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  • 1909
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genius, and sharing their miseries.

But if Johnson starved he never cringed, and once when a bookseller spoke rudely to him he knocked him down with one of his own books. A beggar or not, Johnson demanded the respect due to a man. At school and college he had dominated his fellows, he dominated now. But the need of fighting for respect made him rough. And ever after his manner with friend and foe alike was rude and brusque.

The misery of this time was such that long years after Johnson burst into tears at the memory of it. But it did not conquer him, he conquered it. He got work to do at last, and became one of the first newspaper reporters.

Nowadays, during the debates in Parliament there are numbers of newspaper reporters who take down all that is said in shorthand, and who afterwards write out the debates for their various newspapers. In Johnson’s day no such thing had been thought of. He did not hear the debates, but wrote his accounts of them from a few notes given to him by some one who had heard them. The speeches which appeared in the paper were thus really Johnson’s, and had very little resemblance to what had been said in the House. And being a Tory, Johnson took good care, as he afterwards confessed, “that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it.” After a time, however, Johnson began to think this so-called reporting was not quite honest, and gave it up. He found other literary work to do, and soon, although he was still poor, he had enough money to make it possible for his wife to join him in London.

Among other things he wrote one or two poems and the life of Richard Savage, a strange, wild genius with whom he had wandered the streets in the days of his worst poverty. The tragedy called Irene which Johnson had brought with him to London was at length after twelve years produced by Garrick, who had by that time become a famous actor. Johnson had, however, no dramatic genius. “When Johnson writes tragedy,” said Garrick, “‘declamation roars and passion sleeps’:* when Shakespeare wrote, he dipped the pen in his own heart.” Garrick did what he could with the play, but it was a failure, and although Johnson continued to believe that it was good, he wrote no more tragedies.

*Garrick is here quoting from one of Johnson’s own poems in which he describes the decline of the drama at the Restoration.

The story of Irene is one of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After Mahomet had taken Constantinople he fell in love with a fair Greek maiden whose name was Irene. The Sultan begged her to become a Mohammedan so that he might marry her. To this Irene consented, but when his soldiers heard of it they were so angry that they formed a conspiracy to dethrone their ruler.

Hearing of this Mahomet resolved to make an end of the conspiracy and rescue his throne from danger. Calling all his nobles together he bade Irene appear before him. Then catching her by the hair with one hand and drawing his sword with the other he at one blow struck off her head. This deed filled all who saw it with terror and wonder. But turning to his nobles Mahomet cried, “Now by this, judge if your Emperor is able to bridle his affections or not.”

It seems as if there were here a story which might be made to stir our hearts, but Johnson makes it merely dull. In his long words and fine-sounding sentences we catch no thrill of real life. The play is artificial and cold, and moves us neither to wonder nor sorrow.

Johnson’s play was a failure, but by that time he had begun the great work which was to name him and single him out from the rest of the world as Dictionary Johnson. To make a complete dictionary of a language is a tremendous work. Johnson thought that it would take three years. It took, instead, seven.

But during these seven years he also wrote other things and steadily added to his fame. He started a paper after the model of the Spectator, called the Rambler. This paper was continued for about two years, Johnson writing all but five of the essays. After that he wrote many essays in a paper called the Adventurer, and, later still, for two years he wrote for another paper a series of articles called the Idler.

But none of these can we compare with the Spectator. Johnson never for a moment loses sight of “a grand moral end.” There is in his essays much sound common sense, but they are lumbering and heavy. We get from them no such picture of the times as we get from the Spectator, and, although they are not altogether without humor, it is a humor that not seldom reminds us of the dancing of an elephant. This is partly because, as Johnson said himself, he is inclined to “use too big words and too many of them.”

In the days when Johnson wrote, this style was greatly admired, but now we have come back to thinking that the simplest words are best, or, at least, that we must suit our words to our subject. And if we tell a fairy tale (as Johnson once did) we must not use words of five syllables when words of two will better give the feeling of the tale. Yet there are many pleasant half-hours to be spent in dipping here and there into the volumes of the Rambler or the Idler. I will give you in the next chapter, as a specimen of Johnson’s prose, part of one of the essays from the Idler. It is the story of a man who sets forth upon a very ordinary journey and who makes as great a tale of it as he had been upon a voyage of discovery in some untraveled land.


“I SUPPED three nights ago with my friend Will Marvel. His affairs obliged him lately to take a journey into Devonshire, from which he has just returned. He knows me to be a very patient hearer, and was glad of my company, as it gave him an opportunity of disburdening himself, by a minute relation of the casualties of his expedition.

“Will is not one of those who go out and return with nothing to tell. He has a story of his travels, which will strike a home- bred citizen with horror, and has in ten days suffered so often the extremes of terror and joy, that he is in doubt whether he shall ever again expose either his body or his mind to such danger and fatigue.

“When he left London the morning was bright, and a fair day was promised. But Will is born to struggle with difficulties. That happened to him, which has sometimes, perhaps, happened to others. Before he had gone more than ten miles, it began to rain. What course was to be taken? His soul disdained to turn back. He did what the King of Prussia might have done; he flapped his hat, buttoned up his cape, and went forwards, fortifying his mind by the stoical consolation, that whatever is violent will be short.”

So, with such adventures, the first day passes, and reaching his inn, after a good supper, Will Marvel goes to bed and sleeps soundly. But during the night he is wakened “by a shower beating against his windows with such violence as to threaten the dissolution of nature.” Thus he knows that the next day will have its troubles. “He joined himself, however, to a company that was travelling the same way, and came safely to the place of dinner, though every step of his horse dashed the mud in the air.”

In the afternoon he went on alone, passing “collections of water,” puddles doubtless, the depth of which it was impossible to guess, and looking back upon the ride he marvels at his rash daring. “But what a man undertakes he must perform, and Marvel hates a coward at his heart.

“Few that lie warm in their beds think what others undergo, who have, perhaps, been as tenderly educated, and have as acute sensations as themselves. My friend was now to lodge the second night almost fifty miles from home, in a house which he never had seen before, among people to whom he was totally a stranger, not knowing whether the next man he should meet would prove good or bad; but seeing an inn of a good appearance, he rode resolutely into the yard; and knowing that respect is often paid in proportion as it is claimed, delivered his injunctions to the ostler with spirit, and, entering the house, called vigorously about him.

“On the third day up rose the sun and Mr. Marvel. His troubles and dangers were now such as he wishes no other man ever to encounter.” The way was lonely, often for two miles together he met not a single soul with whom he could speak, and, looking at the bleak fields and naked trees, he wished himself safe home again. His only consolation was that he suffered these terrors of the way alone. Had, for instance, his friend the “Idler” been there he could have done nothing but lie down and die.

“At last the sun set and all the horrors of darkness came upon him. . . . Yet he went forward along a path which he could no longer see, sometimes rushing suddenly into water, and sometimes encumbered with stiff clay, ignorant whither he was going, and uncertain whether his next step might not be the last.

“In this dismal gloom of nocturnal peregrination his horse unexpectedly stood still. Marvel had heard many relations of the instinct of horses, and was in doubt what danger might be at hand. Sometimes he fancied that he was on the bank of a river still and deep, and sometimes that a dead body lay across the track. He sat still awhile to recollect his thoughts; and as he was about to alight and explore the darkness, out stepped a man with a lantern, and opened the turnpike. He hired a guide to the town, arrived in safety, and slept in quiet.

“The rest of his journey was nothing but danger. He climbed and descended precipices on which vulgar mortals tremble to look; he passed marshes like the Serbonian bog,* where armies whole have sunk; he forded rivers where the current roared like the Egre or the Severn; or ventured himself on bridges that trembled under him, from which he looked down on foaming whirlpools, or dreadful abysses; he wandered over houseless heaths, amidst all the rage of the elements, with the snow driving in his face, and the tempest howling in his ears.

*Lake Serbonis in Egypt. Sand being blown over it by the winds gave it the appearance of solid ground, whereas it was a bog.

“A gulf profound as the Serbonian bog. . . . Where armies whole have sunk.” — MILTON.

“Such are the colours in which Marvel paints his adventures. He has accustomed himself to sounding words and hyperbolical images, till he has lost the power of true description. In a road, through which the heaviest carriages pass without difficulty, and the post-boy every day and night goes and returns, he meets with hardships like those which are endured in Siberian deserts, and missed nothing of romantic danger but a giant and a dragon. When his dreadful story is told in proper terms, it is only that the way was dirty in winter, and that he experienced the common vicissitudes of rain and sunshine.”

