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Publication of the Vicar of Wakefield--opinions conce
ncerning it—of Dr. Johnson—of Rogers the poet-of Goethe-its merits.—Exquisite extract.Attack by Kenrick.Reply.--Book building.- Project of a comedy.
The success of the poem of “The Traveller," and the popularity which it had conferred on its author, now roused the attention of the bookseller in whose hands the novel of “The Vicar of Wakefield” had been slumbering for nearly two long years. The idea has generally prevailed that it was Mr. John Newbery to whom the manuscript had been sold, and much surprise has been expressed that he should be insensible to its merit and suffer it to remain unpublished, while putting forth various inferior writings by the same author. This, however, is a mistake; it was his nephew, Francis Newbery, who had become the fortunate purchaser. Still the delay is equally unaccountable. Some have imagined that the uncle and nephew had business arrangements together, in which this work was included, and that the elder Newbery, dubious of its success, retarded the publication until the full harvest of “The Traveller” should be reaped. Booksellers are prone to make egregious mistakes as to the merit of works in manuscript; and to undervalue, if not reject, those of classic and enduring excellence, when destitute of that false brilliancy commonly called “effect.” In the present instance, an intellect
THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD.
vastly superior to that of either of the booksellers was equally at fault. Dr. Johnson, speaking of the work to Boswell, some time subsequent to its publication, observed, “I myself did not think it would bave had much success. It was written and sold to bookseller before “The Traveller," but published after, so little expectation had the bookseller from it. Had it been sold after “The Traveller," he might have had twice as much money; though sixty guineas was no mean price."
Sixty guineas for the Vicar of Wakefield ! and this could be pronounced no mean price by Dr. Johnson, at that time the arbiter of British talent, and who had had an opportunity of witnessing the effect of the work upon the public mind; for its success was immediate. It came out on the 27th of March, 1766; before the end of May a second edition was called for; in three months more, a third ; and so it went on, widening in a popularity that has never flagged. Rogers, the Nestor of British literature, whose refined purity of taste and exquisite mental organization, rendered him eminently calculated to appreciate a work of the kind, declared that of all the books, which through the fitful changes of three generations he had seen rise and fall, the charm of the Vicar of Wakefield had alone continued as at first; and could he revisit the world after an interval of many more generations, he should as surely look to find it undiminished. Nor has its celebrity been confined to Great Britain. Though so exclusively a picture of British scenes and manners, it has been translated into almost every language, and every where its charm has been the same. Goethe, the great genius of Germany, declared in his eighty-first year, that it was his delight at the age of twenty, that it had in a manner formed a part of his education, influencing his taste and feelings throughout life, and that he had recently read it again from beginning to end with re. newed delight, and with a grateful sense of the early benefit derived from it.
It is needless to expatiate upon the qualities of a work which has thus passed from country to country, and language to language, until it is now known throughout the whole reading world and is become a household book in every hand. The secret of its universal and enduring popularity is undoubtedly its truth to nature, but to nature of the most amiable kind; to nature such as Goldsmith saw it. The author, as we have occasionally shown in the course of this memoir, took his scenes and characters in this, as in his other writings, from originals in his own motley experience; but he has given them as seen through the medium of his own indulgent eye, and has set them forth with the colorings of his own good head and heart. Yet how contradictory it seems that this, one of the most delightful pictures of home and homefelt happiness should be drawn by a homeless man; that the most amiable picture of domestic virtue and all the endearments of the married state should be drawn by a bachelor, who had been severed from domestic life almost from boyhood ; that one of the most tender, touching, and affecting appeals on behalf of female loveliness, should have been made by a man whose deficiency in all the graces of person and manner seemed to mark him out for a cynical disparager of
We cannot refrain from transcribing from the work a short passage illustrative of what we have said, and which within a wonderfully small compass comprises a world of beauty of imagery, tenderness of feeling, delicacy and refinement of thought, and matchless purity of style. The two stanzas which
conclude it, in which are told a whole history of woman's wrongs and sufferings, is, for pathos, simplicity and euphony, a gem in the language. The scene depicted is where the poor Vicar is gathering around him the wrecks of his shattered family, and endeavoring to rally them back to happiness.
“ The next morning the sun arose with peculiar warmth for the season, so that we agreed to breakfast together on the honeysuckle bank ; where, while we sat, my youngest daughter at my request joined her voice to the concert on the trees about us. It was in this place my poor Olivia first met her seducer, and every object served to recall her sadness. But that melancholy which is excited by objects of pleasure, or inspired by sounds of harmony, soothes the heart instead of corroding it. Her mother, too, upon this occasion, felt a pleasing distress, and wept, and loved her daughter as before. Do, my pretty Olivia,' cried she, “let us have that melancholy air your father was so fond of; your sister Sophy has already obliged us. Do, child, it will please your old father.' She complied in a manner so exquisitely pathetic as moved me.
6 « When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What art can wash her guilt away ?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
And wring his bosom-is to die.'»
Scarce had the Vicar of Wakefield made its appearance and been received with acclamation, than its author was subjected to one of the usual penalties that attend success. He was attacked in the newspapers. In one of the chapters he had introduced his ballad of the Hermit, of which, as we have mentioned, a few copies had been printed some considerable time previously for the use of the Countess of Northumberland. This brought forth the following article in a fashionable journal of the day:
“ To the Printer of the St. James's Chronicle.
SIR,- In the Reliques of Ancient Poetry, published about two years ago, is a very beautiful little ballad, called 'A Friar of Orders Gray.' The ingenious editor, Mr. Percy, supposes that the stanzas sung by Ophelia in the play of Hamlet were parts of some ballad well known in Shakspeare's time, and from these stanzas, with the addition of one or two of his own to connect them, he has formed the above-mentioned ballad ; the subject of which is, a lady comes to a convent to inquire for her love who had been driven there by her disdain. She is answered by a friar that he is dead:
The lady weeps and laments her cruelty; the friar endeavors to comfort her with morality and religion, but all in vain; she expresses the deepest grief and the most tender sentiments of love, till at last the friar discovers himself:
« « And lo! beneath this gown of gray
Thy own true love appears.'
“ This catastrophe is very fine, and the whole, joined with