Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

The “Animated Nature”

Oliver Goldsmith might have been a naturalist had the opportunity presented itself. But it was his lot to earn his daily bread by scribbling catchpenny compilations for the booksellers, and in the spare moments to fight for fame by modelling his works of genius. If he had only been granted a few more spare moments, he could have spent them in the woods and fields, and we should find his “Animated Nature” full of original observation, and in every respect quite a different book.

Of his few opportunities for studying nature he made the very best; and there is pathos in the fact that, through watching the ways of the spider in the dusty little garret in Green Arbor Court, he was afterwards able to contribute an article on its habits to “The Bee.” Then one reads of his observing the antics of the Rooks from the Inner Temple; walking in the lanes around the farmhouse on the Edgware Road — another of his lodgings; and, in his happy Irish days, following the gentle art of Izaak Walton, whose pretty writing he since lived to honour with praise. During these short periods of leisure, he saw more, thought more, and admired more than do many in a lifetime. The high position he now holds in the world of letters he owes primarily to his great love of the country and the rural life — depicted in “The Deserted Village” and “The Vicar of Wakefield.”

The chief fault in “Animated Nature “is that it is a compilation. Goldsmith borrows from a large number of authors, including Buffon, Aristotle, Pliny, Linnæus, Pennant, and Swammerdam; he would probably have done better if he had quoted fewer authorities, and those more judiciously. The whole eight volumes are interspersed with many absurd stories about beasts and birds, which his innate simplicity led him half to believe. I will mention a few. Quoting, I believe, Linnæus, he says that a Squirrel, when it wants to cross a river, finds a piece of bark, sets it afloat, and goes aboard; it reaches the other side by using its tail like a fan or windmill! Imagine this timid, unobtrusive creature, with the cunning of a Monkey, watching its anchored “bark” as it waits for a flood-tide or a favourable wind.

We are informed that the Albatross, on flying to an immense height, tucks its head under one wing, and keeps afloat by flapping the other; thus it roosts. “What truth there may be in this statement I will not take upon me to determine,” is his comment.

Goldsmith was quite aware of his ignorance of the natural sciences, and he makes no attempt to hide it (for, in spite of his vanity, he was unwilling apparently to assume an affectation of great learning); but, nevertheless, the fear he shows of passing decisive opinions, even on such fables as these, is amusing.

Certain Nightingales are related as being so clever that they could talk like Parrots, and tell each other tales. “Such is the sagacity ascribed to the Nightingale,” he remarks drily.

These wondrous stories are at all events amusing, and Dr. Johnson prophetically remarked, “He is now writing a Natural History, and he will make it as interesting as a Persian tale.” But the extravagant imageries of a Persian tale would not go to form an ideal history of animated nature. The book might have been even more fanciful, for in the preface Goldsmith writes that, before he had read the works of the great French scientist Buffon, it was his intention to treat what he then conceived to be an idle subject “in an idle manner"; for let us “dignify Natural History,” he says, “with the grave appellation of an useful science, yet still we must confess that it is the occupation of the idle and speculative rather than of the busy and ambitious.”

All is written in Goldsmith’s vivacious style, and the first two volumes are to a certain extent excellent in subject matter, for he was able to make use of Buffon as far as the end of the history of quadrupeds. But in justice to Goldsmith, it must be said that he had this help where he least needed it, as, in dealing with the earth, with man, and with the well-known wild beasts, he had his own engaging descriptive powers, his own knowledge of human nature and anatomy, and a multitude of books, other than Buffon, fairly correct in their accounts of the larger mammals.

Consequently, Goldsmith can, “with some share of confidence,” recommend this part to the public, and I suggest that his chapters on “Sleep and Hunger,” and “Smelling, Feeling, Tasting,” are as entertaining as any in the book. In his history of birds and insects he is very meagre and confused, like Pliny. His account of the reptiles is, as one would expect, full of those curious mythical tales, in which Goldsmith revelled more than in scientific facts. In many places throughout this unique Natural History one relishes the numerous personal references which he introduced into most of his writings, and here and there some really fine prose, as fine as any he ever penned.

