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Oliver Goldsmith (Oxford Companion)

Oliver Goldsmith (Oxford Companion)



From the Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble:


GOLDSMITH, Oliver (?1730-74), the second son of an Anglo-Irish clergyman, born probably at Pallas, Co. Longford, or perhaps at Elphin, Roscommon. He spent much of his childhood at Lissoy, and is thought to have drawn on his memories of it when writing The Deserted Village. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated after some upheavals in 1750; he then presented himself for ordination, was rejected, and went to Edinburgh, where he studied medicine but took no degree. He studied in Leiden, and during 1755-6 wandered about France, Switzerland, and Italy, reaching London destitute in 1756, where he supported himself with difficulty as a physician in Southwark and as an usher in Peckham; he may at this period have received a medical degree from Trinity, though this remains unclear. He applied for a medical post in India, but failed to obtain it; meanwhile he had embarked on a literary career as reviewer and hack-writer for Griffith's Monthly Review, one of his early pieces being a favourable review of Burker's Philosophical Enquiry . . . into the *Sublime and Beautiful. *Burke was to become a close friend. In 1758 he published, under the pseudyonym 'James Willington', his translation of The Memoirs of a Protestant, Condemned to the Galleys in France Because of His Religion (by Jean Marteilhe of Bergerac, a victim of the Edict of Nantes), and in 1759 his frist substantial work, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe. It was at this period he met *Percy, later bishop of Dromore, who was to become a loyal friend and also his biographer. He was by now contributing to many periodicals (the Busy Body, the Monthly Review, the *Critical Review, the Ladies' Magazine, etc.), and during Oct. and Nov. 1759 published his own little periodical, the Bee, in which appeared his 'Elegy on Mrs Mary Blaize' (a pawn-broker) and 'A City Night-Piece'. He contributed to *Smollett's British Magazine, started in 1760, and was also employed by *Newbery, for whose new Public Ledger he wroter his 'Chinese Letters', subsequently republished as The Citizen of the World in 1762; he is also said to have written the nursery tale Goody Two-Shoes. In 1761 he met Dr. *Johnson, who admired his work; he became on of the original members of Johnson's *Club. Johnson remained his friend and champion, and in 1762 sold for him the (possibly unfinished) manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield to Newbery, thereby saving him from arrest for debt. Goldsmith was still struggling as a writer, and making his living with a variety of hack-work in the form of biographies, compilations, translations, abridgements, etc: these include lives of *Voltaire (1761) and Beau *Nash (1762), an abrdigement of *Plutarch (1762), a History of England in a series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son (1764), a Roman History (1769), a Grecian History (1774), lives of T. *Parnell and *Bolingbroke (1770), etc.—in all more than 40 volumes. But he first achieved literary distinction with his poem The Traveller (1764), who introduced him to his only patron, Lord Clare; it was his first signed work, and was much admired by Johnson and *Fox among others. The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), who was to become one of the most popular works of fiction in the language, was slower to find its audience, possibly because it was, as the Monthly Review commented, 'difficult to characterise'.

Goldsmith's first comedy, The Good-Natur'd Man, was rejected by *Garrick but produced at Covent Garden in 1768 with moderate success; She Stoops to Conquer followed in 1773 with immense success. Goldsmith had criticized the vogue for *sentimental comedy and the prejudice against laughter (see CHESTERFIELD) in an essay in the Westminster Magazine entitled 'A Comparison between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy' (1773); his own play's lasting popularity justified his comments.

His best-known poem, The Deserted Village, was published in 1770; his lighter verses include Retaliation (1774) and the posthumously published The Haunch of Venison (1776), written to thank Lord Clare for a gift of game from his estate. His An History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), also published posthumously, in eight volumes adapted from *Buffon, *Linnaeus, *Ray, and others, inventively portrays 'tygers' in Canada, and squirrels migrating on bark boats in Lapland, fanning themselves along with their tails.

There are many anecdotes about Goldsmith in Boswell's Life of *Johnson which represent him as ridiculous, vain, extravagantly dressed, improvident, and naive, but also as tender-hearted, simple, and generous, with flashes of brilliance in conversation (despite Garrick's gibe that he 'wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll'). He was regarded with much affection; Johnson, in his Latin epitaph, stated that he adorned whatever he touched. He never married, and his relationship with Mary Horneck, his 'Jessamy bride', remains mysterious. He was introduced to the Horneck family by *Reynolds in 1766, when Mary was 14, and accompanied Mrs. Horneck, Mary, and her other daughter Catherine ('Little Comedy', who married H. W. *Bunbury) to Paris in 1770; in 1773 he attacked Thomas Evans for publishing in the London Packet a letter from 'Tom Tickler' mocking his feelings for 'the lovely H——k'. She long outlived him, and provided material for J. Prior's life (1837); another biographer, W. *Irving (1844), concluded that Goldsmith had suffered from unrequited love, but this has been much disputed.

The 1801 Miscellaneous Works contain Percy's memoir, and there are other lives by J. Forster (1848) and Ralph M Wardle (1957). The Collected Works (5 vols, 1966) were edited by A. Friedman, and the correspondence by K. C. Balderston (1928).





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