Oliver Goldsmith

Monument for Oliver Goldsmith in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey

Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth and Animated Nature has been described as everything from “hackwork” to his “most substantial literary legacy” (Wardle, 1957). The first edition (in eight volumes) appeared in London in 1774. The work sought to draw together virtually all that was known about the planet earth, its plants and animals, and even its human inhabitants described from a biological perspective. Although Goldsmith drew almost all of his information from the work of other naturalists, he set out with a very Romantic goal in mind. He had first planned to translate Pliny’s Natural History and then, after reading Buffon, he decided that “the best imitation of the ancients was to write from our own feelings and to imitate nature.” The linking of emotion and mimetic imitation to the natural world echoed precisely the claims poets would be making for the next century. Goldsmith’s Animated Nature went through over twenty editions into the Victorian era; though it can be criticized on technical grounds, the work became the source of what countless individuals in the English-speaking world knew about the natural world around them. Goldsmith wrote with clarity and precision; for example, he admitted one of the most common confusions in natural history of the period in his discussion of the “border” between plants and animals:

it frequently puzzles the naturalist to tell exactly where animal life begins, and vegetable terminates; nor, indeed, is it easy to resolve, whether some objects offered to view be of the lowest of the animal, or the highest of the vegetable races. The sensitive plant, that moves at the touch, seems to have as much perception as the fresh water polypus, that is possessed of a still slower share of motion. Besides, the sensitive plant will not re-produce upon cutting it in pieces, which the polypus is known to do; so that the vegetable production seems to have the superiority.

Goldsmith weighed in on the side of those who believed that all human varieties derived from a single species, admitting however that great changes seemed able to occur in individual members of a species, including our own. His entire discussion of humans takes place, significantly, in a section of his work entitled “An History of Animals”:

If we look round the world, there seem to be not above six distinct varieties in the human species, each of which is strongly marked, and speaks the kind seldom to have mixed with any other. But there is nothing in the shape, nothing in the faculties, that shows their coming from different originals; and the varieties of climate, of nourishment, and custom, are sufficient to produce every change.

Goldsmith‘s An History of the Earth and Animated Nature was drawn largely from Buffon and other European naturalists. While he restrains himself from extending sensation into the realm of the inorganic, Goldsmith does indicate how widespread was the belief in common elements pervading the entire germ plasm–the totality of living things–a unity behind the dazzling variety that characterized the animate world. He says that the prevalence of invisible living creatures, animals and plants too small to see, has led “some late philosophers into an opinion, that all nature was animated, that every, even the most inert mass of matter, was endued with life and sensation, but wanted organs to make those sensations perceptible to the observer.” (IV, 322). The link between human and animal pleasure thus reaches well into the plant kingdom by the 1790s, producing a view well summarized by Goldsmith and by Buffon himself, whose natural history Goldsmith draws upon: “it is impossible to finish our short review of nature [over 30 volumes!] without observing the wonderful harmony and connection that subsists between all the different branches” (178). Pleasure described in one part of nature reflects the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of pleasure spread throughout all of nature.” Dr. Johnson wrote an epitaph in Westminster Abbey that affirms natural history’s importance in Goldsmith’s canon: “To the Memory of Oliver Goldsmith, poet, naturalist and historian.” (A.N.)

Goldsmith links:


Mollusks and Echinoderms from Goldsmith's An History of the Earth and Animated Nature

Biography and Works on The Literature Network

Oliver Goldsmith by J. H. Plumb: on ourcivilization.com

Goldsmith on Theatre Database with “Resources”: “In one of his earliest works, the Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning (1759), Goldsmith gave utterance to the thought which was to be his guiding star in the field of drama. He says: ‘Does the poet paint the absurdities of the vulgar, then he is low; does he exaggerate the features of folly, to render it more ridiculous, he is then very low. In short, they have proscribed the comic or satirical muse from every walk but high life, which, though abounding in fools as well as the humblest station, is by no means so fruitful in absurdity.’ It was Goldsmith’s mission to render natural the comedy of his time, and strike a decisive blow at the genteel or sentimental comedy, which he later termed a ‘kind of mulish production, with all the defects of its opposite parents, and marked with sterility’.”

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