Authors: Oliver Goldsmith

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Irish playwright and novelist

November 10, 1728 or 1730

Pallas, County Longford(?), Ireland

April 4, 1774

London, England

Biography

Oliver Goldsmith, the son of a Protestant clergyman in Ballymahon, was born in a small and poor village in Ireland. When Goldsmith was two years old his father succeeded to a more lucrative parish and moved his family to Lissoy, Westmeath. Little in Goldsmith’s early life pointed him toward literature. He received his earliest education at home from a maid-servant and thereupon at the Lissoy village school and a variety of boarding schools. Because he was small in stature, pitted with smallpox, and awkward in manner, he was the butt of his schoolmates’ jokes, and his schoolmasters considered him “a stupid, heavy blockhead.” However, both his characteristic good nature and his characteristic indolence remained unaltered. {$I[AN]9810000333} {$I[A]Goldsmith, Oliver} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Goldsmith, Oliver} {$I[geo]IRELAND;Goldsmith, Oliver} {$I[tim]1728;Goldsmith, Oliver}

Oliver Goldsmith

(Library of Congress)

About the time he planned to attend university, his sister married a well-to-do young man. When his father felt obliged to send her forth with a suitable dowry, the family’s financial situation became such that young Oliver was forced to attend the university as a sizar (a student paying his way through menial domestic chores) instead of as a pensioner (a student paying tuition). Despite this blow to his pride, he let himself be won over to the idea; he passed the college entrance examination—last on the list—and entered Trinity College in 1745.

His academic standing and economic status at Trinity College are largely matters of conjecture, but it is known that he was baited and occasionally beaten by his tutor and that he was perpetually without funds. His father died about this time, whereupon Goldsmith became dependent on his uncle, Mr. Contarine, to whom he applied for money that he went on to lose at the gaming tables or spent in roisterous frolics. One such frolic in Goldsmith’s rooms was interrupted by a surprise visit from his tutor, who, in righteous indignation at such unrestraint, struck the boy before his friends. Goldsmith’s sanguinity was for once overcome, and he retaliated by packing his bags and leaving school. He was persuaded to return, and he graduated in 1749, last on the list.

Goldsmith devoted the next years to idleness and a Grand Tour through Europe, ostensibly in search of a medical degree. In his petitions to his uncle for money, he cited the names of a number of scholars from whom he was supposedly learning, but none of those men have been found to have existed. Nevertheless, Goldsmith obtained his medical degree somehow, but it was not founded on enough knowledge for him to practice in England.

Goldsmith arrived in London about 1756, penniless, without work, and without ideas for any. Intermittently he did stints of proofreading for Samuel Richardson’s press and of ushering for a school. Finally, almost as a last resort, he began to do hack-writing, living the while in first one and then another of London’s slum garrets. His first jobs in 1757 were writing book reviews for the bookseller Griffiths, a hard taskmaster, with whom Goldsmith quarreled often. Soon their association was all but broken off. From then on Goldsmith inveighed against all critics, of whose number he had been an unwilling member. His first public attack on professional criticism appeared in An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, in which little volume he kicked enough notable critical shins to attract attention. It is for this notoriety chiefly that the book is noteworthy, though the graceful, supple, antithetical style so characteristic of the mature Goldsmith was already beginning to be apparent in his writing.

The reputation—or notoriety—that this book aroused also secured for him the editorship of The Bee, a weekly periodical that failed soon after but not before Goldsmith was sought out by Tobias Smollett, who asked that he write for the British Magazine, and by Samuel Johnson, who made him a protégé. Johnson’s recognition of him marked the turn in his literary career but not that in his financial circumstances. Goldsmith made considerable money in his later years, when he became one of the most popular English writers, but when he died in 1774 he was in debt for £2000.

Goldsmith’s most notable literary works are the novel The Vicar of Wakefield and the play She Stoops to Conquer. Also important are the sentimental poem The Deserted Village, which celebrates rural life, and the play The Good-Natured Man, which has interesting connections to his last and best comedy, She Stoops to Conquer.

Structurally, The Vicar of Wakefield follows the biblical Book of Job: “You take a good man, overwhelm him with successive misfortunes, show the pure flame of his soul burning in the midst of the darkness, and then, as the reward of his patience and fortitude and submission, restore him gradually to happiness, with even more flocks and herds than before.” As is characteristic of Goldsmith, the plot of the novel is the weak part of the story, being full of wild improbabilities, but the book’s strength, what has made it so popular, is its simple but perfect description of domestic life. This is set forth even in the midst of incremental distresses in a style that is idyllically tender, pathetic, slyly humorous, and full of charm. This graceful style, reminiscent of Alexander Pope, and the warm humor, which is generally characteristic of Goldsmith, permeate the best of his work.

