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...
(The entire section is 3,538 words.)