Last reviewed: June 2018
Irish playwright and novelist
November 10, 1728 or 1730
Pallas, County Longford(?), Ireland
April 4, 1774
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. Oliver Goldsmith
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.