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Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith

The British poet, dramatist, novelist, and essayist Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) wrote, translated, or compiled more than 40 volumes. The works for which he is remembered are marked by good sense, moderation, balance, order, and intellectual honesty.

The fifth child of a country rector in Ireland, Oliver Goldsmith entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1745 and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1749. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1752-1753 but did not take a degree. After further medical training at the University of Leiden, he traveled on the Continent, not to return to London until 1756, when he attempted to establish a medical practice.

Goldsmith soon began to supplement his meager income from medicine by contributing reviews and essays to such popular journals as the Monthly and the Critical. His first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759), included an important essay on the English stage. By the mid-1760s Goldsmith, or "Goldy" as Dr. Johnson fondly nicknamed him, had established a steady income as a compiler. An original member of the famous "Club" founded by Dr. Johnson in 1764, Goldsmith enjoyed the friendship of such 18th century notables as Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who later wrote a brief biographical sketch of him. Goldsmith's inability to handle his money, his extravagance, his generosity, and his habit of borrowing money from his friends kept the stocky, pockmarked author in debt until the end of his life. Indeed, he is said to have left debts amounting to £2,000.

Goldsmith made his early literary reputation as an essayist. The eight weekly numbers of the Bee (1759), which contain some excellent small poems, dramatic criticism, moral tales, and serious and fanciful discourses, exhibit his preoccupation with vivid and rich human detail and his felicitous style. Perhaps his finest sustained work as an essayist, however, was The Citizen of the World (1762), which had appeared serially in the Public Ledger in 1760-1761. Goldsmith employed the popular 18th-century device of a foreign traveler commenting in letters to his home country upon the strange customs of the lands through which he passed. These "Chinese Letters" exhibit Goldsmith at his relaxed, playful, and graceful best.

Poetry and Fiction

The Traveller (1764), Goldsmith's first major poem, expresses such conventional ideas of his age as the vanity of human wishes and despair in the search for happiness. Best described as a philosophic-descriptive lyric, the poem is a panoramic, imaginative tour through Italy, Switzerland, and France. His poetic masterpiece, The Deserted Village (1770), has often and erroneously been mistaken as a wholly autobiographical poem. Picturing the economic difficulties of rural life, the dangers of luxury, and "trade's unfeeling train," the poem expresses current 18th-century ideas in so personal, moving, and aphoristic a fashion that it remains one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language. Both poems exhibit Goldsmith's mastery of the heroic couplet, the major poetic form of the period. He left a third long poem entitled Retaliation unfinished at his death.

Goldsmith's one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, was received indifferently upon its publication in 1766 but soon became popular and remained the most widely read of all the 18th-century novels for the next 100 years. According to James Boswell, Dr. Johnson saved the distraught Goldsmith from a debtors' prison by selling this manuscript, the only one he could find in Goldsmith's lodgings, for £60.

The brief novel, which leads Dr. Primrose and his family from disaster to fresh disaster, has greater structural and thematic unity than most critics have acknowledged. Its greatest appeal, however, lies in its gentle and tolerant humor, the attractiveness of Dr. Primrose's character, the combined pathos and irony of the narrative, and Goldsmith's graceful prose style.

Plays and Other Works

Goldsmith's first play, The Good Natur'd Man, found little favor when it was finally produced in 1768. While it has important historical interest because it marks a major turn away from the sentimental comedy that had dominated the 18th-century stage, it preaches a prudent benevolence throughout which has little appeal for the modern reader.

The second of his plays, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), is by far the more impressive of the two. Despite a farcical plot and the patent absurdities of Young Marlowe's mistaken assumption that the Hardcastle mansion is an inn and of Mrs. Hardcastle's delusion that her husband is a highwayman, the play's wit, good humor, and lively characterizations made it an immediate success and have given it continuing popularity. In their search for marriage and social position, the characters have a warmth and charm quite atypical of most plays of the period.

As compiler, author, and translator, Goldsmith participated in a host of commercial publishing ventures during his lifetime. He was involved, for example, in the publication of a five-volume abridgment of Plutarch's Lives (1762), a two-volume History of England (1764) followed by a four-volume continuation (1771), two volumes of The Beauties of English Poesy (1767), two volumes of Roman History (1769), two volumes of Grecian History (1774), and eight volumes of An History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).

Further Reading

The authoritative biographical study of Goldsmith is Ralph Wardle, Oliver Goldsmith (1957; rev. ed. 1969). Other studies include Ricardo Quintana, Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study (1967), a scholarly though sometimes uneven work, and Robert H. Hopkins, The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith (1969), an excellent critical commentary on Goldsmith's writings. Useful discussions of Goldsmith's work are in Alan D. McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction (1956), and in Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957). Recommended for general historical and social background are J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (1951; rev. ed. 1966); A. R. Humphreys, The Augustan World: Society, Thought, and Letters in Eighteenth Century England (1954; rev. ed. 1963); Ian Watt, The Augustan Age (1968); and R. J. White, The Age of George III (1968).

Additional Sources

Freeman, William, Oliver Goldsmith, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977 c1952.

Gamble, William, Two Irish poets: Goldsmith and Moore, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Ginger, John, The notable man: the life and times of Oliver Goldsmith, London: Hamilton, 1977.

Goldsmith: interviews and recollections, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

MacLennan, Munro, The secret of Oliver Goldsmith, New York: Vantage Press, 1975.

Sells, A. Lytton (Arthur Lytton), Oliver Goldsmith: his life and works, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.

