for useless ore?
Seen all her triumphs but destruction haste,
Like flaring tapers brightening as they waste;
Seen opulence, her grandeur to maintain,
Lead stern depopulation in her train,
And over fields, where scatter'd hamlets rose,

____________________
I have anticipated some of my arguments as "Notes on Goldsmith's Politics", in The Art of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Andrew Swarbrick ( London, 1984).
1
Oliver Goldsmith, Collected Works, ed. Arthur Friedman, 5 vols. ( Oxford, 1966), 5:339-40. Further references to this edition, including volume and page numbers, will be included in the text.

-186-

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