Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith
© National Trust Images by kind permission of the Saville Trustee Company Limited

Biography

On first meeting the Irish poet, playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson described him in his journal as a ‘Curious odd pedantic fellow with some Genius’.

Early life

The son of an Anglo-Irish clergyman, Goldsmith was born in 1729 in Pallas, County Longford, Ireland, and grew up in Lissoy. He showed a flair for storytelling from a young age but was not a natural student. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was almost expelled for his involvement in the Black Dog riot (where a group of students released a fellow student from arrest, captured a bailiff and stormed Newgate Prison, which was known as the Black Dog). After scraping a degree, he tried the Church for a while – but this did not work out either. He led something of an itinerant life as a young man, studying medicine in Edinburgh (without graduating) and vagabonding across Europe. He arrived in London, short of funds, in 1756.

Journalism

In London he turned to journalism, though he also worked as an apothecary’s assistant and a school usher. He often contributed to Ralph Griffiths’s Monthly Review. He soon emerged as a nimble essayist with an engaging style and a sense of humour that was always tempered by affection. A number of his essays were collected as The Citizen of the World in 1762.

Eventually his work led him into Samuel Johnson’s circle. The men became friends, and Goldsmith is one of the most prominent figures in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Goldsmith was one of the nine original members of The Club, a literary dining society founded in 1746, along with Johnson and the artist Joshua Reynolds. He was socially awkward and people often commented on his ‘foolishness’, but he was embraced by this set of sophisticated men. 1764 was the year he cemented his reputation as a poet with The Traveller, the first work to which he put his name.

Problems with money and later writings

Throughout his life Goldsmith was spectacularly bad with money. He gambled, was generous beyond his means, often frittered away what he earned and as a result was frequently in debt and had to resort to hack work. During a period of financial distress, Johnson helped him to sell his novel The Vicar of Wakefield, a humorous portrait of village life underscored with gentle wit. He next turned his attention to theatre with The Good Natur’d Man (1768), though it was his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), a ‘laughing comedy’ in which a woman poses as a maid in order to get a man to fall for her, that was his biggest success. Like much of Goldsmith’s work, it was written, in part, to pay off the debts that dogged him.

Death

Goldsmith died after a brief illness in 1774, at the age of just 43, and is buried in London’s Temple Church. Johnson would remember him as a man ‘who left scarcely any kind of writing untouched and who touched nothing that he did not adorn’.

Further information about the life of Oliver Goldsmith can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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