Oliver Goldsmith

OLIVER GOLDSMITH, the son of a clergyman, was, according to some writers, born in 1729, at Elphin, in Roscommon, Ireland; but, according to the inscription on his monument, at Fernes, in the province of Leinster, on the 29th of November, 1781. After having acquired the rudiments of education at a private school, he was, in June, 1744, admitted a sizer of Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B. A., in 1749, but did not display remarkable abilities in the course of his academical studies. Being destined for the medical profession, he attended some courses of anatomy in Dublin; and, in 1751, entered the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine under the different professors. His thoughtless, though generous, disposition, soon involved him in difficulties; and in order to avoid arrest for the debt of a friend, for which he had made himself responsible, he was obliged to quit Scotland abruptly. He arrived at Sunderland in the early part of 1754, when his person was secured, but, being released, through the friendship of Dr. Sleigh, he sailed to Rotterdam; and, after visiting great part of Flanders, proceeded to Louvain, where he remained some time, at the expense of his uncle, and took his degree of bachelor in physic. Hence, it is said, with only one clean shirt, and no money in his pocket, he set out on foot for Geneva, which he reached by a circuitous route, in the course of which he supported himself by his abilities, musical and classical. My learning,' he says, procured me a favorable reception at most of the religious houses I visited, and whenever I approached a peasant's house, I played one of my most, merry tunes, and that generally procured me not only a lodging, but subsistence for the next day; this, however, was not the case with the rich, who generally despised both me and my music.'

On his arrival at Geneva, he was appointed tutor and traveling companion to a young gentleman of fortune, with whom he continued until they entered the south of France, where, in consequence of a disagreement, they parted. Goldsmith, however, did not turn his steps homeward, till he had still further gratified his passion for travel, although he was obliged to resort to his flute, as before, for lodging and subsistence. The death of his uncle, during our author's stay abroad, had reduced him to these exigencies, and on his arrival in London, in the winter of 1758, a few halfpence constituted the whole of his finances. In this extremity, he applied for employment to the apothecaries, but his awkward appearance, and broad Irish accent, were much against him; and it was only from motives of humanity, that a chemist, at length, consented to take him into his service. Hearing, however, that his old friend, Dr. Sleigh, was in London, he paid him a visit, and accepted an asylum in his house, but soon afterwards left it, for an ushership at the Rev. Dr. Milner's academy at Peckham. In this situation he did not remain long; for, having obtained some reputation from criticisms he had written in The Monthly Review, he entered into an engagement with the proprietor, and, coming to London, took lodgings near the Old Bailey, and commenced authorship as a profession. Besides writing for The Review, he produced a weekly pamphlet, called The Bee; An inquiry into the Present State of Learning in Europe; and contributed several Essays to The Public Ledger, in which his Citizen of the World appeared, under the title of Chinese Letters. These publications had brought him both fame and emolument, and, in 1765, at which time he resided in the Temple, he added to them by the production of his celebrated poem The Traveler. This had been written during his residence abroad, and was revised and printed at the recommendation of Dr. Johnson, his acquaintance with whom was soon followed by that of other eminent literary characters of the day. In 1766, appeared his Vicar of Wakefield, and his History of England, in a series of letters, two of his most successful performances, and which were received with immediate applause. In 1768, his comedy of The Good-natured Man, was brought out at Covent Garden, with a prologue by Dr. Johnson; but the success of it was not proportionate to its merits. In 1770, appeared his exquisite poem of The Deserted Village, for which he received L100, but could hardly be prevailed upon to accept it, until satisfied that the profits of the bookseller could afford that sum. It is, indeed, said by one of his biographers, that he went back and returned the money, observing, he had not been easy since he received it and left it to the bookseller to pay him according to the profits of the sale.

In 1772, was acted his celebrated comedy of She Stoops to Conquer, concerning the acceptance and success of which he appears to have been equally anxious and doubtful. His letter to Colman, about this time, does not represent his circumstances in a very favorable light: I have, as you know,' he says, a large sum of money to make up shortly; by accepting my play, I can readily satisfy my creditors that way; at any rate, I must look about to some certainty to be prepared. For God's sake, take the play, and let us make the best of it; and let me have the same measure, at least, which you have given as bad plays as mine.' During the first performance of the comedy, he is said to have walked all the time in St. James' Park, in great uneasiness, until, thinking it must be over, he has tened to the theatre. His ears were assailed with hisses as he entered the green-room when he eagerly inquired of Mr. Colman the cause. - ' Psha! psha!' said ' Colman, don't be afraid of squibs, when we have been sitting on a barrel of gunpowder these two hours.' The fact was, that the comedy had been completely successful, and that it was the farce which had excited these sounds so terrific to Goldsmith.

