BORN: 1728, Ballymahon, Longford, Ireland
DIED: 1774, London, England
GENRE: Poetry, drama
The Citizen of the World (1762)
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
The Good-Natur'd Man (1768)
The Deserted Village (1770)
She Stoops to Conquer (1771)
Oliver Goldsmith was one of the most important writers of the Augustan Age, otherwise known as the neoclassical age or the Age of Reason. The most striking feature of Goldsmith's writing is his versatility; he wrote across genres, including the essay, the pseudoletter, the novel, poetry, history, and biography.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up the Son of a Poor Clergyman Goldsmith was the fifth child born to the Reverend Charles Goldsmith and his wife. During his youth, his family was poor, but not in serious financial straits. His parents had planned for a university education for their son, but his older sister's marriage necessitated a large dowry and left no money for tuition. As a result, Goldsmith entered Dublin's Trinity College in 1745 as a sizar. The sizar system enabled indigent students to attend college for a nominal fee in exchange for maintenance work on school property. They were often pressed into more menial labor, however, and were generally scorned by wealthier students.
A Neglectful Student Goldsmith attended school during an exciting time in the intellectual history of the Western world. Known as the Enlightenment, the eighteenth century was one of optimism and progress that coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Biographers theorize that Goldsmith had looked forward to college as an opportunity to distinguish himself. However, profoundly disappointed with the uncongeniality of his situation at Trinity, Goldsmith neglected his studies and was frequently reprimanded for infractions of college regulations. The most serious of these was his participation in a riot that grew out of a protest of another student's arrest and ended with the death of several people. Although he left college briefly, he eventually returned and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1749.
Interviewing in Tight Red Trousers Goldsmith spent the next several years idly. Casting about for a profession, he prepared halfheartedly to become ordained for leadership in the Church, but reportedly was rejected as a candidate after appearing for an interview with a bishop wearing tight red trousers. He also studied medicine for a short time in Edinburgh, Scotland, before embarking on a walking tour of the European continent in 1753; his wanderings provided the inspiration for several later works, including The Traveller and the adventures of George Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield. After three years of travel, he arrived in London early in 1756, penniless and without an acquaintance in the city.
Introduction to Magazine Writing During the next several years, he held a variety of poorly paying jobs. However, an important opportunity was provided by Ralph Griffiths, the publisher and owner of the Monthly Review, who commissioned book reviews for his publication from Goldsmith. This arrangement introduced Goldsmith to professional magazine writing, a vocation that would eventually provide most of his income.
Proofreading, Theater Reviews, and Essay Contributions After his association with Griffiths ended, he obtained a proofreading job with the novelist and printer Samuel Richardson and continued to contribute essays as well as book and theater reviews to a number of journals. From October through November of 1759, Goldsmith wrote the entire contents of a new magazine, The Bee, commissioned by the bookseller John Wilkes (or Wilkie). Goldsmith furnished The Bee with miscellaneous essays, short pieces of fiction, and book and play reviews for its eight-issue run. One such essay by Goldsmith praising the works of Samuel Johnson and Tobias Smollett came to Smollett's attention, and he invited Goldsmith to contribute to his Critical Review and to a forthcoming publication, the British Magazine; another magazine publisher, John Newbery, also solicited contributions to his Publick Ledger. Goldsmith's first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, appeared in 1759. This long essay on European culture and literature was published anonymously; however, members of London's literary scene were easily able
to learn the writer's identity, and Goldsmith's reputation as an author began to grow.
In the Publick Ledger in 1760, Goldsmith began his most famous series of periodical essays, the “Chinese Letters.” Purporting to be a succession of letters from a Chinese philosopher visiting London, the essays—often humorous and witty, sometimes introspective and philosophical—provided thinly veiled social satire on the customs, manners, and morals of Londoners for more than a year and a half. The ninety-eight “Letters,” with four additional essays, were published in 1762 as The Citizen of the World; or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in London to His Friends in the East, the first book to appear under Goldsmith's name. He was becoming increasingly prominent in London literary society, a position that was reinforced through his association with a coterie of well-known intellectuals led by Samuel Johnson who called themselves The Club (later the Literary Club), a group that included the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, writers James Boswell, Edmund Burke, and Thomas Percy, and actor and theater manager David Garrick.
Anonymous Literary Hackwork The success of The Citizen of the World assured Goldsmith a readership that welcomed his subsequent works, but his own financial improvidence required that he spend much of his time at anonymous literary hackwork. Periodical essays, translations, and popularized versions of existing works could be quickly written and sold, providing him a precarious hand-to-mouth existence. Boswell's account of the sale of The Vicar of Wakefield indicates that Goldsmith's masterpieces were often hastily sold to the first publisher who offered any cash advance. Throughout the remainder of his literary career in London, his life followed a pattern of ever-mounting debts, paid with the income from his hack writing, with occasional intervals spent on the few but notable literary works on which his reputation rests.
