Oliver Goldsmith

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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 to serve as its editor, by which he meant sole contributor. For the periodical’s eight numbers (October 6, 1759, to November 24, 1759), Goldsmith churned out a variety of essays. As if this work were not enough, he was also writing for The Critical Review and The Lady’s Magazine.

Although The Bee was short-lived, Goldsmith’s work had attracted the notice of John Newbery, the publisher of children’s books. What unsigned work Goldsmith may have done for him is unclear; Goody Two-Shoes (1765), a children’s classic, has been attributed to Goldsmith. Newbery definitely wanted Goldsmith to write for his new daily newspaper, The Public Ledger, offering one hundred pounds for two essays a week. Since the Seven Years’ War had put an end to Goldsmith’s hopes for India—heavy fighting between the French and the English there precluded his assuming a post on the subcontinent—this commission was welcome. Goldsmith seized the opportunity to create a philsosophical tale capitalizing on the vogue for things Chinese. In a series of letters supposedly by Lien Chi Altangi, Goldsmith surveyed English society as an outsider. While Goldsmith knew nothing about China, he did know what it was like to be a stranger in England, since he himself was one. Though he criticizes the dirt of London or English imperialism, he also praises English generosity to French prisoners of war (letter 23) and urges his readers to accept life as it is (letter 44). These pieces were collected in 1762 under the title The Citizen of the World.

In that year, too, appeared Goldsmith’s The Life of Richard Nash, Esq. Goldsmith had met Nash in Bath, and shortly after Nash’s death, in 1761, he returned to that resort and talked with George Scott, the executor of Nash’s estate. In part Goldsmith found Nash interesting because the man had refined the manners of the town and so played an important role in the social history of the country. Even more important for Goldsmith, though, was the fact that Nash “was just such a man as probably you or I may be.” In choosing a common man and then offering “a recital neither written with a spirit of satire nor panegyric” (as he put it in his preface), Goldsmith was forging a new style of biography. The Life of Richard Nash, Esq. looks ahead to the early nineteenth century view of the importance of the average person.

A third work dating from 1762 is The Vicar of Wakefield, though it was not published until four years later. This work, which went through two hundred editions in the nineteenth century and elicited the highest praise from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Sir Walter Scott, was sold to John Newbery’s nephew Francis Newbery for sixty pounds to rescue Goldsmith from debtors’ prison. In this sentimental yet comic tale, Goldsmith drew on the scenes and people of his childhood, and he included himself in the guise of George Primrose. The praise of true benevolence corresponds to the age’s growing concern for the unfortunate, whether orphans, the insane, the poor, or animals.

The Traveller, the first publication to carry Goldsmith’s name, appeared in 1764 and earned for him instant fame as one of the greatest poets of the century. After hearing Samuel Johnson read the poem, Mrs. Cholmondely declared, “I never more shall think Dr. Goldsmith ugly.” T. S. Eliot pointed out that in The Traveller Goldsmith fuses the traditional and the new. The poem is a verse epistle in the manner of Horace and Alexander Pope; it also relies upon conventions of eighteenth century topographical poetry in its descriptions and moral purpose. Yet it looks ahead to the Romantics in stressing the poet’s own feelings and in attempting to free the couplet from Augustan rigidity.

In The Traveller, Goldsmith spoke of the enclosure of small fields to create large estates. This consolidation of land led to rural depopulation, urban overcrowding, and increased crime. The criticism of enclosure in The Traveller served as the basis of Goldsmith’s other major poem, The Deserted Village. Here again the old and the new meet as Goldsmith uses an Augustan prospect poem to portray the poet’s own feelings for the loss of rural simplicity and, beyond that, the destruction of innocence. The pastoral lament looks back to Vergil’s Georgics (c. 39-27 b.c.e.), but it also anticipates William Wordsworth’s Michael (1800).

Successful as an essayist, novelist, and poet, Goldsmith turned his pen to history and the stage. In the former area, his work was popular but hardly original. A History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son (1764), The Roman History; from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire (1769), The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771), and The Grecian History were all compilations drawn from secondary sources. Like An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, they aimed “to drag up the obscure and gloomy learning of the cell to open inspection; to strip it from its garb of austerity, and to shew the beauties of that form, which only the industrious and the inquisitive have been hitherto permitted to approach.” This desire to expand the realm of knowledge to the great middle class is characteristic of the age. One may compare Joseph Addison’s statement in The Spectator, number 10 (March 12, 1711), that “I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses.” So accessible were Goldsmith’s books that they remained in use as school texts a century after his death.

