Goldsmith’s Traveller

On the EighteenthCenturyWorlds List ( see right for link) Ellen recently posted some verses from Goldsmith’s The Traveller…..

Goldsmith, from “The Traveller”

Creations’ mildest charms are there combined,
Extremes are only in the master’s mind.
Stern o’er each bosom reason holds her state,
With daring aims irregularly great;
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by,
Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,
By forms unfashioned, fresh from nature’s hand;
Fierce In their native hardiness of soul,
True to imagined right, above control,
While even the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.

Thine, Freedom, thine the blessings pictured here,
Thine are those charms that dazzle and endear;
Too blest, indeed, were such without alloy,
But fostered even by Freedom, ills annoy:
That independence Britons prize too high,
Keeps man from man and breaks the social tie;
The self-dependent lordlings stand alone,
All claims that bind and sweeten life unknown;
Here by the bonds of nature feebly held,
Minds combat minds, repelling and repelled.
Ferments arise, imprisoned factions roar,
Repressed ambition struggles round her shore,
Till over-wrought, the general system feels
Its motions stopped, or frenzy fire the wheels.

Nor this the worst. As nature’s ties decay,
As duty, love and honour fail to sway,
Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
Still gather strength and force unwilling awe.
Hence all obedience bows to these alone,
And talent sinks and merit weeps unknown; .
Till time may come when, stripped of all her charms,
The land of scholars and the nurse of arms,
Where noble stems transmit the patriot flame,
(Where kings have toiled and poets wrote for fame,
One sink of level avarice shall lie,
And scholars, soldiers, kings unhonoured die.

This is extraordinarily ‘packed’ (as Ellen so aptly described it) verse. I wrote a brief commentary on some aspects which immediately struck me…

>>First I was struck again on reading this poem just how interesting Goldsmith is (it is something which always strikes me when I come back to the Deserted Village). There are fascinating conflicts…………..

But with regard to extracts from The Traveller what is fascinating are the conflicts. The first verse extols Freedom in the sense of individual liberty – a sense in which we still understand it – and if Goldsmith overstates the 18thC peasant’s freedom, no doubt English citizens were, comparatively at least, freer than their continental counterparts, as every witness, especially the French ones, testifies.

But then he goes on to suggest that actually….

>>That independence Britons prize too high,
Keeps man from man and breaks the social tie; <<

etc.. This is an argument which is astonishingly contemporary as is its development in the last stanza..

>>Nor this the worst. As nature’s ties decay,
As duty, love and honour fail to sway,
Fictitious bonds, the bonds of wealth and law,
Still gather strength and force unwilling awe. <<

Goldsmith’s dislike for wealth is very evident in The Deserted Village but note the extraordinary addition here of ‘law’ as another ‘fictitious bond’ – a position
which even today you have to be fairly politically to the far Left to hold (ie: that legal systems are a purely man made – fictitious – institution which have no ‘natural’ force or derivation).

I am not saying I go along wholly with his argument – I think he undervalues freedom (which is so under attack in the UK to a degree I would never have believed possible in my youth – to the extent that my primary political concern now is with the defence of freedom) and fails to comprehend how a complete absence of freedom can be combined with the most awful of values (Goldsmith had never beheld Stalinism or Fascism). But the arguments he advances are
astonishingly pertinent. They would also have fascinated people like Mill and Carlyle in the 19thC….

>>Till time may come when, stripped of all her charms,
The land of scholars and the nurse of arms,
Where noble stems transmit the patriot flame,
(Where kings have toiled and poets wrote for fame,
One sink of level avarice shall lie,
And scholars, soldiers, kings unhonoured die.<<

A very Carlylean sentiment.<<

Just some fairly random thoughts. But Goldsmith does fascinate me.

2 thoughts on “Goldsmith’s Traveller

  1. ellenandjim

    I put the lines by Goldsmith on Eighteenth Century because they had been quoted by Margaret Drabble in her wonderful The Pattern in the Carpet. And responded to Nick on list as follows:

    Drabble’s book framed Goldsmith so the reader could see the immediate relevance of his lines to her subject, but the larger intent was to bring out a general relevance. The lines are astonishingly contemporary.

    I would agree that freedom is under absolute assault. To my mind the sources of this are various: one, that the media is increasingly controlled by people out to make money and thus obeying the least examined common denominators, something reinforced by the growing awareness we in the west have of the power of the traditional family arrangements. As with women, the reality that millions of people live under such arrangements is used as a stalking horse to keep those not in control. By those in the west this is also a drive to safety in an increasingly desperate economic time (the result of decades of reactionary/military policy by powerful governments since WW2).

    Everywhere is propaganda against the idea of individual liberty and fulfillment.

    Now this was a strong new ideal in the enlightenment, one powerful source of its revolution and subversion of the ancien regime. Goldsmith is nothing if not an Enlightenment figure.

    I’d say many people today (not those the media are made for) understand laws are made by small groups of people for their benefit, and the state a group of people who have shared intertwining monopolies on legal violence. Now this understanding goes back to More’s Utopia where it is first stated.

    On another tack, we could call his poetry emigrant poetry, the poetry of inward exile for few understood him then or now.
    Ellen

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