Moving Characterizations Offered After Death Goldsmith died at the Temple on April 4, 1774. His death, probably caused by a kidney infection resulting from a stone in the bladder, was hastened by his prescribing for himself, against medical advice, huge doses of Dr. James's Fever Powders. His death occasioned widespread grief. “Epigrams, epitaphs and monodies to his memory were without end,” wrote Sir Joshua Reynolds in his character sketch. “Let not his frailties be remembered,” Samuel Johnson declared, “he was a very great man.” But of course his frailties were remembered. Even before his death the Westminster Magazine of March 1773 had issued “Humorous Anecdotes of Dr. Goldsmith,” a prelude to many later characterizations of him as an eccentric. In his own posthumously published Retaliation (1774), a brilliant series of epitaphs on his friends, Goldsmith described himself as “Magnanimous Goldsmith, a Goose-berry Fool.” Reynolds's prose portrait, recovered among the Boswell papers and published in 1952, is a moving characterization of his friend, but it consolidates rather than corrects the picture of him as a social buffoon. As David Garrick put it in the epigram that inspired Goldsmith to write Retaliation, he “wrote like an angel but talked like poor Poll.”
Works in Literary Context
In a brief but intensely creative period of sixteen years, Goldsmith distinguished himself in a broad variety of literary forms, writing essays, biographies, histories, poems, plays, and a novel. In all he wrote he achieved a style of remarkable ease and charm. Goldsmith's most important literary works were in many respects inspired by his dislike of contemporary literary sensibilities. Indeed, he may have learned something from the manner of man of letters Joseph Addison and Irish writer and politician Richard Steele, but he despised and strongly condemned the Whig ideology and sentimentality that figure so largely in their works.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Goldsmith's famous contemporaries include:
Samuel Johnson (1709–1784): Like Goldsmith, Johnson was a well-known English literary figure who wrote in a variety of genres. As an essayist, a poet, a biographer, and a critic, he is cited as the most quoted English writer after William Shakespeare.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778): Rousseau was a French Enlightenment philosopher who influenced the French Revolution and the development of romanticism.
Sarah Fielding (1710–1768): Fielding was a British author who wrote the first children's novel in English.
David Hume (1711–1776): Hume was an eighteenth-century philosopher and historian known for his naturalistic philosophy, which united humanity with divinity and advocated trust in human reason.
Denis Diderot (1713–1784): Diderot was a French philosopher during the eighteenth century who challenged conventional morality, attacked the French government, and promoted the ideals of the Enlightenment.
The Value of Sentimental Comedy In the eighteenth century, English literature had turned increasingly toward sentimentalism as a reaction against what was perceived to be the immorality of Restoration-period literature. In the service of the sentimental ideal, authors composed morally instructive works based on the premise
that human nature was essentially good and that human-kind was potentially perfectible. In drama, this trend took the form of the sentimental comedy—so termed because of formulaic and often implausible happy endings. The didactic purpose of a sentimental work often superseded such purely artistic elements as characterization or plot. In his critical works, Goldsmith had noted and deplored the absence of humor in contemporary sentimental literature, especially in drama. Goldsmith expressed his preference for the “laughing” over the sentimental comedy, and a widespread modern critical assumption is that he intended his own light and humorous plays to stand as a corrective to the popular sentimental comedies.
Goldsmith's Moral Bent Running throughout all Goldsmith's writing is a strong moral strain, attacking cruelty and injustice, while allowing amply for flawed humanity's frailties and errors. Like Fielding, who heavily influenced his writing, Goldsmith strongly attacked perversions of the law that served selfish, powerful interests. His conservative social and political ideas, formed as he grew up in Ireland, ally him with the Augustan humanists such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, as well as Johnson, with whom he also shared a largely rhetorical conception of literature, far more than with any of those whose ideas would coalesce into Romanticism. He strongly and consistently attacked the emerging sentimental ethos, just as his rural settings always show man as nature's steward, following the Christian humanist position. When Goldsmith satirizes human folly, he does so in a comic spirit; to use John Dryden's broad classifications, Goldsmith's approach is Horatian, or intimate and reflective, rather than satirical and Juvenalian like Swift's or Pope's, though his social and political ideas are close to theirs.
