Oliver Goldsmith, 1728-1774

Biographical note

Poet, dramatist, and essayist, son of an Irish clergyman, was born at Pallasmore in Co. Longford. His early education was received at various schools at Elphin, Athlone, and Edgeworthstown. At the age of 8 he had a severe attack of smallpox which disfigured him for life. In 1744 he went to Trinity College, Dublin, whence, having come into collision with one of the college tutors, he ran away in 1746. He was, however, induced to return, and graduated in 1749. The Church was chosen for him as a profession — against his will be it said in justice to him. He presented himself before the Bishop of Elphin for examination — perhaps as a type of deeper and more inward incongruencies — in scarlet breeches, and was rejected. He next figured as a tutor; but had no sooner accumulated £30 than he quitted his employment and forthwith dissipated his little savings. A long-suffering uncle named Contarine, who had already more than once interposed on his behalf, now provided means to send him to London to study law. He, however, got no farther than Dublin, where he was fleeced to his last guinea, and returned to the house of his mother, now a widow with a large family. After an interval spent in idleness, a medical career was perceived to be the likeliest opening, and in 1752 he steered for Edinburgh, where he remained on the usual happy-go-lucky terms until 1754, when he proceeded to Leyden. After a year there he started on a walking tour, which led him through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. How he lived it is hard to say, for he left Leyden penniless. It is said that he disputed at University, and played the flute, and thus kept himself in existence. All this time, however, he was gaining the experiences and knowledge of foreign countries which he was afterwards to turn to such excellent account. At one of the University visited at this time, he is believed to have secured the medical degree, of which he subsequently made use. Louvain and Padua have both been named as the source of it. He reached London almost literally penniless in 1756, and appears to have been occupied successively as an apothecary’s journeyman, a doctor of the poor, and an usher in a school at Peckham.

In 1757 he was writing for the Monthly Review. The next year he applied unsuccessfully for a medical appointment in India; and the year following, 1759, saw his first important literary venture, An Enquiry into the State of Polite Learning in Europe. It was published anonymously, but attracted some attention, and brought him other work. At the same time he became known to Bishop Percy, the collector of the Reliques of Ancient Poetry, and he had written The Bee, a collection of essays, and was employed upon various periodicals. In 1761 began his friendship with Johnson, which led to that of the other great men of that circle. His Chinese Letters, afterwards republished as The Citizen of the World, appeared in The Public Ledger in 1762. The Traveller, the first of his longer poems, came out in 1764, and was followed in 1766 by The Vicar of Wakefield. In 1768 he essayed the drama, with The Good-natured Man, which had considerable success. The next few years saw him busily occupied with work for the publishers, including The History of Rome [1769], Lives of Parnell the poet, and Lord Bolingbroke [1770], and in the same year The Deserted Village appeared; The History of England was published in 1771. In 1773 he produced with great success his other drama, She Stoops to Conquer. His last works were The Retaliation, The History of Greece, and Animated Nature, all published in 1774. In that year, worn out with overwork and anxiety, he caught a fever, of which he died April 4.

With all his serious and very obvious faults — his reckless improvidence, his vanity, and, in his earlier years at any rate, his dissipated habits — Goldsmith is one of the most lovable characters in English literature, and one whose writings show most of himself — his humanity, his bright and spontaneous humour, and “the kindest heart in the world.” His friends included some of the best and greatest men in England, among them Johnson, Burke, and Reynolds. They all, doubtless, laughed at and made a butt of him, but they all admired and loved him. At the news of his death Burke burst into tears, Reynolds laid down his brush and painted no more that day, and Johnson wrote an imperishable epitaph on him. The poor, the old, and the outcast crowded the stair leading to his lodgings, and wept for the benefactor who had never refused to share what he had (often little enough) with them. Much of his work — written at high pressure for the means of existence, or to satisfy the urgency of duns — his histories, his Animated Nature, and such like, have, apart from a certain charm of style which no work of his could be without, little permanent value; but The Traveller and The Deserted Village, She Stoops to Conquer, and, above all, The Vicar of Wakefield, will keep his memory dear to all future readers of English.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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