I am afraid you will find a good many “too big” words in that. But if I changed them to others more simple you would get no idea of the way in which Johnson wrote, and I hope those you do not understand you will look up in the dictionary. It will not be Johnson’s own dictionary, however, for that has grown old- fashioned, and its place has been taken by later ones. For some of Johnson’s meanings were not correct, and when these mistakes were pointed out to him he was not in the least ashamed. Once a lady asked him how he came to say that the pastern was the knee of a horse, and he calmly replied, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.” “Dictionaries are like watches,” he said, “the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

With some words, instead of giving the original meaning, he gave a personal meaning, that is he allowed his own sense of humor, feelings or politics, to color the meaning. For instance, he disliked the Scots, so for the meaning of Oats he gave, “A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” He disliked the Excise duty, so he called it “A hateful tax levied by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” For this last meaning he came very near being punished for libel.

When Johnson thought of beginning the dictionary he wrote about it to Lord Chesterfield, a great man and fine gentleman of the day. As the fashion was, Johnson had chosen this great man for his patron. But Lord Chesterfield, although his vanity was flattered at the idea of having a book dedicated to him, was too delicate a fine gentleman to wish to have anything to do with a man he considered poor. “He throws anywhere but down his throat,” he said, “whatever he means to drink, and mangles what he means to carve. . . . The utmost I can do for him is to consider him a respectable Hottentot.” So, when Johnson had called several times and been told that his lordship was not at home, or had been kept waiting for hours before he was received, he grew angry, and marched away never to return, vowing that he had done with patrons for ever.

The years went on, and Johnson saw nothing of his patron. When, however, the dictionary was nearly done, Lord Chesterfield let it be known that he would be pleased to have it dedicated to him. But Johnson would have none of it. He wrote a letter which was the “Blast of Doom, proclaiming into the ear of Lord Chesterfield, and, through him, of the listening world, that patronage would be no more!”*


“Seven years, my Lord, have now passed,” wrote Johnson, “since I waited in your outward rooms and was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, and one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . .

“Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached the ground cumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.”

There was an end of patronage so far as Johnson was concerned, and it was the beginning of the end of it with others. Great Sam had roared, he had asserted himself, and with the publication of his dictionary he became “The Great Cham* of literature.”**

*A Tartar word for prince or chief.

He had by this time founded a club of literary men which met at “a famous beef-steak house,” and here he lorded it over his fellows as his bulky namesake had done more than a hundred years before. In many ways there was a great likeness between these two. They were both big and stout (for Sam was now stout). They were loud-voiced and dictatorial. They both drank a great deal, but Ben, alas, drank wine overmuch, as was common in his day, while Sam drank endless cups of tea, seventeen or eighteen it might be at a sitting, indeed he called himself a hardened and shameless tea-drinker. But, above all, their likeness lies in the fact that they both dominated the literary men of their period; they were kings and rulers. They laid down the law and settled who was great and who little among the writers of the day. And it was not merely the friends around Johnson who heard him talk, who listened to his judgments about books and writers. The world outside listened, too, to what he had to say, and you will remember that it was he who utterly condemned Macpherson’s pretended poems of Ossian, “that pious three-quarters fraud”* of which you have already read in chapter IV.

*A. Lang.

Johnson had always spent much of his time in taverns, and was now more than ever free to do so. For while he was still working at his dictionary he suffered a great grief in the death of his wife. He had loved her truly and never ceased to mourn her loss. But though he had lost his wife, he did not remain solitary in his home, for he opened his doors to a queer collection of waifs and strays–three women and a man, upon whom he took pity because no one else would. They were ungrateful and undeserving, and quarreled constantly among themselves, so that his home could have been no peaceful spot. “Williams hates everybody,” he writes; “Levett hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll loves none of them.” It does not sound peaceful or happy.

Some years after the death of Johnson’s wife his mother died at the age of ninety, and although he had not been with her for many years, that too was a grief. The poor lady had had very little to live on, and she left some debts. Johnson himself was still struggling with poverty. He had no money, so to pay his mother’s few debts, and also the expenses of her funeral, he sat down to write a story. In a week he had finished Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

The story of Rasselas is that of a prince who is shut up in the Happy Valley until the time shall come for him to ascent the throne of his father. Everything was done to make life in the Happy Valley peaceful and joyful, but Rasselas grew weary of it; to him it became but a prison of pleasure, and at last, with his favorite sister, he escaped out into the world. The story tells then of their search for happiness. But perfect happiness they cannot find, and discovering this, they decide to return to the Happy Valley.

There is a vein of sadness throughout the book. It ends as it were with a big question mark, with a “conclusion in which nothing is concluded.” For the position of the prince and his sister was unchanged, and they had not found what they sought. Is it to be found at all? The story is a revelation of Johnson himself. He never saw life joyously, and at times he had fits of deep melancholy which he fought against as against a madness. “I inherited,” he said, “a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober,” and his long struggle with poverty helped to deepen this melancholy.

But a year or two after Rasselas was written, a great change came in Johnson’s life, which gave him comfort and security for the rest of his days. George III had come to the throne. He thought that he would like to do something for literature, and offered Johnson a pension of three hundred pounds a year.

Johnson was now a man of fifty-four. He was acknowledged as the greatest man of letters of his day, yet he was still poor. Three hundred pounds seemed to him wealth, but he hesitated to accept it. He was an ardent Tory and hated the House of Hanover. In his dictionary he had called a pension “an allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” A pensioner he had said was “A slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master.” Was he then to become a traitor to his country and a slave of state?

But after a little persuasion Johnson yielded, as the pension would be given to him, he was told, not for anything that he would do, but for what he had done. “It is true,” he said afterwards, with a smile, “that I cannot now curse the House of Hanover; nor would it be decent for me to drink King James’s health in the wine that King George gives me money to pay for. But, sir, I think that the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover, and drinking King James’s health, are amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year.”

Johnson had always been indolent. It was perhaps only poverty that had forced him to write, and now that he was comfortably provided for he became more indolent still. He reproached himself, made good resolutions, and prayed over this fault, but still he remained slothful and idle. He would lie abed till two o’clock, and sit up half the night talking, and an edition of Shakespeare which he had promised years before got no further on. An edition of another man’s works often means a great deal of labor in making notes and comments. This is especially so if hundreds of years have passed since the book was first written and the language has had time to change, and Johnson felt little inclined for this labor. But at length he was goaded into working upon his Shakespeare by some spiteful verses on his idleness, written by a political enemy, and after long delay it appeared.

Just a little before this a young Scotsman named James Boswell got to know the great man. He worshiped Johnson and spent as much time with him as he could. It was a strange friendship which grew up between these two. The great man bullied and insulted yet loved the little man, and the little man accepted all the insults gladly, happy to be allowed to be near his hero on any conditions whatever. He treasured every word that Johnson spoke and noted his every action. Nothing was too small or trivial for his loving observation. He asked Johnson questions and made remarks, foolish or otherwise, in order to draw him out and make him talk, and afterwards he set down everything in a notebook.

And when Johnson was dead Boswell wrote his life. It is one of the most wonderful lives ever written–perhaps the most wonderful. And when we have read it we seem to know Johnson as well as if we had lived with him. We see and know him in all his greatness and all his littleness, in all his weakness and all his might.

It was with Boswell that Johnson made his most famous journey, his tour to Scotland. For, like his namesake, Ben, he too visited Scotland. But he traveled in a more comfortable manner, and his journey was a much longer one, for he went as far as the Hebrides. It was a wonderful expedition for a man of sixty-four, especially in those days when there were no trains and little ease in the way of traveling, and when much of it had to be done on rough ponies or in open boats.

On his return Johnson wrote an account of this journey which did not altogether please some of the Scots. But indeed, although Johnson did not love the Scots, there is little in his book at which to take offense.

Johnson’s last work was a series of short lives of some of the English poets from the seventeenth century onwards. It is generally looked upon as his best. And although some of the poets of whom he wrote are almost forgotten, and although we may think that he was wrong in his criticisms of many of the others, this is the book of Johnson’s which is still most read. For it must be owned that the great Sam is not much read now, although he is such an important figure in the history of our literature. It is as a person that we remember him, not as a writer. He stamped his personality, as it is called, upon his age. Boswell caught that personality and preserved it for us, so that, for generation after generation, Johnson lives as no other character in English literature lives. Boswell gave a new meaning to the word biographer, that is the writer of a life, and now when a great man has had no one to write his life well, we say “He lacks a Boswell.”

