With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.’
‘An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’
Oliver Goldsmith was a bit of an all-rounder: a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer, 1771), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766), and poet, he also compiled one of the first major scientific studies of the natural world in English, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774). This poem, however, sees him in a rather more playful mood.
Ostensibly this is an elegy, a sad, reflective poem dedicated to the memory of the eponymous Mrs. Mary Blaize (‘eponymous’ is the correct way to refer to a character named in the title; some people use ‘titular’, but this is not quite the same thing). It begins with a proclamation of sorrow – ‘Good people all, with one accord, / Lament for Madam Blaize’. The next two lines are a little strange but no more than confusing at this point: ‘Who never wanted a good word - / From those who spoke her praise’. It seems like a compliment…except that it’s also a rather meaningless statement. All it translates to is that anybody who praised Mrs. Blaize…well, they said nice things about her! It doesn’t actually tell the reader whether anyone did praise her though.
This clever wordplay becomes still more apparent in the next stanza. Here it is proudly asserted that ‘She freely lent to all the poor – ’; but after the dash, the final qualifying line rather diminishes the compliment since it reveals that she only lent to those of the poor ‘Who left a pledge behind’. A pledge in this sense means some form of security that they would repay, though whether this is intended to mean simply a promise or to indicate some more practical form of security is left to the generosity of the reader’s interpretation.
My own personal favourite stanza is the next one, in which the pattern of this poem becomes still more obvious through the declaration that the deceased Mrs. Blaize ‘never follow’d wicked ways - / Unless when she was sinning’. It is a pattern of continual assertion and contradiction, all combining to construct an elegiac tribute that actually reveals remarkably little about the deceased subject. Even the apparent claim that she received the admiration of the King, when it is said that ‘The King himself has follow’d her’ is undone by somewhat more prosaic explanation that he only does so ‘When she has walk’d before’ him in the street.
|He might not look a cheerful chap, but he's a total|
genius! This painting of Goldsmith is by Sir Joshua
Reynolds and is, er, borrowed, from the mighty
Wikipedia - for which, many thanks!
The poem’s appeal as a comedic novelty is owing entirely to the matter-of-fact way in which the information is presented. It isn’t trying to be insulting or nasty. There may perhaps be a slight satiric edge implied by the adulation of the title, since the admiring declaration that Mrs. Blaize was 'the Glory of her Sex' receives no support from the fatuous and superficial praise offered in the poem. The satire is more against the convention of proclaiming empty or senseless compliments upon the recently deceased and, certainly by eighteenth-century standards, it is only ever the lightest of satires. Included in A Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells in 1915, this poem is easily identified as a simple nonsense work, since there seems no point to the poem. However, it is definitely not ‘nonsense’ in the sense that something like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense (a poem also included in the same anthology). Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’ is a simple poem, achieving humour through the blunt presentation of statements so true that nobody but a comedian would think of saying them. As always, Goldsmith proves himself to be a consummate literary genius.
You can find this poem:
(Project Gutenberg is an absolutely fantastic free collection of 51,368 ebooks. If you follow this link, it will take you to an illustrated edition of Goldsmith’s ‘Elegy’, published in the nineteenth century by Frederick Warne & Co., the same publisher who brought to the world Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies)
You can find out more about Oliver Goldsmith:
ædia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, only a bit more sophisticated. This also has links to articles about some of Goldsmith’s other works!)
Information for this blogpost was discovered in:
Glynis Ridley, Clara’s Grand Tour (London: Atlantic Books, 2004)
(This book is about the first rhinoceros to make a grand tour of Europe, way back in the eighteenth century…and yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds! This book really drew my attention to the connection between Goldsmith and Natural History – I already knew he was a literary genius, but this revealed to me how brilliant a scientific mind he had too! Seriously, check this book out!!)