Works in Critical Context
A First-Rank Historian In an assessment of his importance as a writer, one returns inevitably to the charm of his style and the sheer breadth of his work across genres. In 1773, Johnson said: “Whether, indeed, we take him as a poet—as a comick writer—or as an historian, he stands in the first rank.” He held strong moral convictions, and though tolerant of human weaknesses, he was critical of injustice and cruelty, especially as these were aspects of prisons and the penal laws. The stylistic combination of utility and delight in his work puts him closer, perhaps, to his Augustan predecessors than to the Romantics who followed him, though his sentiment and rural subjects give some justification to the label “pre-Romantic,” with which literary historians used to describe him. His social satire is amiable in the tradition of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele rather than harsh in the manner of Pope and Swift. The authors of the Spectator papers were a clear influence on his essays and his novel, but politically his values are closer to those of Pope and the “Tory” tradition, especially in his defense of a traditional moral economy against commercial encroachments.
Reduction in Readership His overall reputation was higher in the nineteenth century, when Thackeray dubbed him “the most beloved of writers,” than it is today. His histories, standard works until well into the Victorian period, are hardly read now. But She Stoops to Conquer still plays to amused audiences, and The Deserted Village retains its appeal even if its readership is reduced. Perhaps Goldsmith's prose fiction carries most interest to modern readers. As a work comprised by a series of letters, The Citizen of the World is of much interest to critics of narrative. Additionally, as a novel that explores with some profundity a number of social, moral, and religious questions, The Vicar of Wakefield, as it is read today, is no longer the sentimental idyll it seemed to some former readers.
Enduring Popularity of The Vicar of Wakefield Unable to reconcile their varied interpretations of The Vicar of Wakefield, readers have been interested in the work for more than two hundred years, and it has become a standard text in the study of the English novel. Similarly, although literary commentators continue to debate Goldsmith's intent in writing She Stoops to Conquer; or The Mistakes of a Night: A Comedy, audiences unconcerned with possible shades of authorial intent continue to enjoy the play as an entertaining theatrical comedy. While some modern critics reexamine Goldsmith's life in an attempt to create an accurate portrait free of the sentimentalizing of earlier biographical efforts, far more readers and critics concur with Ricardo Quintana, who stated: “It is time that we concerned ourselves less with his ugly face, his awkward social presence, and more with the actual nature of his achievement as a writer.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Goldsmith's works relied on a comic spirit to satirize human folly. Here are some other works with a similar approach:
The Misanthrope (1666), a play by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (a.k.a. Molière). This play points out the flaws all humans possess while directly satirizing the hypocrisies of the French aristocracy.
Anti-Matrimony (1910), a play by Percy MacKaye Wycherley. This play satirizes some of the moral folly and intellectual pretensions of the early twentieth century.
27 Heaven (2007), a play by Ian Halperin and author Todd Shapiro. This play is a rock musical that satirizes contemporary popular culture by depicting conversations among four rock icons who died at age 27.
Responses to Literature
- Goldsmith distinguished himself in a broad variety of literary forms. Make a list of other authors who have
successfully written across genres. Then, choose one of those authors and read a short selection from a few of their works. Write a paragraph explaining whether or not you think the author uses the same tone or voice in each of these works. Use examples from the text to support your opinions.
- Commentators often disagree about whether Goldsmith's apparent sentimentality is meant to be taken seriously or is meant to be a satirical attack. With one of your classmates, discuss how both of these interpretations can coexist. Then shift the discussion to explore how only one interpretation can be accepted. Afterward, together with your classmate, write a paragraph answering the following question: Should readers attempt to consider which interpretation Goldsmith intended, or is it up to readers to decide for themselves which makes the most sense to them?
- In The Vicar of Wakefield, the reader is told no more than the vicar himself knows, which is much less than the entire story. Write an essay filling out what an omniscient, third-person narrator might have added to the story.
- Much of Goldsmith's writing was inspired by a dislike of the literary sensibilities of his day. Make a list of present-day literary sensibilities that you dislike and explain the reasons for each of your choices.
Dobson, Austin. Life of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Scott, 1888.
Forster, John. The Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Bradbury & Evans, Chapman & Hall, 1848; revised and enlarged, 2 volumes, 1854.
Ginger, John. The Notable Man: The Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Hamilton, 1977.
Hopkins, Robert H. The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969.
Kirk, Clara M. Oliver Goldsmith. New York: Twayne, 1967.
Paden, William D. Clyde Kenneth Hyder. A Concordance to the Poems of Oliver Goldsmith. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1940.
Rousseau, G. S., ed. Goldsmith: The Critical Heritage. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Swarbrick, Andrew, ed. The Art of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Vision Press, 1984.
Wardle, Ralph M. Oliver Goldsmith. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1957.
Woods, Samuel H., Jr. Oliver Goldsmith: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
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).
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).
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. □
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.
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).
Goldsmith, Oliver, Autobiography of Oliver Goldsmith: a chapter in Canada's literary history, Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1985. □