While Goldsmith’s histories were conventional, his plays were not. In The Westminster Magazine for January, 1773, he published “An Essay on the Theatre,” in which he attacked the vogue for sentimental, moralistic comedies. His first play, The Good-Natured Man (1768), had parodied this genre: The hero, Honeywood, repents of his generosity and promises to be more selfish in the future. The plot thus inverts the typical prodigal’s reformation in sentimental comedy. The Good-Natured Man enjoyed a respectable run but could not overshadow Hugh Kelly’s False Delicacy (1768), which David Garrick was running opposite Goldsmith’s play. She Stoops to Conquer, however, swept all before it. Its farcical elements violated the proprieties of sentimental comedy—and the audiences loved it. Sentimental comedy did not vanish immediately, but laughing comedy could now reassert itself on the stage and did so, most notably in the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan that shortly followed Goldsmith’s.

She Stoops to Conquer earned for Goldsmith some five hundred pounds; characteristically, he promptly spent the money. By early 1774, he was deeply in debt, by some two thousand pounds, and his health was fragile. At a party he challenged Garrick to a battle of extemporaneous epitaphs, and Garrick replied, “Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll, Who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll.” Goldsmith, who was indeed a poor conversationalist, could not immediately respond. Instead, he turned to his pen and began Retaliation: A Poem (1774), a series of witty observations about his friends and acquaintances. Of Garrick he wrote, “On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting;/ ’Twas only that, when he was off, he was acting.” Before he could complete the poem, Goldsmith required a real epitaph; he died on April 4, 1774, and was buried quietly to prevent his creditors from seizing his body.


The Latin inscription on Oliver Goldsmith’s memorial in Westminster Abbey says that he “left scarcely any kind of writing untouched and touched nothing that he did not adorn.” Though its author, Samuel Johnson, maintained that in lapidary inscriptions one is not upon oath, here he wrote no more than the truth.

Goldsmith was certainly a hack writer; in a three-month period in 1760 he turned out forty essays. Yet he left a novel that endures as a classic, two poems that rival any of the century, a comedy that still enjoys frequent revivals, and essays that continue to delight and instruct. The man who lamented the decline of literature gave ample testimony to its vitality.

He was a keen observer. In An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature he predicted the French Revolution, and elsewhere he foresaw the antagonism between Russia and Western Europe. Despite his gentleness, he could be a sharp social critic, as when he wrote in The Deserted Village, “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/ Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” His sympathy with the common man and his experiments with traditional verse forms are as forward-looking as his political and social observations. He was not without his faults: He was feckless toward his mother, improvident, credulous, and vain. Yet, as Samuel Johnson wrote of him in a letter to Bennet Langton, “Let not his frailties be remembered; he was a very great man.”


Ginger, John. The Notable Man: The Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Hamilton, 1977. An interesting account that examines both the life and the works and adds new information about and insights into both.

Quintana, Ricardo. Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Because Quintana concentrates on Goldsmith the writer and his works, he devotes only about ten pages to the first twenty-five years of Goldsmith’s life. Emphasis is on Goldsmith’s social and literary criticism.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. “Reynolds on Goldsmith.” In Portraits, edited by Frederick W. Hilles. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1952. Reynolds was Goldsmith’s closest friend, the man to whom Goldsmith dedicated The Deserted Village. In this memoir, written two years after Goldsmith’s death, Reynolds does not hide his friend’s flaws, but he argues that Goldsmith was “a man of genius” and that even rarer thing as well, a charming companion.

Scott, Temple. Oliver Goldsmith Bibliographically and Biographically Considered. New York: Bowling Green Press, 1928. Using the extensive Goldsmith collection assembled by William M. Elkins, Scott constructed an entertaining biography around the writings. Still a standard bibliography; some of the biographical material has been superseded.

Sells, A. Lytton. Oliver Goldsmith: His Life and Works. London: Allen and Unwin, 1974. The first part examines the life, the second part the works. Not a sympathetic presentation.

Wardle, Ralph M. Oliver Goldsmith. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1957. First scholarly biography of Goldsmith and still a standard source. A sympathetic interpretation and a readable one as well.

Wibberly, Leonard. The Good-Natured Man: A Portrait of Oliver Goldsmith. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1979. Intended for the general reader rather than the scholar. Wibberly uses his considerable novelistic abilities to weave a fascinating narrative that presents Goldsmith within his time. Although Wibberly is not beyond creating dialogues, and his facts are not always reliable, he wrote the book to show his admiration for Goldsmith, and that feeling comes through clearly.

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