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Oliver Goldsmith published a great variety of material including poems, biographies, a novel, essays, and sketches. One of his plays, She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night (pr., pb. 1773), is still popular and widely performed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160
Oliver Goldsmith was a writer of such range, such enormous output, and such varying quality that he is difficult to categorize easily. Success came slowly for Goldsmith after years of work as a Grub Street hack, but as his style and reputation as a writer developed, he became a member of the eminent London literary circle, which included men of letters such as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Many of his poems and essays attracted favorable notice, and with his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), he achieved a solid reputation as a writer of fiction.
Goldsmith’s first play, A Good-Natured Man (pr., pb. 1768), failed in its initial production at Covent Garden but went on to become a moderate success. His next play, She Stoops to Conquer, earned him greater honor as a playwright. Goldsmith’s clear, charming style and his gift for humor and characterization have ensured his enduring popularity in the many genres he practiced.
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Although best remembered as a dramatist, Oliver Goldsmith is also known for his work in several other genres. His only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), the comic and sentimental tale of a village curate’s attempts to guide his children through the tribulations of growing up, remains a minor classic. The Citizen of the World (1762), a recasting of Charles de Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721; Persian Letters, 1722), is a collection of fictitious letters, purportedly written by a Chinese philosopher who is living in London, describing English customs and English society from an outsider’s point of view.
Goldsmith’s poetry was often comic as well (as in his parodies of “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” of 1766, and “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex: Mrs. Mary Blaize,” of 1759), but when his sympathies were touched, he produced some creditable serious poems, the most notable of which is The Deserted Village (1770), a protest against the economic and social conditions that were forcing a massive shift of the populace from small villages to cities.
Like other eighteenth century authors, Goldsmith earned his living by writing whatever publishers thought would sell: histories of Rome and England, biographical sketches, epilogues for the plays of others, translations, and introductions to the natural sciences as well as plays, novels, and poems. The best modern edition of Goldsmith’s varied canon is The Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith (1966), in five volumes, edited by Arthur Friedman for Oxford University Press.
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Oliver Goldsmith’s success rate as a dramatist is virtually unmatched: two plays written, the first very good, the second a masterpiece. Goldsmith was the preeminent English comic dramatist in the period of almost two centuries between William Congreve and Oscar Wilde. Only his contemporary Richard Brinsley Sheridan—who wrote more plays and had better theatrical connections—came close to matching Goldsmith’s talent.
The qualities that make The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer wonderful theater are the qualities that mark all Goldsmith’s writings: an eye for human foibles, a knack for creating the scene or situation in which such foibles can best display themselves, and a willingness to laugh at folly rather than to be irked by it. Goldsmith expresses his comic vision of human experience in language that induces the reader’s continuing attention and seduces the reader’s affection.
Goldsmith was a writer who believed that it was his duty to entertain his audience. Like a stage performer, he used every device, trick, and resource that gives pleasure. No reader finds Goldsmith’s prose a chore to read; no theatergoer finds his plays too long.
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Oliver Goldsmith contributed significantly to several literary genres. His works of poetry include The Traveller: Or, A Prospect of Society (1764) and The Deserted Village (1770), a classic elegiac poem of rural life. He wrote biographies as well, including The Life of Richard Nash of Bath (1762), which is especially valuable as a study in the social history of the period, Life of Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (1770), and Life of Thomas Parnell (1770). Goldsmith developed principles of literary criticism in An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759), a history of literature in which he laments the decline of letters and morals in his own day. In addition to these publications and works of literary journalism that included humorous studies of London society, Goldsmith wrote two comic plays, The Good-Natured Man (pr., pb. 1768) and She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night (pr., pb. 1773), a rollicking lampoon of the sentimental comedy then in vogue; She Stoops to Conquer is still performed today. In addition, Goldsmith published translations, histories, and even a natural history, An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774), containing some quaint descriptions of animals.