Boswell after a time joined the famous club at which Johnson and his friends met together and talked. Johnson loved to argue, and he made a point of always getting the best of an argument. If he could not do so by reason, he simply roared his opponent down and silenced him by sheer rudeness. “There is no arguing with Johnson,” said one of his friends, Oliver Goldsmith, “for when his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” And perhaps Goldy, as Johnson called him, had to suffer more rudeness from him than any of his friends to save Bozzy. Yet the three were often to be found together, and it was Goldsmith who said of Johnson, “No man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin.”

And indeed in Johnson’s outward appearance there was much of the bear. He was a sloven in dress. His clothes were shabby and thrown on anyhow. “I have no passion for clean linen,” he said himself. At table he made strange noises and ate greedily, yet in spite of all that, added to his noted temper and rude manners, men loved him and sought his company more than that of any other writer of his day, for “within that shaggy exterior of his there beat a heart warm as a mother’s, soft as a little child’s.”*


After Johnson received his pension we may look upon him as a lumbering vessel which has weathered many a strong sea and has now safely come to port. His life was henceforth easy. He received honorary degrees, first from Dublin and then from Oxford, so that he became Dr. Johnson. For two-and-twenty years he enjoyed his pension, his freedom and his honors; then, in 1784, surrounded by his friends, he died in London, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.


THE kind of book which is most written and read nowadays is called a novel. But we have not yet spoken much about this kind of book for until now there were no novels in our meaning of the word. There were romances such as Havelok the Dane and Morte d’Arthur, later still tales such as those of Defoe, and the modern novel is the outcome of such tales and romances. But it is usually supposed to be more like real life than a romance. In a romance we may have giants and fairies, things beyond nature and above nature. A novel is supposed to tell only of what could happen, without the help of anything outside everyday life. This is a kind of writing in which the English have become very clever, and now, as I said, more novels than any other kinds of book are written. But only a few of these are good enough to take a place in our literature, and very many are not worth reading or remembering at all.

The first real novel in the modern sense was written by Samuel Richardson, and published in 1740. Quickly after that there arose several other novel writers whose books became famous. These still stand high in the literature of our land, but as nothing in them would be interesting to you for many years to come we need not trouble about them now. There is, however, one novel of this early time which I feel sure you would like, and of it and its author I shall tell you something. The book I mean is called The Vicar of Wakefield, and it was written by Oliver Goldsmith.

Oliver Goldsmith was born in 1728 in Pallas, a little out-of-the- way Irish village. His father was a clergyman and farmer, with a large family and very little money. He was a dear, simple, kindly man.

“A man he was to all the country dear, And passing rich with forty pounds a year.”

Two years after Oliver was born his father moved to Lissoy, another and better parish. Little Oliver began to learn very early, but his first teacher thought him stupid: “Never was there such a dull boy,” she said. She managed, however, to teach him the alphabet, and at six he went to the village school of Lissoy. Paddy Byrne, the master there, was an old soldier. He had fought under Marlborough, he had wandered the world seeking and finding adventures. His head was full of tales of wild exploits, of battles, of ghosts and fairies too, for he was an Irishman and knew and loved the Celtic lore. Besides all this he wrote poetry.

To his schoolmaster’s stories little Oliver listened eagerly. He listened, too, to the ballads sung by Peggy, the dairymaid, and to the wild music of the blind harper, Turlogh O’Carolan, the last Irish minstrel. All these things sank into the heart of the shy, little, ugly boy who seemed so stupid to his schoolfellows. He learned to read, and devoured all the romances and tales of adventure upon which he could lay hands, and in imitation of his schoolmaster he began to write poetry.

For three years Oliver remained under the care of his vagabond teacher. He looked up to him with a kind of awed wonder, and many years afterwards he drew a picture of him in his poem The Deserted Village.

“There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule, The village master taught his little school. A man severe he was, and stern to view; I knew him well, and every truant knew: Well had the boding tremblers learn’d to trace The day’s disasters in his morning face; Full well they laugh’d, with counterfeited glee At all his jokes, for many a joke had he; Full well the busy whisper circlin round Convey’d the dismal tidings when he frown’d. Yet he was kind, or, if severe in aught, The love he bore to learning was in fault; The village all declared how much he knew: ‘Twas certain he could write, and cypher too; Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage, And ev’n the story ran–that he could gauge: In arguing, too, the parson own’d his skill; For ev’n though vanquish’d, he could argue still; While words of learned length and thund’ring sound, Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around; And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew, That one small head should carry all he knew.”

But after three years of school under wonderful Paddy Byrne, Goldsmith became very ill with smallpox. He nearly died of it, and when he grew better he was plainer than ever, for his face was scarred and pitted by the disease. Goldsmith had been shy before his illness, and now when people laughed at his pock- marked face he grew more shy and sensitive still. For the next seven years he was moved about from school to school, always looked upon by his fellows as dull of wit, but good at games, and always in the forefront in mischief.

At length, when Goldsmith was nearly seventeen, he went to Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar. As you know, in those days sizars had to wear a different dress from the commoners. Oliver’s elder brother had gone as a commoner and Oliver had hoped to do the same. But as his father could not afford the money he was obliged, much against his will, to go as a sizar. Indeed had it not been for the kindness of an uncle he could not have gone to college at all.

Awkward and shy, keen to feel insults whether intended or not, Goldsmith hated his position as sizar. He did not like his tutor either, who was a coarse, rough man, so his life at college was not altogether happy. He was constantly in want of money, for when he had any his purse was always open to others. At times when he was much in need he wrote street ballads for five shillings each, and would steal out at night to have the joy of hearing them sung in the street.

Goldsmith was idle and wild, and at the end of two years he quarreled with his tutor, sold his books, and ran away to Cork. He meant to go on board a ship, and sail away for ever from a land where he had been so unhappy. But he had little money, and what he had was soon spent, and at last, almost starving, having lived for three days on a shilling, he turned homewards again. Peace was made with his tutor, and Goldsmith went back to college, and stayed there until two years later when he took his degree.

His father was now dead and it was necessary for Oliver to earn his own living. All his family wished him to be a clergyman, but he “did not deem himself good enough for it.” However, he yielded to their persuasions, and presented himself to his bishop. But the bishop would not ordain him–why is not known, but it was said that he was offended with Goldsmith for coming to be ordained dressed in scarlet breeches.

After this failure Oliver tried teaching and became a tutor, but in a very short time he gave that up. Next his uncle, thinking that he would make a lawyer of him, gave him 50 pounds and sent him off to London to study law there. Goldsmith lost the money in Dublin, and came home penniless. Some time after this a gentleman remarked that he would make an excellent medical man, and again his uncle gave him money and sent him off to Edinburgh, this time as a medical student. So he said his last good-by to home and Ireland and set out.

In Scotland Goldsmith lived for a year and a half traveling about, enjoying life, and, it may be, studying. Then, in his happy-go-lucky way, he decided it would be well to go to Holland to finish his medical studies there. Off he started with little money in his pocket, and many debts behind him. After not a few adventures he arrived at length in Leyden. Here passing a florist’s shop he saw some bulbs which he knew his uncle wanted. So in he ran to the shop, bought them, and sent them off to Ireland. The money with which he bought the bulbs was borrowed, and now he left Leyden to make the tour of Europe burdened already with debt, with one guinea in his pocket, and one clean shirt and a flute as his luggage.

Thus on foot he wandered through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France. In the villages he played upon his flute to pay for his food and his night’s lodging.

“Yet would the village praise my wondrous power, And dance, forgetful of the noon-tide hour. Alike all ages. Dames of ancient days
Have led their children through the mirthful maze, And the gay grandsire, skill’d in gestic lore, Has frisk’d beneath the burthen of threescore.”*

*The Traveller.

In the towns where no one listened to his flute, and in Italy where almost every peasant played better than he, he entered the colleges and disputed. For in those days many of the colleges and monasteries on the Continent kept certain days for arguments upon subjects of philosophy “for which, if the champion opposes with any dexterity, he can gain a gratuity in money, a dinner, and a bed for one night.”

Thus, from town to town, from village to village, Goldsmith wandered, until at the end of a year he found himself back among his countrymen, penniless and alone in London streets.

Here we have glimpses of him, a sorry figure in rusty black and tarnished gold, his pockets stuffed with papers, now assisting in a chemist’s shop, now practicing as a doctor among those as poor as himself, now struggling to get a footing in the realm of literature, now passing his days miserably as an usher in a school. At length he gained more or less constant work in writing magazine articles, reviews, and children’s books. By slow degrees his name became known. He met Johnson and became a member of his famous club. It is said that the first time those two great men met Johnson took special care in dressing himself. He put on a new suit of clothes and a newly powdered wig. When asked by a friend why he was so particular he replied, “Why, sir, I hear that Goldsmith is a very great sloven, and justifies his disregard for cleanliness and decency by quoting my example. I wish this night to show him a better example.” But although Goldsmith was now beginning to be well known, he still lived in poor lodgings. He had only one chair, and when a visitor came he was given the chair while Oliver sat on the window ledge. When he had money he led an idle, easy life until it was spent. He was always generous. His hand was always open to help others, but he often forgot to pay his just debts. At length one day his landlady, finding he could not pay his rent, arrested him for debt.