Wibberley, Leonard, The good-natured man: a portrait of Oliver Goldsmith, New York: Morrow, 1979. □

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Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith

The Canadian poet Oliver Goldsmith (1794-1861) is remembered primarily for "The Rising Village," the first book of verse to be written by a native Canadian, published in London.

Oliver Goldsmith, a grandnephew of the British poet of the same name, was born of United Empire loyalist stock in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. When he was a small boy, the family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the age of 11 he began work in the dispensary of the Naval Hospital at Halifax and then became successively an assistant in an ironmonger's shop, a bookseller's helper, and a merchant's clerk. He interrupted his work to attend the Halifax Grammar School and in 1810 entered the commissariat department of the British army; he spent almost the whole of the remainder of his life in that department, becoming eventually deputy commissary general. In connection with his duties he spent some time in England, Hong Kong, and Corfu, but his base was usually in the Atlantic Provinces. He died in Liverpool.

Goldsmith's literary career began in 1822, when he joined an amateur theater group in Halifax and tried his hand at writing an opening address. The address was rejected, but, as Goldsmith puts it in his Autobiography: "Encouraged by some friends I wrote a poem called The Rising Village…. The celebrated author of The Deserted Village [his granduncle] had pathetically displayed the anguish of his countrymen, on being forced, for various causes, to quit their native plains, … and to seek a refuge in regions at that time but little known…. I, therefore, endeavoured to describe the sufferings they experienced in a new and uncultivated country, the difficulties they surmounted, the rise and progress of a village, and the prospects which promised happiness to its future possessors."

The Rising Village is of historical interest. It has also been hailed as a great document of pioneer life, but it is in fact not nearly as accurate in its account of conditions in early Nova Scotia as were the writings of Thomas Chandler Haliburton. As a poem, it follows The Deserted Village in meter and general structure but falls far short of its model in artistic merit. It lacks both the wit and the passion of the older poem, is less specific in its details, employs mainly conventional epithets, and has very few striking figures of speech. The picture it gives of a flourishing Nova Scotian economy is greatly idealized, but it does express the growing pride and self-esteem of the colony in the 1820s.

Further Reading

There is no book on Goldsmith. The chief source is the Autobiography of Oliver Goldsmith, discovered and edited by the Reverend Wilfrid E. Myatt (1943). Goldsmith's life and work are examined in John P. Matthews, Tradition in Exile: A Comparative Study of Social Influences on the Development of Australian and Canadian Poetry in the Nineteenth Century (1962), and Carl F. Klinck, ed., Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English (1965).

Additional Sources

Goldsmith, Oliver, Autobiography of Oliver Goldsmith: a chapter in Canada's literary history, Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1985. □

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Goldsmith, Oliver

Oliver Goldsmith, 1730?–1774, Anglo-Irish author. The son of an Irish clergyman, he was graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1749. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and Leiden, but his career as a physician was quite unsuccessful. In 1756 he settled in London, where he achieved some success as a miscellaneous contributor to periodicals and as the author of Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759). But it was not until The Citizen of the World (1762), a series of whimsical and satirical essays, that he was recognized as an able man of letters. His fame grew with The Traveler (1764), a philosophic poem, and the nostalgic pastoral The Deserted Village (1770). However, his literary reputation rests on his two comedies, The Good-natur'd Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and his only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). His comedies injected a much-needed sense of realism into the dull, sentimental plays of the period. They are lively, witty, and imbued with an endearing humanity. The Vicar of Wakefield is the warm, humorous, if somewhat melodramatic, story of a country parson and his family. Although he earned a great deal of money in his lifetime, Goldsmith's improvidence kept him poor. Boswell depicted him as a ridiculous, blundering, but tenderhearted and generous creature. He had the friendship of many of the literary and artistic great of his day, the most notable being that of Samuel Johnson.

See biography by R. M. Wardle (1957, repr. 1969); R. Quintana (1967), R. H. Hopkins (1969), R. L. Harp (1976), and J. Giner (1978).

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Goldsmith, Oliver

Goldsmith, Oliver (1728–74). Man of letters. Born in Ireland, the son of an Anglican clergyman, Goldsmith attended Trinity College, Dublin, before briefly studying medicine in Edinburgh and Leyden. On settling in London from 1756, he supported himself partly as a physician, partly as a hack-writer, and partly by borrowing from friends. But he gradually pulled himself out of Grub Street and began to acquire a reputation. His poem The Traveller (1764) was well received; a novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) has remained a minor classic; The Good-Natured Man, a comedy (1768), had a respectable stage run; The Deserted Village (1770) touched the chord of nostalgia and was much admired; the History of England (1771), though derivative, sold well; She Stoops to Conquer (1773), which Goldsmith claimed was based upon personal experience, was a great success. Goldsmith was a strange man, feckless, naïve, unworldly, generous. Boswell, a fellow-member of the Club, treated him as a butt and buffoon, but Johnson admired him as ‘a very great man’. He died heavily in debt, and Horace Walpole wrote of him, not unfairly, that ‘he had sometimes parts, though never common sense’.

June Cochrane

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Goldsmith, Oliver

Goldsmith, Oliver (1730–74) Anglo-Irish poet, novelist, essayist, and dramatist. After a colourful but penurious early life, he became known as a lively comic writer. His work includes the essay collection The Citizen of the World (1762), the poem The Deserted Village (1770), the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and the play She Stoops to Conquer (1773).

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