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Oliver Goldsmith’s contemporaries and posterity have been somewhat ambivalent about his literary stature, which is epitomized in English writer Samuel Johnson’s estimation of him: “Goldsmith was a man who, whatever he wrote, did it better than any other man could do.” Johnson demurred on Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, however, judging it “very faulty.” There can be little dispute over critic A. Lytton Sells’s judgment that Goldsmith’s “versatility was the most remarkable of his gifts.”
Although the novel The Vicar of Wakefield has usually been considered his best work, Goldsmith despised the novelist’s art and regarded himself principally as a poet. His most famous poem is the reflective and melancholic The Deserted Village, a serious piece in heroic couplets; however, perhaps his real poetic gift was for humorous verse, such as The Haunch of Venison: A Poetical Epistle to Lord Clare (1776) and “Retaliation” (1774). Indeed, humor and wit are conspicuous in all his major works: There is the gentle irony of The Vicar of Wakefield, the comic portraits and satiric observations in The Citizen of the World, and the outright farce of She Stoops to Conquer.
Goldsmith was not a Romantic but a classicist by temperament, whose taste was molded by the Latin classics, the Augustan poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and seventeenth century French literature, and for whom the canons of criticism laid down by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux and Voltaire were authoritative. Reflecting that background, Goldsmith’s style is, in Johnson’s words, “noble, elegant, and graceful.”
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Like Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, and other eighteenth century writers, Oliver Goldsmith did not confine himself to one genre. Besides poetry, Goldsmith wrote two comedies, a novel, periodical essays, a collection of letters, popular histories of England and Rome, and several biographical sketches. By the 1760’s, literature had become a commercial enterprise, and successful authorship meant writing what the public would read. Goldsmith could write fluently on a wide variety of subjects, even when his knowledge of some of them was superficial. He was especially skillful at adapting another’s work to his audience’s interests: Many of his short poems are imitations of foreign models, and the collection of fictional letters, The Citizen of the World (1762), is an adaptation of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721). Both his collected works and his letters are available in modern editions.
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Oliver Goldsmith used his fluent pen to write himself out of obscurity. Like many other eighteenth century writers, he progressed from hackwork to authorship—and along the way did something to raise the level of hackwork. His life and career demonstrate the transition that occurred in British literature as commercial publishing gradually replaced patronage as the chief support of writers.
Goldsmith is both one of the most characteristic and one of the best English writers of the late 1700’s. His The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), for example, both reflects the taste of the period for sentimental fiction and maintains itself as a minor classic today. His The Deserted Village is likewise a typical pastoral of the period and a landmark of English poetry. In his own time, Goldsmith reflected an important new sensibility in English culture: an awareness of Britain as part of a European community with which it shared problems and attitudes. This new view is evident in The Traveller, which contrasts the great states of Europe to understand the character of each nation more than to trumpet British superiority; this cosmopolitan spirit also shapes the letters of The Citizen of the World, which analyze English society through a Chinese visitor’s eyes.
Even without a historical interest, many readers still find Goldsmith enjoyable for his style and his comedy. Goldsmith is one of the masters of the middle style; no reader has to work hard at his informal, almost conversational prose and poetry. Although his pieces are often filled with social observation, Goldsmith’s human and humorous observations of people make his work accessible and pleasurable even to those who never met a lord or made the Grand Tour. His characters and perceptions are rooted in universal experiences.
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Oliver Goldsmith seems to have been a writer who had one good novel in him. What qualities other than his skillful application of autobiographical elements contribute to the success of The Vicar of Wakefield?
Develop the theme of moral blindness in She Stoops to Conquer.
What saves Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village from being merely nostalgic verse for a way of life that has passed?
Discuss writer James Boswell’s unfair depiction of Goldsmith as a kind of second-rate Samuel Johnson.
It is difficult to find writers as versatile as Goldsmith. What aspects of his artistry characterize all or most of the genres in which he wrote?
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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.