In great distress Goldsmith wrote to Johnson begging him to come to his aid. Johnson sent him a guinea, promising to come to him as soon as possible. When Johnson arrived at Goldsmith’s lodging, “I perceived,” he says, “that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired him to be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merits, told the landlady I should soon return, and having gone to a bookseller sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in high tone for having used him so ill.”

The novel which thus set Goldsmith free for the moment was the famous Vicar of Wakefield. “There are an hundred faults in this thing,” says Goldsmith himself, and if we agree with him there we also agree with him when he goes on to say, “and an hundred things might be said to prove them beauties. But it is needless. A book may be amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity. The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth: he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family. He is drawn as ready to teach, and ready to obey: as simple in affluence, and majestic in adversity.” When we have made the acquaintance of the Vicar we find ourselves the richer for a lifelong friend. His gentle dignity, his simple faith, his sly and tender humor, all make us love him.

In the Vicar of Wakefield Goldsmith drew for us a picture of quiet, fireside family life such as no one before, or perhaps since, has drawn. Yet he himself was a homeless man. Since a boy of sixteen he had been a wanderer, a lonely vagabond, dwelling beneath strange roofs. But it was the memory of his childish days that made it possible for him to write such a book, and in learning to know and love gentle Dr. Primrose we learn to know Oliver’s father, Charles Goldsmith.


“I CHOSE my wife,” says Dr. Primrose in the beginning of the book, “as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine, glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well. To do her justice, she was a good-natured, notable woman; and as for breeding, there were few county ladies who could show more. She could read any English book without much spelling; but for pickling, preserving, and cooking, none could excel her. She prided herself also upon being an excellent contriver in housekeeping; though I could never find that we grew richer with her contrivances.”

Of his children he says, “Our eldest son was named George, after his uncle, who left us ten thousand pounds. Our second child, a girl, I intended to call, after her aunt, Grissel; but my wife, who had been reading romances, insisted upon her being called Olivia. In less than another year we had another daughter, and now I was determined that Grissel should be her name; but a rich relation taking a fancy to stand god-mother, the girl was by her direction called Sophia; so that we had two romantic names in the family; but I solemnly protest I had no hand in it. Moses was our next; and, after an interval of twelve years, we had two sons more.” These two youngest boys were called Dick and Bill.

This is the family we learn to know in the “Vicar.” When the story opens Olivia is just eighteen, Sophia seventeen, and they are both very beautiful girls. At first Dr. Primrose is well off and lives comfortably in a fine house, but before the story goes far he loses all his money, and is obliged to go with his family to a poor living in another part of the country. Here, instead of their handsome house, they have a tiny four-roomed cottage, with whitewashed walls and thatched roof, for a home. It is a very quiet country life which they have now to live, and yet when you come to read the book you will find that quite a number of exciting things happen to them.

The dear doctor soon settles down to his changed life, but his wife and her beautiful daughters try hard to be as fine as they were before, and as grand, if not grander, than their neighbors. This desire leads to not a few of their adventures. Among other things they decide to have their portraits painted. This is how Dr. Primrose tells of it: “My wife and daughters happening to return a visit to neighbour Flamborough’s, found that family had lately got their pictures drawn by a limner, who travelled the country, and took likenesses for fifteen shillings a-head. As this family and ours had long a sort of rivalry in point of taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us; and, notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was resolved that we should have our pictures done too.

“Having therefore engaged the limner (for what could I do?) our next deliberation was, to show the superiority of our taste in the attitudes. As for our neighbour’s family, there were seven of them; and they were drawn with seven oranges, a thing quite out of taste, no variety in life, no composition in the world. We desired to have something in a higher style, and after many debates, at length came to a unanimous resolution, of being drawn together, in one large historical familypiece. This would be cheaper, since one frame would serve for all, and it would be infinitely more genteel; for all families of any taste were now drawn in the same manner.

“As we did not immediately recollect an historical subject to hit us, we were contented each with being drawn as independent historical figures. My wife desired to be represented as Venus, and the painter was instructed not to be too frugal of his diamonds in her stomacher and hair. Her two little ones were to be as cupids by her side; while I in my gown and band, was to present her with my books on the Whistonian controversy. Olivia would be drawn as an amazon, sitting upon a bank of flowers, dressed in a green Joseph,* richly laced with gold, and a whip in her hand. Sophia was to be a shepherdess, with as many sheep as the painter could put in for nothing; and Moses was to be dressed out with a hat and white feather.

*A coat with capes worn by ladies in the eighteenth century for riding.

“Our taste so much pleased the Squire that he insisted on being put in as one of the family, in the character of Alexander the Great, at Olivia’s feet. This was considered by us all as an indication of his desire to be introduced into the family; nor could we refuse his request. The painter was therefore set to work; and as he wrought with assiduity and expedition, in less than four days the whole was completed. The piece was large; and it must be owned he did not spare his colours; for which my wife gave him great encomiums.

“We were all perfectly satisfied with his performance; but an unfortunate circumstance had not occurred until the picture was finished, which now struck us with dismay. It was so very large, that we had no place in the house to fix it. How we all came to disregard so material a point is inconceivable; but certain it is, we had been all greatly remiss. The picture, therefore, instead of gratifying our vanity, as we hoped, leaned, in a most mortifying manner, against the kitchen wall, where the canvas was stretched and painted, much too large to be got through any of the doors, and the jest of all our neighbours. One compared it to Robinson Crusoe’s long-boat, too large to be removed; another thought it more resembled a reel in a bottle; some wondered how it could be got out, but still more were amazed how it ever got in.”

For the rest of the troubles and adventures of the good Vicar and his family you must go to the book itself. In the end all comes right, and we leave the Vicar surrounded by his family with Dick and Bill sitting on his knee. “I had nothing now this side the grave to wait for,” he says; “all my cares were over; my pleasure was unspeakable.” Even if you do not at first understand all of this book I think it will repay you to read it, for on almost every page you will find touches of gentle humor. We feel that no one but a man of simple childlike heart could have written such a book, and when we have closed it we feel better and happier for having read it.

But delightful though we find the Vicar of Wakefield, the bookseller who bought it did not think highly enough of it to publish it at once. Meanwhile Goldsmith published a poem called The Traveller. His own wanderings on the Continent gave him the subject for this poem, for Goldsmith, like Milton, put something of himself into all his best works. The Traveller was such a success that the bookseller though it worth while to publish the Vicar of Wakefield.

Goldsmith was now famous, but he was still poor. He lived in a miserable garret doing all manner of literary work for bread. Among the things he wrote was a play called The Good Natured Man. It was a success, and brought him in 500 pounds.

Goldsmith now left his garret, took a fine set of rooms, furnished them grandly, and gave dinner-parties and card-parties to his friends. These were the days of Goldy’s splendor. He no longer footed it in the great world in rust black and tarnished gold, but in blue silk breeches, and coat with silken linings and golden buttons. He dined with great people; he strutted in innocent vanity, delighted to shine in the world, to see and be seen, although in Johnson’s company he could never really shine. Sam was a great talker, and it was said Goldsmith “wrote like an angel and spoke like poor Poll.” His friends called him Doctor, although where he took his medical degree no one knows, and he certainly had no other degree given to him as an honor as Johnson had. So Johnson was Dr. major, Goldsmith only Dr. minor.

But soon these days of wealth were over; soon Goldsmith’s money was all spent, and once again he had to sit down to grinding work. He wrote many things, but the next great work he published was another poem, The Deserted Village.

The Deserted Village, like The Traveller, is written in the heroic couplet which, since the days of Dryden, had held its ground as the best form of English poetry. In these poems the couplet has reached its very highest level, for although his rimes are smooth and polished Goldsmith has wrought into them something of tender grace and pathos which sets them above the diamond-like glitter of Pope’s lines. His couplets are transformed by the Celtic touch.

