Article abstract: As a novelist, poet, dramatist, and essayist, Goldsmith stands in the first rank. His The Life of Richard Nash, Esq. (1762) pioneered a new type of biography, and his historical writings helped educate generations of schoolchildren and adults.
Many uncertainties linger about Oliver Goldsmith. Among them are the date and place of his birth. He was probably born on November 10, 1728 or 1730—though any year between 1728 and 1731 is possible—in Pallas, County Longford, Ireland, as the fifth child and second son of the Reverend Charles Goldsmith and Ann Jones Goldsmith. He grew up in the Irish village of Lissoy, the model for the imaginary Auburn of the poem The Deserted Village (1770). Goldsmith was fond of his father, who became the model for the benevolent Dr. Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and the kindly father of The Man in Black of The Citizen of the World (1762). The village curate in The Deserted Village is also based partly on the Reverend Charles Goldsmith, in addition to Goldsmith’s brother Henry, to whom he dedicated his poem The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society (1764). The less flattering portrait of Mrs. Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield reflects Goldsmith’s estrangement from his mother, who grew disillusioned with her son’s improvidence—a trait inherited from his father. When Ann Goldsmith died, Oliver supposedly wore only half-mourning (again the facts are unclear) because he regarded her as a distant relative.
A large part of his mother’s disappointment stemmed from Goldsmith’s reluctance to apply his obviously great talents. By age seven, he was already composing witty poetry and showing unusual ability at the village school run by Thomas Byrne, the wise schoolmaster of The Deserted Village. Goldsmith also was revealing his lifelong love of nature, which culminated in the eight-volume An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774), an ambitious project that remained unfinished at his death. In that posthumously published work, Goldsmith recalled chasing dragonflies, distinguishing the songs of the various waterfowl, and observing the bees gathering pollen. Always in his London days he would seek some rural retreat, and his writings herald the Romantic turning away from the city in favor of the countryside.
From 1741 to 1745, Goldsmith studied under the Reverend Patrick Hughes at Edgeworthstown, Ireland. Returning to school after a summer vacation, he supposedly stopped one evening at the village of Ardagh and asked directions to the best house in town. His interlocutor happened to be the local wit, Cornelius Kelly, who willfully misunderstood Goldsmith’s inquiry for an inn; Kelly sent him to the best house indeed, that of Squire Featherstone. Thinking that this private residence was an inn, Goldsmith behaved accordingly, ordering the owner about. This episode served as the basis of Goldsmith’s brilliant comedy, She Stoops to Conquer:Or, The Mistakes of a Night (1773)—unless the story was manufactured because of the comedy. Yet the account is plausible, for throughout his life Goldsmith was extremely gullible. When he was working on his The Grecian History, from the Earliest State to the Death of Alexander the Great (1774), he asked Edward Gibbon the name of the Indian prince who fought against Alexander. When Gibbon flippantly replied, “Montezuma,” Goldsmith credulously wrote down the name.
After leaving Hughes’s school, Goldsmith matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1745; he was graduated without distinction four years later. From 1749 to 1752, he failed in halfhearted attempts to become a minister, a teacher, and a lawyer; from this period dates his alienation from his mother. In 1752, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, but he neither enrolled as a regular student nor took a degree. In 1754, he traveled to Leyden, supposedly to complete his medical education, but again he neither officially enrolled at the university nor received a diploma.
How much medicine Goldsmith learned in these years remains questionable. In 1758, he failed an examination for the post of hospital mate. In the 1760’s, when he was trying to establish a practice, he was angered by a lady’s preferring the advice of her pharmacist to his and vowed never again to prescribe for his friends. To this assertion Topham Beauclerk replied, “Do so, my dear Doctor. Whenever you undertake to kill, let it be only your enemies.” Certainly Goldsmith hastened his own death by prescribing for himself a heavy dose of James’s Fever Powders.
What Goldsmith certainly did learn at Edinburgh, Leyden, and in his subsequent tour of Europe (1755-1756) was much about human nature and geography. The Traveller reveals a careful observer of landscape and national character; An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759) shows an acquaintanceship with the literatures of the Continent; and his essays draw upon his European experiences.
Settling in London in 1756, Goldsmith attempted to establish a medical practice, but his poverty limited his patients to the poor. Not only were his shabby clothes against him; so, too, was his appearance. Short and stocky, he had a protruding forehead. His homely face was further disfigured by a childhood attack of smallpox. Frances Reynolds, sister of the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, said that Goldsmith looked like a tailor, and Mrs. Mary Cholmondely claimed that he was the ugliest person she knew.
Unable to make a living as a doctor, he supplemented his meager income by working as a proofreader for the novelist-printer Samuel Richardson. As Goldsmith wrote to his brother-in-law Daniel Hodson, “Nothing [is] more apt to introduce us to the gates of the muses than Poverty.”
Still struggling, Goldsmith eagerly snatched at the offer of a teaching position in Peckham, Surrey. There he met Ralph Griffiths, publisher of the Monthly Review. Griffiths offered Goldsmith one hundred pounds a year to serve as the magazine’s reviewer. By April, 1757, he was living above Griffiths’ shop in Paternoster Row, London, and writing.
Six months of working for Griffiths was enough for Goldsmith: Griffiths was demanding, and he took liberties with Goldsmith’s essays. In 1758, Goldsmith returned briefly to his teaching post and also secured a commission to serve as a physician in India. To earn money for his passage, he completed An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe. This work surveys education and literature, particularly in France and England. Goldsmith saw a decline in both countries but believed that the great power of booksellers in England was especially pernicious. No doubt he was thinking of his recent experience with Griffiths.
Other booksellers were proving more generous, though. John Wilkie was starting a new thirty-two-page weekly magazine, The Bee, and asked Goldsmith...
(The entire section is 2913 words.)