The naturalist will find amusement in assigning descriptions to their right owners, and in discovering the names of species but vaguely characterized. Then there is humour, which, although unconscious, should not on that account be omitted from among the merits of the book — merits that deserve wider recognition. Of his personal references, I must not pass over his touching remarks on “Hunger,” which he wrote perhaps at a time when he felt his own wants becoming more serious day by day: “In the beginning the desire for food is dreadful indeed, as we know by experience. . . . Those poor wretches, whose every day may be said to be an happy release from famine, are known at last to die in reality of a disorder caused by hunger, but which in common language is often called a broken heart.” That death was his own, said Forster in his “Life.” He (Goldsmith) pities Aldrovandus, the naturalist, whose undeserving end was poverty and death in a public hospital, but how much the more should we lament his untimely decease. Goldsmith might have lived on his own earnings, but undoubtedly he was extravagant. Yet could not the friendly Reynolds, or the kind-hearted Johnson have helped him through the mire, or attempted to strengthen those weaknesses, which, in so great and unfortunate a man, we should all be willing to overlook?

Turning again to “Animated Nature,” let us see what Goldsmith has to say of the pugnacity of the Puffin. As soon as a Raven approaches to carry off its young, the Puffin, making a curious noise like a dumb person trying to speak, catches him under the throat with its beak, and sticks its claws into its breast, which “makes the Raven try to get away.” At length both fall into the sea, the Raven, of course, drowning, to leave the Puffin to return unharmed to its nest.

The Woodpecker feeds sometimes in the following way. It lays its tongue on an ant-hill, and waits until there are a sufficient number of ants collected on it (for they mistake the long tongue for a worm), when the clever bird suddenly withdraws “the worm” and the ants with it, thus reaping a rich harvest!

One can conceive how this curious story originated, but what the Butcher Bird may be, which is little bigger than a Tit-mouse and lives in the marshes near London, I cannot determine. (The Bearded Tit?)

Herons, he tells us, occasionally take their fish on the wing by hovering as the Kingfisher does, but they do this only in the shallows, because in the deeper parts the fish, as soon as they see the Heron’s shadow, could sink immediately and swim out of harm’s reach. The reader will notice many more such extraordinary pieces of natural history to interest him, and amuse him.

The Turtle is lachrymose and forlorn, for it sighs and sheds tears when turned over on its back.

The Toad has only to sit at the bottom of a bush and to look a little attractive, when the giddy butterflies “fly down” its throat. A fascinating Toad!

Goldsmith found some difficulty in deciding into what class he should put the Lizards. “They are excluded from the insects,” he argues, “by their size, for, though the Newt may be looked upon in this contemptible light, a Crocodile would be a terrible insect indeed.”

Johnson, though in general he thoroughly understood Goldsmith’s character, and correctly valued his abilities, was hardly right in describing him on the memorial in Westminster Abbey as physicus. However, Johnson was quite unable to arrive at an exact estimate in this matter, for Natural History was a subject which he understood even less than did Goldsmith, notwithstanding that he knew Woodcocks must migrate; and thought he knew that Swallows “conglobulated together” at the bottoms of ponds and rivers in winter-time. In the sense that he wrote a Natural History, Goldsmith would perhaps consider himself entitled to be termed a naturalist, though some of us would be glad to earn such a distinction in so easy a manner.

He loved Nature and all God’s creatures, but he possessed an “invincible aversion” to caterpillars — which a naturalist would ascribe to his uneducated taste; he abhorred cruelty; and, with an Englishman’s prejudice, hated Germany, “which is noted,” he writes, “if not for truth, at least for want of invention.” It is from this fact, among others, that he considers a German book to show some good marks of veracity!

There are very few who can spare time to study Nature deeply (miserabile dictu) and the majority must content themselves “to view her as she offers, without searching into the recesses in which she ultimately hides"; they must “take her as she presents herself, and, storing their minds with effects rather than causes, instead of the embarrassment of systems about which few agree,” they must be satisfied “with the history of appearances concerning which all mankind have but one opinion.” It is for this class of people that “Animated Nature” was written.

(1906. Extracts from Essay on “Goldsmith as a Naturalist,” printed in the Zoologist.)

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.