The poem tells the story of a village which had once been happy and flourishing, but which is now quite deserted and fallen to ruins. The village is thought by some people to have been Lissoy, where Oliver had lived as a boy, but others think this cannot be, for they say no Irish village was ever so peaceful and industrious as Goldsmith pictures his village to have been. But we must remember that the poet had not seen his home since childhood, and that he looked back upon it through the golden haze of memory. It is in this poem that we have the picture of Oliver’s old schoolmaster which I have already given you. Here, too, we have a picture of the kindly village parson who may be taken both from Oliver’s father and from his brother Henry. Probably he had his brother most in mind, for Henry Goldsmith had but lately died, “and I loved him better than most other men,” said the poet sadly in the dedication of this poem–

“Near yonder copse, where once the garden smiled, And still where many a garden flower grows wild; There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose, The village preacher’s modest mansion rose. A man he was to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year; Remote from towns he ran his godly race, Nor e’er had changed, nor wish’d to change, his place: Unpractis’d he to fawn, or seek for power, By doctrines fashion’d to the varying hour; Far other aims his heart had learn’d to prize, More skill’d to raise the wretched than to rise. His house was known to all the vagrant train; He chid their wand’rings, but relieved their pain: The long-remember’d beggar was his guest, Whose beard descending swept his aged breast; The ruin’d spendthrift, now no longer proud, Claim’d kindred there, and had his claims allow’d; The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay, Sat by his fire, and talk’d the night away, Wept o’er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done, Shoulder’d his crutch, and shoed how fields were won. Pleased with his guests, the good man learn’d to glow, And quite forgot their vices in their woe; Careless their merits or their faults to scan, His pity gave ere charity began.
Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride, And ev’n his failings lean’d to virtue’s side; But in his duty prompt, at every call, He watch’d and wept, he pray’d and felt for all; At church, with meek and unaffected grace, His looks adorn’d the venerable place; Truth from his lips prevail’d with double sway, And fools, who came to scoff, remain’d to pray. The service past, around the pious man, With steady zeal, each honest rustic ran; Ev’n children followed with endearing wile, And pluck’d his gown, to share the good man’s smile. His ready smile a parent’s warmth exprest; Their welfare pleased him, and their cares distrest: To them his heart, his love, his griefs were given, But all his serious thoughts had rest in heaven. As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form, Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm, Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread, Eternal sunshine settles on its head.”

Goldsmith’s last great work was a comedy named She Stoops to Conquer. It is said that the idea for this play was given to him by something which happened to himself when a boy.

The last time that Goldsmith returned home from school he made his journey on horseback. The horse was borrowed or hired, but he had a guinea in his pocket, and he felt very grown up and grand. He had to spend one night on the way, and as evening came on he asked a passing stranger to direct him to the best house, meaning the best in the neighborhood. The stranger happened to be the village wag, and seeing the schoolboy swagger, and the manly airs of sixteen, he, in fun, directed him to the squire’s house. There the boy arrived, handed over his horse with a lordly air to a groom, marched into the house and ordered supper and a bottle of wine. In the manner of the times in drinking his wine he invited his landlord to join him as a real grown-up man might have done. The squire saw the joke and fell in with it, and not until next morning did the boy discover his mistake. The comedy founded on this adventure was a great success, and no wonder, for it bubbles over with fun and laughter. Some day you will read the play, perhaps too, you may see it acted, for it is still sometimes acted. In any case it makes very good reading.

But Goldsmith did not long enjoy the new fame this comedy brought him. In the spring of 1774, less than a year after it appeared, the kindly spendthrift author lay dead. He was only forty-five.

The beginning of Goldsmith’s life had been a struggle with poverty; the end was a struggle with debt. By his writing he made what was in those days a good deal of money, but he could not keep it. To give him money was like pouring water into a sieve. “Is your mind at ease,” asked his doctor as he lay dying. “No, it is not,” answered Goldsmith. Those were his last words.

“Of poor dear Dr. Goldsmith,” wrote Johnson, “there is little to be told more than the papers have made public. He died of a fever, made, I am afraid, more violent by uneasiness of mind. His debts began to be heavy, and all his resources were exhausted. Sir Joshua* is of opinion that he owed not less than two thousand pounds. Was ever poet so trusted before?”

*Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous painter.

Goldsmith was buried in the graveyard of the Temple church, but his tomb is unmarked, and where he lies no one knows. His sorrowing friends, however, placed a tablet to his memory in Westminster, so that his name at least is recorded upon the roll of the great dead who lie gathered there.


The Vicar of Wakefield (Everyman’s Library).


SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to min’?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days o’ lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot, Sin auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, etc.

We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun til dine:*
But seas between us braid hae roar’d, Sin auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, etc.

And here’s a hand, my trusty fiere,** And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,*** For auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, etc.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,**** And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.


NO song, perhaps, is so familiar to English-speaking people as that with which this chapter begins. In the back woods of Canada, in far Australia, on the wide South African veldt, wherever English-speaking people meet and gather, they join hands to sing that song. To the merriest gathering it comes as a fitting close. It is the hymn of home, of treasured friendships, and of old memories, just as “God save the King” is the hymn of loyalty, and yet it is written in Scots, which English tongues can hardly pronounce, and many words of which to English ears hardly carry a meaning. But the plaintive melody and the pathetic force of the rhythm grip the heart. There is no need to understand every word of this “glad kind greeting”* any more than there is need to understand what some great musician means by every note which his violin sings forth.


The writer of that song was, like Caedmon long ago, a son of the soil, he, too, was a “heaven-taught ploughman.”*

*Henry Mackenzie.

While Goldsmith lay a-dying in London, in the breezy Scottish Lowlands a big rough lad of fifteen called Robert Burns was following his father’s plow by day, poring over Shakespeare, the Spectator, and Pope’s Homer, of nights, not knowing that in years to come he was to be remembered as our greatest song writer. Robert was the son of a small farmer. The Burns had been farmer folk for generations, but William Burns had fallen on evil days. From his northern home he drifted to Ayrshire, and settled down in the village of Alloway as a gardener. Here with his own hands he built himself a mud cottage. It consisted only of a “room” and a kitchen, whitewashed within and without. In the kitchen there was a fireplace, a bed, and a small cupboard, and little else beyond the table and chairs.

And in this poor cottage, in the wild January weather of 1759, wee Robert was born. Scarcely a week later, one windy night, a gable of his frail home was blown in. So fierce was the gale that it seemed as if the whole wall might fall, so, through the darkness, and the storm, the baby and his mother were carried to a neighbor’s house. There they remained for a week until their own cottage was again made fit to live in. It was a rough entry into the world for the wee lad.

For some time William Burns went on working as a gardener, then when Robert was about seven he took a small farm called Mount Oliphant, and removed there with his wife and family.

He had a hard struggle to make his farm pay, to feed and clothe little Robert and his brothers and sisters, who were growing up fast about him. But, poor though he was, William Burns made up his mind that his children should be well taught. At six Robert went daily to school, and when the master was sent away somewhere else, and the village of Alloway was left without any teacher, William Burns and four neighbors joined together to pay for one. But as they could not pay enough to give him a house in which to live, he used to stay with each family in turn for a few weeks at a time.

Robert in those days was a grave-faced, serious, small boy, and he and his brother Gilbert were the cleverest scholars in the little school. Chief among their school books was the Bible and a collection of English prose and verse. It was from the last that Burns first came to know Addison’s works for in this book he found the “Vision of Mirza” and other Spectator tales, and loved them.

Robert had a splendid memory. In school hours he stored his mind with the grand grave tales of the Bible, and with the stately English of Addison; out of school hours he listened to the tales and songs of an old woman who sang to him, or told him stories of fairies and brownies, of witches and warlocks, of giants, enchanted towns, dragons, and what not. The first books he read out of school were a Life of Hannibal, the great Carthagenian general, and a Life of Wallace, the great Scottish hero; this last being lent him by the blacksmith. These books excited little Robert so much that if ever a recruiting sergeant came to his village, he would strut up and down in raptures after the drum and bagpipe, and long to be tall enough to be a soldier. The story of Wallace, too, awoke in his heart a love of Scotland and all things Scottish, which remained with him his whole life through. At times he would steal away by himself to read the brave, sad story, and weep over the hard fate of his hero. And as he was in the Wallace country he wandered near and far exploring every spot where his hero might have been.

After a year of two the second schoolmaster went away as the other had done. Then all the schooling the Burns children had was from their father in the long winter evenings after the farm work for the day was over.

And so the years went on, the family at Mount Oliphant living a hard and sparing life. For years they never knew what it was to have meat for dinner, yet when Robert was thirteen his father managed to send him and Gilbert week about to a school two or three miles away. He could not send them both together, for he could neither afford to pay two fees, nor could he spare both boys at once, as already the children helped with the farm work.

