Oliver Goldsmith Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201550-Goldsmith.jpg Oliver Goldsmith (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Goldsmith is best known for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and his poem The Deserted Village (1770). It was, however, an abridged version of his A History of England (1764) that raised the ire of the Roman Catholic church. That abridgment—which contributed nothing to Goldsmith’s literary reputation—was first published shortly after he died in 1774, and it was often revised and republished in Great Britain and North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1823, an Italian translation of the text was listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum with the proviso donec corrigatur (“until it is corrected”).

Goldsmith’s negative remarks about the Catholic church at the time of the Reformation, were doubtless a primary reason for his book’s condemnation. He wrote that the “vices and impositions of the church of Rome were now almost come to a head; and the increase of arts and learning among the laity . . . began to make them resist that power which was originally founded in deceit.” The book also discusses how Pope Leo X’s greed led to the hated practice of selling of indulgences, which were easily purchased “at taverns, brothels and gaming houses,” and it emphasizes base financial squabbles among Catholic monastic orders. In Goldsmith’s view, the Catholic church was petty and weak, and thus an easy mark for England’s forceful and astute King Henry VIII. Goldsmith’s account of Pope Innocent III’s interdict against England in the reign of King John is also notable for its unflattering portrayal of Catholic leadership: “This instrument of Terror in the hands of the See of Rome was calculated to strike the senses, and to operate on the superstitious minds of the people, in the highest degree.”

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Oliver Goldsmith received his A.B. from Trinity College in Dublin in 1749. He toyed with the notion of taking holy orders but was refused by a bishop who felt his scarlet breeches reflected a less than serious attitude. In 1752, he left Ireland never to return. His travels to London to study law met with misfortune, but a generous uncle then sent him to study medicine at Edinburgh. Shortly thereafter he traveled by foot through Holland, Switzerland, and France. He settled in England in 1756, supporting himself at various times as a doctor among the poor, an apothecary’s assistant, an usher in a school, and finally as a hack writer for Ralph Griffith’s Monthly Review. His life was marked by continual wandering, and...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer is one of those classic ne’er-do-wells in English literature who would rather eat, drink, and play a merry prank than work for a living. Tony may have been Oliver Goldsmith’s favorite male character in the play; at the very least, he was a kindred spirit, because the playwright himself had lived a ne’er-do-well’s existence before successful authorship brought him some stability and an income, however irregular it may have been.

Goldsmith began life as the second son in the large family of an Anglo-Irish clergyman. What limited wealth the family had was destined to become part of his older brother’s inheritance or of the dowry for an older sister who “married...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Oliver Goldsmith was born of English stock to Ann Jones and the Reverend Charles Goldsmith, an Anglican curate. He first attended the village school of Lissoy and was taught by Thomas Byrne, a veteran of the War of the Spanish Succession. Byrne, a versifier who regaled his pupils with stories and legends of old Irish heroes, perhaps inspired Goldsmith with his love of poetry, imaginative romance, and adventure. In 1747, Goldsmith attended Patrick Hughes’s school at Edgeworthstown, where he received a thorough grounding in the Latin classics. While there he probably first heard Turlogh O’Carolan, “the last of the bards,” whose minstrelry left a lasting impression on him. In 1745, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although David Garrick’s epigrammatic remark that Oliver Goldsmith “wrote like an angel, but talk’s like poor Poll” exaggerates his social awkwardness, it does contain an important indicator. Before Goldsmith discovered authorship, his life had been all trial and mostly error.

As the second son of an Irish clergyman, Goldsmith could not look forward to independent means; most of the family resources went to increase the dowry of a sister. Nature seems to have been equally parsimonious toward him: Childhood disease, natural indolence, and physical ungainliness left him prey to his classmates’ teasing and his schoolmasters’ scorn. His later days at Trinity College in Dublin were no better: He got into trouble...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Oliver Goldsmith’s life divides into almost equal segments. The first half is poorly understood. The second, beginning in 1756 with his arrival in London, is well documented. Goldsmith’s birth is shrouded in some mystery. It is believed that he was born on November 10, 1728 or 1730, at his parents’ home at Pallas, County Longford, Ireland. The uncertainty arises because the year next to Goldsmith’s recorded birth was ripped out of the family Bible. He was the fourth child and second son of Charles Goldsmith, a leisure-loving curate who rose slowly in the Anglican Church, and Ann Jones Goldsmith. Shortly after Oliver’s birth, the family moved to Lissoy, where Charles became curate-in-charge of the parish at Kilkenny West....

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Oliver Goldsmith is one of the great writers of the eighteenth century, ranking with Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. He was certainly the master comedian of his age. His versatility in producing important poems, dramas, novels, and essays is without peer.

Goldsmith always remained a puzzle to his contemporaries. He was a difficult personality for them to comprehend. After his death, however, he assumed legendary proportions. Over the centuries, many anecdotes and recollections of the man have been offered, including countless books and shorter works. Perhaps Johnson wrote it best in his Latin inscription on Goldsmith’s memorial in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey: “in genius lofty,...

(The entire section is 117 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 1395 words.)

Oliver Goldsmith Biography

(Drama for Students)

Born November 10, 1728, in Ballymahon, Ireland, Goldsmith was from a poor but not needy family, supported by his father's position as a...

(The entire section is 625 words.)