Anglo-Irish poet, essayist, and dramatist Oliver Goldsmith is best known for the comic play She Stoops to Conquer, the long poem The Deserted Village, and the novel The Vicar of Wakefield. In addition, he published a short-lived literary magazine, The Bee (1759), where this short essay originally appeared. An edited version of "A City Night Piece" was later included in Goldsmith's The Citizen of the World, or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in London to His Friends in the East (1762).
A 19th-century critic observed that the "peculiar merits of Goldsmith's writings are clearness of thought, ease of style, and simple language. He never writes for effect, and there is scarcely a sentence in his works that a child might not understand. Yet in powers of judgment and thought, as well as in warm and deep sympathies, he was far above the great mass of his contemporaries."
A City Night Piece
by Oliver Goldsmith
The clock has struck two, the expiring taper rises and sinks in the socket, the watchman forgets the hour in slumber, the laborious and the happy are at rest, and nothing now wakes but guilt, revelry, and despair. The drunkard once more fills the destroying bowl, the robber walks his midnight round, and the suicide lifts his guilty arm against his own sacred person.
Let me no longer waste the night over the page of antiquity, or the sallies of contemporary genius, but pursue the solitary walk, where vanity, ever changing, but a few hours past walked before me; where she kept up the pageant, and now, like a froward child, seems hushed with her own importunities.
What a gloom hangs all around! The dying lamp feebly emits a yellow gleam, no sound is heard but of the chiming clock, or the distant watch dog. All the bustle of human pride is forgotten, and this hour may well display the emptiness of human vanity.
There will come a time when this temporary solitude may be made continual, and the city itself, like its inhabitants, fade away, and leave a desert in its room.
What cities, as great as this, have once triumphed in existence; had their victories as great as ours; joy as just, and as unbounded as we; and, with short-sighted presumption, promised themselves immortality. Posterity can hardly trace the situation of some. The sorrowful traveller wanders over the awful ruins of others, and, as he beholds, he learns wisdom, and feels the transience of every sublunary possession.
Here stood their citadel, now grown over with weeds; there their senate house, but now the haunt of every noxious reptile; temples and theatres stood here, now only an undistinguished heap of ruin. They are fallen, for luxury and avarice first made them feeble. The rewards of state were conferred on amusing and not on useful members of society. Thus true virtue languished, their riches and opulence invited the plunderer, who, though once repulsed, returned again, and at last swept the defendants into undistinguished destruction."
How few appear in those streets which but some few hours ago were crowded; and those who appear, no longer now wear their daily mask, nor attempt to hide their lewdness or their misery.
But who are those who make the streets their couch, and find a short repose from wretchedness at the doors of the opulent? These are strangers, wanderers, and orphans, whose circumstances are too humble to expect redress, and whose distresses are too great even for pity. Their wretchedness excites rather horror than pity. Some are without the covering even of rags, and others emaciated with disease; the world has disclaimed them; society turns its back upon their distress, and has given them up to nakedness and hunger. These poor shivering females have once seen happier days, and been flattered into beauty. They have been prostituted to the gay luxurious villain, and are now turned out to meet the severity of winter in the streets: perhaps now lying at the doors of their betrayers they sue to wretches whose hearts are insensible to calamity, or debauchees who may curse, but will not relieve them.
Why, why was I born a man, and yet see the suffering of wretches I cannot relieve! Poor houseless creatures! The world will give you reproaches, but will not give you relief. The slightest misfortunes, the most imaginary uneasiness of the rich, are aggravated with all the power of eloquence, and engage our attention; while you weep unheeded, persecuted by every subordinate species of tyranny, and finding enmity in every law.
Why was this heart of mine formed with so much sensibility! or why was not my fortune adapted to its impulse! Tenderness, without a capacity of relieving, only makes the heart that feels it more wretched than the object which sues for assistance.
But let me turn from a scene of such distress to the sanctified hypocrite, who has been talking of virtue till the time of bed, and now steals out, to give a loose to his vices under the protection of midnight; vices more atrocious, because he attempts to conceal them. See how he pants down the dark alley, and, with hastening steps, fears an acquaintance in every face. He has passed the whole day in company he hates, and now goes to prolong the night among company that as heartily hate him. May his vices be detected; may the morning rise upon his shame: yet I wish to no purpose; villainy, when detected, never gives up, but boldly adds impudence to imposture.