At fifteen Robert was his father’s chief laborer. He was a very good plowman, and no one in all the countryside could wield the scythe or the threshing-flail with so much skill and vigor. He worked hard, yet he found time to read, borrowing books from whoever would lend them. Thus, before he was fifteen, he had read Shakespeare, and Pope, and the Spectator, besides a good many other books which would seem to most boys of to-day very dull indeed. But the book he liked best was a collection of songs. He carried it about with him. “I pored over them,” he says, “driving in my cart, or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse.”

Thus the years passed, as Burns himself says, in the “cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing toil of a galley-slave.” Then when Robert was about nineteen his father made another move to the farm of Lochlea, about ten miles off. It was a larger and better farm, and for three or four years the family lived in comfort. In one of Burns’s own poems, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, we get some idea of the simple home life these kindly God- fearing peasants led–

“November chill blaws loud wi’ angry sugh;* The short’ning winter-day is near a close; The miry bests retreating frae the pleugh; The black’ning trains o’ craws to their repose; The toil-worn Cotter Frae his labour goes,

This night his weekly moil is at an end, Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes, Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend, And weary, o’er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

*Whistling sound.

“At length his lonely cot appears in view, Beneath the shelter of an aged tree; Th’ expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher* through To meet their dad, wi’ flichterin** noise and glee. His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonnily,
His clean hearth-stane, his thriftie wifie’s smile, The lisping infant prattling on his knee, Does a’ his weary carking care beguile, An’ makes him quite forget his labour and his toil.

**To run with outspread arms.

Belyve,* the elder bairns come drapping in, At service out, amang the farmers roun’; Some ca’ the pleugh, some herd, some tentie** rin A cannie*** errand to a neebor town: Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman grown, In youthfu’ bloom, love sparkling in her e’e Comes hame, perhaps, to show a braw new gown, Or deposite her sair-won penny-fee,**** To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.

*In a little.
***Not difficult.
****Wages paid in money.

“With joy unfeign’d, brothers and sisters meet, An’ each for other’s weelfare kindly spiers:* The social hours, swift-wing’d, unnotic’d, fleet; Each tells the uncos** that he sees or hears; The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years; Anticipation forward points the view.
The mother, wi’ her needle and her sheers, Gars auld claes look amaist as weel’s the new:*** The father mixes a’ wi’ admonition due.

*Asks after.
**Strange things.
***Makes old clothes look almost as good as new. . . . . . . .
“The cheerfu’ supper done,, wi’ serious face, They, round the ingle, form a circle wide; The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace, The big ha’-Bible, ance his father’s pride: His bonnet rev’rently is laid aside, His layart haffets* wearing thin an’ bare; Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide, He wales** a portion with judicious care; And “Let us worship God!” he says, with solemn air.

*The gray hair on his temples.
. . . . . . .
“Then homeward all take off their sev’ral way; The youngling cottagers retire to rest: The parent-pair their secret homage pay, And proffer up to Heaven the warm request, That He who stills the raven’s clam’rous nest, And decks the lily fair in flow’ry pride, Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best, For them and for their little ones provide; But, chiefly, in their hearts with grace divine preside.”

As Robert grew to be a man the changes in his somber life were few. But once he spent a summer on the coast learning how to measure and survey land. In this he made good progress. “But,” he says, “I made a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind.” For it was a smuggling district. Robert came to know the men who carried on the unlawful trade, and so was present at many a wild and riotous scene, and saw men in new lights. He had already begun to write poetry, now he began to write letters too. He did not write with the idea alone of giving his friends news of him. He wrote to improve his power of language. He came across a book of letters of the wits of Queen Anne’s reign, and these he pored over, eager to make his own style good.

When Robert was twenty-two he again left home. This time he went to the little seaport town of Irvine to learn flax dressing. For on the farm the father and brothers had begun to grow flax, and it was thought well that one of them should know how to prepare it for spinning.

Here Robert got into evil company and trouble. He sinned and repented and sinned again. We find him writing to his father, “As for this world, I despair of ever making a figure in it. I am not formed for the bustle of the busy, nor the flutter of the gay. I shall never again be capable of entering into such scenes.” Burns knew himself to be a man of faults. The knowledge of his own weakness, perhaps, made him kindly to other. In one of his poems he wrote–

“Then gently scan your brother man, Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,* To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, The moving why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark
How far perhaps they rue it.

*A very little wrong.

“Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us:
He knows each chord, its various tone, Each spring its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute, We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute, But know not what’s resisted.”

Bad fortune, too, followed Burns. The shop in which he was engaged was set on fire, and he was left “like a true poet, not worth a sixpence.”

So leaving the troubles and temptations of Irvine behind, he carried home a smirched name to his father’s house.

Here, too, troubles were gathering. Bad harvests were followed by money difficulties, and, weighed down with all his cares, William Burns died. The brothers had already taken another farm named Mossgiel. Soon after the father’s death the whole family went to live there.

Robert meant to settle down and be a regular farmer. “Come, go to, I will be wise,” he said. He read farming books and bought a little diary in which he meant to write down farming notes. But the farming notes often turned out to be scraps of poetry.

The next four years of Burns’s life were eventful years, for though he worked hard as he guided the plow or swung the scythe, he wove songs in his head. And as he followed his trade year in year out, from summer to winter, from winter to summer, he learned all the secrets of the earth and sky, of the hedgerow and the field.

How everything that was beautiful and tender and helpless in nature appealed to him we know from his poems. There is the field mouse–the “wee sleekit,* cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie,” whose nest he turned up and destroyed in his November plowing. “Poor little mouse, I would not hurt you,” he says–


“Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin;
Its silly wa’s the win’s are strewin’!”

And thou poor mousie art turned out into the cold, bleak, winter weather!–

“But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In providing foresight may be vain;
Gang aft agley,*
An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain For promised joy.”

*Go often wrong.

It goes to his heart to destroy the early daisies with the plow–

“Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r, Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure Thy slender stem.
To spare thee now is past my pow’r, Thou bonnie gem.

“Alas! it’s no thy neebor sweet,
The bonnie lark, companion meet,
Bending thee ‘mang the dewy weet, Wi’ spreckl’d breast,
When upward springing, blythe, to greet The purpling east.

“Cauld blew the bitter-biting North Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth Amid the storm,
Scarce rear’d above the parent earth Thy tender form.

“The flaunting flow’rs our gardens yield, High shelt’ring woods and wa’s maun shield; But thou, beneath the random bield*
O’ clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stibble-field,** Unseen, alane.

“There, in thy scanty mantle cauld, Thy snawie bosom sunward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head
In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed, And low thou lies!”

**Bare stubble field.

Burns wrote love songs too, for he was constantly in love–often to his discredit, and at length he married Jean Armour, Scots fashion, by writing a paper saying that they were man and wife and giving it to her. This was enough in those days to make a marriage. But Burns had no money; the brothers’ farm had not prospered, and Jean’s father, a stern old Scotsman, would have nothing to say to Robert, who was in his opinion a bad man, and a wild, unstable, penniless rimester. He made his daughter burn her “lines,” thus in his idea putting an end to the marriage.

Robert at this was both hurt and angry, and made up his mind to leave Scotland for ever and never see his wife and children more. He got a post as overseer on an estate in Jamaica, but money to pay for his passage he had none. In order to get money some friends proposed that he should publish his poems. This he did, and the book was such a success that instead of going to Jamaica as an unknown exile Burns went to Edinburgh to be entertained, fêted, and flattered by the greatest men of the day.

All the fine ladies and gentlemen were eager to see the plowman poet. The fuss they made over him was enough to turn the head of a lesser man. But in spite of all the flattery, Burns, though pleased and glad, remained as simple as before. He moved among the grand people in their silks and velvets clad in homespun clothes “like a farmer dressed in his best to dine with the laird”* as easily as he had moved among his humble friends. He held himself with that proud independence which later made him write–


“Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and a’ that? The coward slave, we pass him by,
We dare to be poor for a’ that! For a’ that, and a’ that,
Our toils obscure, and a’ that, The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

“What though on hamely fare we dine, Wear hodden grey, and a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine, A man’s a man for a’ that:
For a’ that and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, and a’ that; The honest man, though e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.”

