Oliver Goldsmith was an Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, and poet. He was born in Pallas, a small village in County Longford, in Ireland, and he was the son of the poor but admirable curate of the village. His father, the village, and various local features are duly registered, and unduly idealized, in the poem The Deserted Village. In 1744, Goldsmith proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin; graduated, after some misadventures; and then tried various careers in turn law, medicine, and playing the flute at various places, including Dublin, Venice, Padua, and Leyden. During his years of wandering, he roved over Europe, playing the flute for a living; then in 1756, he returned to England, poor, unknown, but undaunted. During his later years, he was a member of Johnson’s famous club, where his artless ways his bickerings, witticisms. and infantile vanity was the mingled amusement, admiration, and contempt of his fellow members.
Though its poetical production is not large, it is notable. His first poem, The Traveller (1764), deals with his wandering through Europe. The poem, about four hundred lines in length, is written in the heroic couplet and is a series of descriptions and criticisms of the places and people which he had experienced. His only other poem of any length is The Deserted Village (1770). In this poem, as he deals with the memories of his youth, the pathetic note is more freely expressed. The peculiar humor and pathos of Goldsmith are hard to analyze. Both emotions arise from simple situations and are natural and free from any deep guile. Goldsmith’s miscellaneous poems are important, for they include some of his characteristic humorous and pathetic writing. The ballad called The Hermit is done in a sentimental fashion, the witty Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog is suggestive of Swift without Swift’s savage barb, and the fine lines beginning “When lovely woman stoops to folly” are among the best he ever wrote.
Goldsmith wrote two prose comedies, both of which rank high among their class. The first, called The Good-Natur’d Man (1768), is not so good as the second, She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Each, but especially the latter, is endowed with an ingenious and lively plot, a cast of excellent characters, and a vivacious and delightful style. Based on the Restoration comedy, they lack the Restoration grossness. The second play had immense popularity, and even yet it is sometimes staged.
The prose is of astonishing range and volume. Among his works of fiction, we find The Citizen of the World (1759), a series of imaginary letters from a Chinaman, whose comments on English society are both simple and shrewd. This series was contributed to The Public Ledger, a popular magazine. He wrote many other essays in the manner of Addison, almost as well done as those of Addison. His other important work of fiction is his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), which is in the first rank of eighteenth-century novels. In addition, Goldsmith produced a great mass of hackwork, most of which is worthless as historical and scientific fact, but all of which is enlightened with the grace of his style and personality. Some of these works are An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759), his first published book; The History of England (1771); and An History of Earth and Animal Nature, a kind of text-book on natural history, which was published posthumously.
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’.