The Deserted Village shows these traits of Goldsmith in verse. The piece is anachronistic in that it looks back past the verse forms of William Collins, James Thomson, and Thomas Gray to the heroic couplets of Pope. In Goldsmith’s hands, however, the couplet is not the tool for flagellant satire that it was for Pope: It is as precise but warmer and more human. The poem presents the economic difficulties of rural life and the dangers of luxury and “trade’s unfeeling train” in “Auburn, loveliest village of the plain.” Its nostalgia and the easy presentation make it a gratifying one to read, and it remains one of the most popular poems in English literature.

It is in the genre of drama that Goldsmith, with his two comedies, exerted the greatest influence on his successors. With Sir Richard Steele and Colley Cibber in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the not unnatural reaction against the immorality of Restoration plays culminated in a type of comedy hardly worthy of the name. The popular plays had by Goldsmith’s time all become weeping and sentimental; everything vulgar and vigorous was left out. Drama had perhaps not been in a worse state since the theaters were closed in 1642. The situation moved Goldsmith to animosity, and in his 1759 An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe he attacked the managers of the theaters for their abject pandering to the public taste and offended David Garrick. In 1768, when The Good-Natured Man appeared at Covent Garden, Garrick, who had not forgiven Goldsmith, produced the latest weeping comedy of Hugh Kelley at Drury Lane in competition with Goldsmith’s play. Perhaps he needed not have bothered. Goldsmith’s play has touches of the easy dialogue that mark She Stoops to Conquer as well as some excellent scenes—notably the one that most offended the taste of the audience, in which two bailiffs masquerade as fine gentlemen—but overall there is a lack of focus, structure, and comic effect. The play was an indication, however, that bade well for the future.

When She Stoops to Conquer appeared five years later, it was a rousing success, and it has remained one of the half dozen most popular comedies in English drama. It was early recognized as almost farce, and while it was ill-bred in Goldsmith’s time to laugh loudly, the play made Horace Walpole “laugh very much.” Shortly before the play was produced, Goldsmith had written a treatise titled “Essay on the Theatre: Or, A Comparison Between Sentimental and Laughing Comedy,” in which he complained of the excessive sentiment on stage. She Stoops to Conquer is not overtly antisentimental, for Goldsmith had learned his lesson, but it restored true humor to English comedy and taught playgoers to laugh again. They went away from the playhouse feeling less pious but in better spirits. Goldsmith wrote once: “Innocently to amuse the imagination in this dream of life is wisdom.” If that is accepted as true, Oliver Goldsmith, with all of his many faults, was very wise.