After spending a brilliant winter in Edinburgh, Burns set off on several tours through his native land, visiting many of the places famous in Scottish history. But, as the months went on, he began to be restless in his seeming idleness. The smiles of the great world would not keep hunger from the door; he feared that his fame might be only a nine days’ wonder, so he decided to return to his farming. He took a farm a few miles from Dumfries, and although since he had been parted from his Jean he had forgotten her time and again and made love to many another, he and she were now married, this time in good truth. From now onward it was that Burns wrote some of his most beautiful songs, and it is for his songs that we remember him. Some of them are his own entirely, and some are founded upon old songs that had been handed on for generations by the people from father to son, but had never been written down until Burns heard them and saved them from being forgotten. But in every case he left the song a far more beautiful thing than he found it. None of them perhaps is more beautiful than that he now wrote to his Jean–

“Of a’ the airts* the wind can blaw, I dearly like the wet,
For there the bonnie lassie lives, The lassie I lo’e best:
The wild-woods grow and rivers row,** And mony a hill between;
But day and night my fancy’s flight Is ever wi’ my Jean.

“I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air;
There’s not a bonnie flower that springs By fountain, shaw,*** or green,
There’s not a bonnie bird that sings But minds me o’ my Jean.”


But farming and song-making did not seem to go together, and on his new farm Burns succeeded little better than on any that he had tried before. He thought to add to his livelihood by turning an excise man, that is, an officer whose work is to put down smuggling, to collect the duty on whisky, and to see that none upon which duty has not been paid is sold. One of his fine Edinburgh friends got an appointment for him, and he began his duties, and it would seem fulfilled them well. But this mode of life was for Burns a failure. In discharge of his duties he had to ride hundreds of miles in all kinds of weathers. He became worn out by the fatigue of it, and it brought him into the temptation of drinking too much. Things went with him from bad to worse, and at length he died at the age of thirty-six, worn out by toil and sin and suffering.

In many ways his was a misspent life “at once unfinished and a ruin.”* His was the poet’s soul bound in the body of clay. He was an unhappy man, and we cannot but pity him, and yet remember him with gratitude for the beautiful songs he gave us. In his own words we may say–


“Is there a man, whose judgment clear, Can others teach the course to steer,
Yet runs, himself, life’s mad career, Wild as the wave?
Here pause–and, through the starting tear, Survey this grave.”

Burns was a true son of the soil. There is no art in his songs but only nature. Apart form his melody what strikes us most is his truth; he sang of what he saw, of what he felt and knew. He knew the Scottish peasant through and through. Grave and humorous, simple and cunning, honest and hypocritical, proud and independent–every phase of him is to be found in Burns’s poems. He knew love too; and in every phase–happy and unhappy, worthy and unworthy–he sings of it. But it is of love in truth that he sings. Here we have no more the make-believe of the Elizabethan age, no longer the stilted measure of the Georgian. The day of the heroic couplet is done; with Burns we come back to nature.


Selected Works of Robert Burns, edited by R. Sutherland. (This is probably the best selection for juvenile readers.)


WHILE Burns was weaving his wonderful songs among the Lowland hills of Scotland, another lover of nature was telling of placid English life, of simple everyday doings, in a quiet little country town in England. This man was William Cowper.

Cowper was the son of a clergyman. He was born in 1731 and became a barrister, but it seemed a profession for which he was little fitted. He was shy and morbidly religious, and he also liked literature much better than law. Still he continued his way of life until, when he was thirty-two, he was offered a post as Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. He wished to accept the post, but was told he must stand an examination at the bar of the House of Lords.

This was more than his nervous sensitive nature could bear. Rather than face the trial he decided to die. Three times he tried to kill himself. Three times he failed. Then the darkness of madness closed in upon him. Religious terrors seized him, and for many months he suffered agonies of mind. But at length his tortured brain found rest, and he became once more a sane man.

Then he made up his mind to leave London, and all the excitements of a life for which he was not fit, and after a few changes here and there he settled down to a peaceful life with a clergyman and his wife, named Unwin. And when after two years Mr. Unwin died, Cowper still lived with his widow. With her he moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire. It was here that, together with the curate, John Newton, Cowper wrote the Olney hymns, many of which are still well loved to-day. Perhaps one of the best is that beginning–

“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.”

It was written when Cowper felt again the darkness of insanity closing in upon him. Once again he tried to end his life, but again the storm passed.

Cowper was already a man of nearly fifty when these hymns first appeared. Shortly afterwards he published another volume of poems in the style of Pope.

It was after this that Cowper found another friend who brought some brightness into his life. Lady Austen, a widow, took a house near Cowper and Mrs. Unwin, and became a third in their friendship. It was she who told Cowper the story of John Gilpin. The story tickled his fancy so that he woke in the night with laughter over it. He decided to make a ballad of the story, and the next day the ballad was finished. I think I need hardly give you any quotation here. You all know that–

“John Gilpin was a citizen
Of credit and reknown,
A train-band captain eke was he
Of famous London town.”

And you have heard his adventures on the anniversary of his wedding day.

John Gilpin was first published in a magazine, and there it was seen by an actor famous in his day, who took it for a recitation. It at once became a success, and thousands of copies were sold.

It was Lady Austen, too, who urged Cowper to his greatest work, The Task. She wanted him to try blank verse, but he objected that he had nothing to write about. “You can write upon any subject,” replied Lady Austen, “write upon the sofa.”

So Cowper accepted the task thus set for him, and began to write. The first book of The Task is called The Sofa, and through all the six books we follow the course of his simple country life. It is the epic of simplicity, at once pathetic and playful. Its tuneful, easy blank verse never rises to the grandeur of Milton’s, yet there are fine passages in it. Though Cowper lived a retired and uneventful life, the great questions of his day found an echo in his heart. Canada had been won and the American States lost when he wrote–

“England, with all thy faults, I love thee still– My Country! and, while yet a nook is left Where English minds and manners may be found, Shall be constrained to love thee.
. . . . . .
Time was when it was praise and boast enough In every clime, and travel where we might, That we were born her children; praise enough To fill the ambition of a private man, That Chatham’s language was his mother tongue, And Wolfe’s great name compatriot with his own. Farewell those honours, and farewell with them The hope of such hereafter! they have fallen Each in his field of glory: one in arms, And one in council–Wolfe upon the lap Of smiling Victory that moment won,
And Chatham heart-sick of his country’s shame They made us many soldiers. Chatham, still Consulting England’s happiness at home, Secured it by an unforgiving frown,
If any wronged her. Wolfe, where’er he fought, Put so much of his heart into his act, That his example had a magnet’s force, And all were swift to follow where all loved.”

These lines are from the second book of The Task called The Timepiece. The third is called The Garden, the fourth The Winter Evening. There we have the well-known picture of a quiet evening by the cozy fireside. The post boy has come “with spattered boots, strapped waist, and frozen locks.” He has brought letters and the newspaper–

“Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups, That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in.”

The poem ends with two books called The Winter Morning Walk and The Winter Walk at Noon. Though not grand, The Task is worth reading. It is, too, an easily read, and easily understood poem, and through it all we feel the love of nature, the return to romance and simplicity. In the last book we see Cowper’s love of animals. There he sings, “If not the virtues, yet the worth, of brutes.”

Cowper loved animals tenderly and understood them in a wonderful manner. He tamed some hares and made them famous in his verse. And when he felt madness coming upon him he often found relief in his interest in these pets. One of his poems tells how Cowper scolded his spaniel Beau for killing a little baby bird “not because you were hungry,” says the poet, “but out of naughtiness.” Here is Beau’s reply–

“Sir, when I flew to seize the bird In spite of your command,
A louder voice than yours I heard, And harder to withstand.

“You cried ‘Forbear!;–but in my breast A mightier cried ‘Proceed!’–
‘Twas nature, sir, whose strong behest Impelled me to the deed.

“Yet much as nature I respect,
I ventured once to break
(As you perhaps may recollect)
Her precept for your sake;

“And when your linnet on a day,
Passing his prison door,
Had fluttered all his strength away And panting pressed the floor,

“Well knowing him a sacred thing
Not destined to my tooth,
I only kissed his ruffled wing
And licked the feathers smooth.

“Let my obedience then excuse
My disobedience now,
Nor some reproof yourself refuse
From your aggrieved Bow-wow;

“If killing birds be such a crime
(Which I can hardly see),

What think you, sir, of killing Time With verse addressed to me?”

As Cowper’s life went on, the terrible lapses into insanity became more frequent, but his sweet and kindly temper won him many friends, and he still wrote a great deal. And among the many things he wrote, his letters to his friends were not the least interesting. They are among the best letters in our language.

Perhaps Cowper’s greatest accomplishment, though not his greatest work, was a translation of Homer. He had never considered Pope’s Homer good, and he wished to leave to the world a better. Cowper’s version was published in 1791, and he fondly believed that it would take the place of Pope’s. But although Cowper’s may be more correct, it is plain and dry, and while Pope’s is still read and remembered, Cowper’s is forgotten.

