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. Goldsmith, Oliver, photograph. The Library of Congress.
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 eight eenth 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 Gooseberry 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.’’
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.
James Cook (1728-1779): Cook was a British explorer and cartographer who made three important voyages of discovery to the Pacific Ocean.
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.
George William Frederick (1738-1820): Known as George III, he was king of Great Britain from 1760 until his death.
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. Moliere). 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.
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.
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 humankind 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.’’
Responses to Literature
1. 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.
2. 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?
3. 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.
4. 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.