Author Works Drama: The Good-Natured Man, pr., pb. 1768 She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night, pr., pb. 1773 Long Fiction: The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766 Short Fiction: The Citizen of the World, 1762 (collection of fictional letters first published in The Public Ledger, 1760–1761) Poetry: “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex: Mrs. Mary Blaize,” 1759 “The Logicians Refuted,” 1759 The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society, 1764 “The Captivity: An Oratoria,” wr. 1764, pb. 1820 Edwin and Angelina, 1765 (also known as The Hermit) “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” 1766 The Deserted Village, 1770 “Threnodia Augustalis,” 1772 “Retaliation,” 1774 The Haunch of Venison, a Poetical Epistle to Lord Clare, 1776 The Poetical Works of Dr. Goldsmith, 1785 Nonfiction: The Paths of Virtue Delineated, 1756 An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, 1759 The Bee, 1759 (essays) Memoirs of M. de Voltaire, 1761 The Life of Richard Nash of Bath, 1762 The Martial Review: Or, a General History of the Late Wars, 1763 An History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son, 1764 (2 volumes) The Geography and History of England, 1765 Essays, 1765 The History of Rome, from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire, 1769, 1772, 1824, 1828 The Life of Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, 1770 Life of Thomas Parnell, D.D., 1770 The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771 (4 volumes) Dr. Goldsmith’s Roman History, 1772 An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774 (8 volumes; unfinished) An Abridgement of the History of England: From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Death of George II, 1774 The Grecian History, from the Earliest State to the Death of Alexander the Great, 1774 A Survey of Experimental Philosophy Considered in Its Present State of Improvement, 1776 Edited Texts: The Art of Poetry on a New Plan, 1761–62 (with John Newbery, compiler) Plutarch’s Lives, 1762 The Beauties of English Poesy, 1767 The World Displayed, 1779 (with Samuel Johnson and Christopher Smart) Translations: Memoirs of Lady Harriot Butler, 1761–62 The Memoirs of a Protestant, Condemned to the Galleys of France, for His Religion (Mémoires d’un protestant condamné aux galères de France pour cause de religion) by Jean Marteilhe, 1765 (as James Willington) A Concise History of Philosophy and Philosophers (Histoire abrégée de la philosophie) by Jean-Henri-Samuel Formey, 1766 The Comic Romance by Paul Scarron, 1775 Children’s/Young Adult Fiction: Novellettes, Selected for the Use of Young Ladies and Gentleman, 1780 (with Mrs. E. Griffith and Mr. McMillan) Miscellaneous: The Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, 1966 (5 volumes; Arthur Friedman, editor) Bibliography Brooks, Christopher K. “‘Guilty of Being Poor’: Goldsmith’s ‘No-Account’ Centinel.” English Language Notes 36 (September, 1998): 23-38. Argues that Goldsmith’s character, the “Private Centinel” in his Citizen of the World, is one of the cleverest and most profound uses of a poor, homeless character in eighteenth century literature. Dixon, Peter. Oliver Goldsmith Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An updated introduction to the life and works of Goldsmith. Flint, Christopher. “‘The Family Piece’: Oliver Goldsmith and the Politics of the Everyday in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Portraiture.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29 (Winter, 1995/1996): 127–152. Argues that the family portrait in The Vicar of Wakefield is typical of family in eighteenth century culture; claims that Goldsmith suggests that both the novel and portraiture are engaged in political acts of domestic regulation free of the corruption often associated with “politics.” Hopkins, Robert H. The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969. Hopkins interprets Goldsmith not in the traditional view as the sentimental humanist but as a master of satire and irony. A chapter “Augustanisms and the Moral Basis for Goldsmith’s Art” delineates the social, intellectual, and literary context in which Goldsmith wrote. Hopkins devotes a chapter each to Goldsmith’s crafts of persuasion, satire, and humor. Includes a detailed examination of The Vicar of Wakefield. Lucy, Séan, ed. Goldsmith: The Gentle Master. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1984. This short but useful collection of essays provides interesting biographical material on Goldsmith, as well as critical comment on his works. An essay on The Vicar of Wakefield identifies elements of the Irish narrative tradition in the novel, and other essays examine the themes of exile and prophesy in Goldsmith’s poetry and Goldsmith’s role as an antisentimental, reforming playwright seeking to revitalize the eighteenth century theater. Lytton Sells, Arthur. Oliver Goldsmith: His Life and Works. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1974. This volume is divided into two sections on Goldsmith’s life and works, respectively. Individual chapters focus on particular facets of Goldsmith’s work (“The Critic,” “The Journalist,” “The Biographer”) and also feature more detailed studies of major works such as The Citizen of the World and The Vicar of Wakefield. Contains an extended discussion of Goldsmith as dramatist and poet. Mikhail, E. H., ed. Goldsmith: Interviews and Recollections. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Contains interviews with Goldsmith’s friends and associates. Includes bibliographical references and index. Quintana, Richard. Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study. New York: Macmillan, 1967. This work incorporates biography and criticism in a readable account of Goldsmith’s colorful life and his development as a writer. Goldsmith’s many literary genres are discussed in depth, with chapters on his poetry, drama, essays, and fiction. A lengthy appendix offers notes on Goldsmith’s lesser writings, such as his biographical and historical works. Rousseau, G. S., ed. Goldsmith: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974. A record of critical comment on Goldsmith, this volume is organized by particular works with an additional section on Goldsmith’s life and general works. This anthology extends only as far as 1912, but pieces by Goldsmith’s contemporaries, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s sketch of Goldsmith’s character, and by later critics such as William Hazlitt and Washington Irving, offer interesting perspectives on Goldsmith’s place in literary history. Swarbrick, Andrew, ed. The Art of Oliver Goldsmith. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984. This excellent collection of ten essays offers a wide-ranging survey of the works of Goldsmith. Essays treat individual works (The Citizen of the World, The Deserted Village, The Traveller), as well as more general topics such as the literary context in which Goldsmith wrote, the elements of classicism in his works, and his place in the Anglo-Irish literary tradition. Worth, Katharine. Sheridan and Goldsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Worth compares and contrasts the lives and works of Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Bibliography and index.

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