Indeed, that Cowper is remembered at all is due more to his shorter poems such as Boadicea and The Wreck of the Royal George, and chiefly, perhaps, to John Gilpin, which in its own way is a treasure that we would not be without. Other of his shorter poems are full of a simple pathos and gentle humor. The last he wrote was called The Castaway, and the verse with which it ends describes not unfittingly the close of his own life. For his mind sank ever deeper into the shadow of madness until he died in April 1800–

“No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.”

Cowper was never a power in our literature, but he was a forerunner, “the forerunner of the great Restoration of our literature.”* And unlike most forerunners he was popular in his own day. And although it is faint, like the scent of forgotten rose leaves, his poetry still keeps a charm and sweetness for those who will look for it.



COWPER was as a straw blown along the path; he had no force in himself, he showed the direction of the wind. Now we come to one who was not only a far greater poet, but who was a force in our literature. This man was William Wordsworth. He was the apostle of simplicity, the prophet of nature. He sang of the simplest things, of the common happenings of everyday life, and that too a simple life.

His desire was to choose words only which were really used by men in everyday talk, “and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination.”

He chose to sing of humble life because there men’s thoughts and feelings were more free from art and restraint, there they spoke a plainer, more forceful language, there they were in touch with all that was lasting and true in Nature. Here then, you will say, is the poet for us, the poet who tells of simple things in simple words, such as we can understand. And yet, perhaps, strange as it may seem, there is no poet who makes less appeal to young minds than does Wordsworth.

In reading poetry, though we may not always understand every word of it, we want to feel the thrill and glamour of it. And when Wordsworth remembers his own rules and keeps to them there is no glamour, and his simplicity is apt to seem to us mere silliness.

When we are very young we cannot walk alone, and are glad of a kindly helping hand to guide our footsteps. In learning to read, as in learning to walk, it is at first well to trust to a guiding hand. And in learning to read poetry it is at first well to use selections chosen for us by those wiser than ourselves. Later, when we can go alone, we take a man’s whole work, and choose for ourselves what we will most love in it. And it is only by making use of this power of choice that we can really enjoy what is best. But of all our great writers Wordsworth is perhaps the last in the reading of whose works we willingly go alone. He is perhaps the writer who gains most by being read in selections. Indeed, for some of us there never comes a time when we care to read his whole works.

For if we take his whole works, at times we plow through pages of dry-as-dust argument where there is never a glimmer of that beauty which makes poetry a joy, till we grow weary of it. Then suddenly there springs to our eye a line of truest beauty which sets our senses atingle with delight, and all our labor is more than paid. And if our great poets were to be judged by single lines or single stanzas we may safely say that Wordsworth would be placed high among them. He is so placed, but it is rather by the love of the few than by the voice of the many.

I am not trying to make you afraid of reading Wordsworth, I am only warning you that you must not go to him expecting to gather flowers. You must go expecting to and willing to dig for gold. Yet although Wordsworth gives us broad deserts of prose in his poetry, he himself knew the joy of words in lovely sequence.

He tells us that when he was ten years old, or less, already his mind–

“With conscious pleasure opened to the charm Of words in tuneful order, found them sweet For their own sakes, a passion, and a power; And phrases pleased me chosen for delight, For pomp, or love.”*

*Prelude, book v.

When Wordsworth first published his poems they were received with scorn, and he was treated with neglect greater even than most great poets have had to endure. But in time the tide turned and people came at last to acknowledge that Wordsworth was not only a poet, but a great one. He showed men a new way of poetry; he proved to them that nightingale was as poetical a word as Philomel, that it was possible to speak of the sun and the moon as the sun and the moon, and not as Phoebus and Diana. Phoebus, Diana, and Philomel are, with the thoughts they convey, beautiful in their right places, but so are the sun, moon, and nightingale.

Wordsworth tried to make men see with new eyes the little everyday things that they had looked upon week by week and year by year until they had grown common. He tried to make them see these things again with “the glory and the freshness of a dream.”*

*Ode, Intimations of Immortality.

Wordsworth fought the battle of the simple word, and phrase, and thought, and won it. And the poets who came after him, and not the poets only, but the prose writer too, whether they acknowledged it or not, whether they knew it or now, entered as by right into the possession of the kingdom which he had won for them.

And now let me tell you a little of the life of this nature poet.

William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland in 1770. He was the second son of John Wordsworth, a lawyer, and law agent for the Earl of Lonsdale. William’s mother died when he was still a very small boy, and he remembered little about her. He remembered dimly that one day as he was going to church, she pinned some flowers into his coat. He remembered seeing her once lying in an easy chair when she was ill, and that was nearly all.

Before Wordsworth lost his mother he had a happy out-door childhood. He spent long days playing about in garden and orchard, or on the banks of the Derwent, with his friends and brothers and his sister Dorothy. In one of his long poems called The Prelude, which is a history of his own young life, he tells of these happy childish hours. In other of his poems he tells of the love and comradeship that there was between himself and his sister, though she was two years younger–

“Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days, The time, when, in our childish plays, My sister Emmeline and I
Together chased the butterfly!

A very hunter did I rush
Upon the prey:–with leaps and springs I followed on from brake to bush;
But she, God love her! feared to brush The dust from off its wings.”*

*To a Butterfly.

Together they spied out the sparrows’ nests and watched the tiny nestlings as they grew, the big rough boy learning much from his tender-hearted, gentle sister. In after years he said–

“She gave me eyes, she gave me ears; And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears; And love, and thought, and joy.”*

*The Sparrow’s Nest.

When the mother died these happy days for brother and sister together were done, for Willie went to school at Hawkshead with his brothers, and Dorothy was sent to live with her grandfather at Penrith.

But Wordsworth’s school-time was happy too. Hawkshead was among the beautiful lake and mountain scenery that he loved. He had a great deal of freedom, and out of school hours could take long rambles, day and night too. When moon and stars were shining he would wander among the hills until the spirit of the place laid hold of him, and he says–

“I heard among the solitary hills
Low breathings coming after me, and sounds Of undistinguishable motion, steps
Almost as silent as the turf they trod.”*

*Prelude, book i.

Wordsworth fished and bird-nested, climbing perilous crags and slippery rocks to find rare eggs. In summer he and his companions rowed upon the lake, in winter they skated.

“And in the frosty season, when the sun Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through twilight gloom, I heeded not their summons: happy time It was indeed for all of us–for me
A time of rapture! Clear and loud The village clock tolled six,–I wheeled about, Proud and exulting like an untired horse That cares not for his home. All shod with steel, We hissed along the polished ice in games. . . . . . .
We were a noisy crew; the sun in heaven Beheld not vales more beautiful than ours; Nor saw a band in happiness and joy
Richer, or worthier of the ground they trod.”*

*Prelude, book i.

Yet among all this noisy boyish fun and laughter, Wordsworth’s strange, keen love of nature took root and grew. At times he says–

“Even then I felt
Gleams like the flashing of a shield:–the earth And common face of nature spake to me
Rememberable things.”*

*Prelude, book i.

He read, too, what he liked, spending many happy hours over Gulliver’s Travels, and the Tale of a Tub, Don Quixote, and the Arabian Nights.

While Wordsworth was still at school his father died. His uncles then took charge of him, and after he left school sent him to Cambridge. Wordsworth did nothing great at college. He took his degree without honors, and left Cambridge still undecided what his career in life was to be. He did not feel himself good enough for the Church. He did not care for law, but rather liked the idea of being a soldier. That idea, however, he also gave up, and for a time he drifted.

In those days one of the world’s great dramas was being enacted. The French Revolution had begun. With the great struggle the poet’s heart was stirred, his imagination fired. It seemed to him that a new dawn of freedom and joy and peace was breaking on the world, and “France lured him forth.” He crossed the Channel, and for two years he lived through all the storm and stress of the Revolution. He might have ended his life in the fearful Reign of Terror which was coming on, had not his friends in England called him home. He left France full of pity, and sorrow, and disappointment, for no reign of peace had come, and the desire for Liberty had been swallowed up in the desire for Empire.

In spite of his years of travel, in spite of the fact that it was necessary for him to earn his living, Wordsworth was still unsettled as to what his work in life was to be, when a friend dying left him nine hundred pounds. With Wordworth’s simple tastes this sum was enough to live upon for several years, so he asked his dearly loved sister Dorothy to make her home with him, and together they settled down to a simple cottage life in Dorsetshire. It was a happy thing for Wordsworth that he found such a comrade in his sister. From first to last she was his friend and helper, cheering and soothing him when need be–

“Her voice was like a hidden bird that sang, The thought of her was like a flash of light, Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Of fragrance independent of the wind.”