In the following year, his last theatrical piece, entitled The Grumbler, a farce, altered from Sedley, was acted, for the benefit of Mr. Quick; but it was not repeated, and was never printed. His other productions are, a Roman History, a History of England, in four volumes, a Grecian History, and a History of the Earth and Animated Nature, compiled from Buffon and others. He had acquired more than a sufficiency, by his writings, for his com forts and necessaries; but his indiscriminate and improvident liberality, added to a passion for gaming, rendered his emoluments comparatively useless; and at length threw him into a state of despondency, which terminated in a nervous fever, and deprived him of life on the 4th of April, 1774. He was buried in the Temple Church, and a monument was afterwards erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, at the expense of a literary club to which he belonged, with an inscription by Dr. Johnson. He is described as a poet, natural philosopher, and historian; who left no species of writing untouched, or unadorned by his pen, whether to move laughter, or draw tears. He was a powerful master over the affections, though, at the same time, a gentle tyrant; of a genius at once sublime lively, and equal to every subject in expression at once noble, pure, and delicate.'

The character of Goldsmith was in the highest degree good-natured and benevolent; he was every one's friend, and any one's dupe; retaining, as he did, amid all his worldly experience, his natural simplicity and philanthropy of heart. But he was not truly estimable; for he was, with all his good qualities, improvident, dissipated, and meanly jealous of a literary rival. He was also, at times, impetuous and passionate; but corrected himself upon a moment's reflection; and it is said his servants would throw themselves in his way upon these occasions, as they were certain of being rewarded after the anger of their master had subsided. Mrs. Piozzi describes him as a poor fretful creature, eaten up with affectation and envy, and the only person she ever knew who acknowledged himself to be envious. It is known that he used his pen better than his tongue; and the same lady calls his conversation a strange mixture of absurdity and silliness. Some one who saw him for the first time in company, declared he was the most solemn coxcomb he had ever met with;' and the phrase of inspired idiot ' is well known as applied to him. As an author he is to be considered in the character of a poet, historical compiler, novelist, essayist, and dramatist; in all of which he has been so far successful, as to leave some work in these respective departments of literature, alone sufficient to perpetuate his reputation. It is as a poet, however, that he will be chiefly' esteemed; The Traveler, The Deserted Village, and The Hermit, are un rivaled in their class; and, though Dr. Aikin has placed them at the head of the minor compositions, will always retain their original popularity. His literary qualifications cannot be better described than in the words of Dr. Johnson, who calls him a man of such variety of powers, and such felicity of performance, that he always seemed to do best that which he was doing: a man, who had the art of being minute, without tediousness; and general, without confusion; whose language was copious, without exuberance; exact, without constraint; and easy, without weakness.' John son was always ready to testify to the merits of Goldsmith; and being, one day, of a party at Sir Joshua Reynolds', where several affirmed that the author of The Traveler had neither talent nor originality, he rose with great dignity, looked them full in the face, and exclaimed, If nobody was suffered to abuse poor Goldy but those who could write as well, he would have few censors.

Many anecdotes are told of his credulous simplicity, and indiscriminate benevolence. Sitting, one evening, at the tavern where he was accustomed to take his supper, he called for a mutton chop, which was no sooner placed on the table, than a gentleman near him, with whom he was intimately acquainted, showed great tokens of uneasiness, and wondered how the doctor could suffer the waiter to place such a stinking chop before him.

Stinking! ' said Goldsmith, 'in good truth I do not smell it." I never smelled anything more unpleasant in my life,' answered the gentleman the fellow deserves a caning for bringing you meat unfit to eat. " In good troth,' said the poet, relying on his judgment, think so too; but I will be less severe in my punishment. ' He instantly called the waiter, and insisted that he should eat the chop, as a punishment. The waiter resisted, but the doctor threatened to knock him down with his cane if he did not immediately comply. When he had eaten half the chop, the doctor gave him a glass of wine, thinking that it would make the remainder of the sentence less painful to him. When the waiter had finished his repast, Goldsmith's friend burst into a loud laugh. What ails you now? ' said the poet. 'Indeed, my good friend,' said the other, never could think that any man, whose knowledge of letters is so extensive as yours, could be so great a dupe to a stroke of humor; the chop was as fine a one as I ever saw in my life. ' Was it? ' said Dr. Goldsmith, then I will never give credit to what you say again; and so, in good truth, I think I am even with you.' Being pressed by his tailor for a debt, he appointed a day for payment, and procured the money in due time; but before the tailor came, Glover called on the doctor, and related a piteous tale of his goods being seized for rent. The thoughtless and benevolent Goldsmith immediately gave Glover all the money he possessed. When the tailor arrived, Goldsmith assured him that had he called a little earlier he should have had his money; but' added he, I have just parted with every penny I had in the world to a friend in distress, I should have been a cruel wretch, you know, not to have relieved him when it was in my power. ' In the suite of the doctor's pensioners was one Jack Pilkington, who had served the doctor so many tricks, that he despaired of getting any more money from him, without resorting to a chef d' oeuvre once for all. He accordingly called on the doctor one morning, and running about the room in a fit of joy, told him his fortune was made. How so Jack? ' says the doctor. Why,' replied Jack, the Duchess of Marlborough, you must know, has long had a strange penchant for a pair of white mice; now, as I knew they were sometimes found in the East Indies, I commissioned a friend of mine, who was going out there, to get them for me, and he is this morning arrived with two of the most beautiful little animals in nature. ' After Jack had finished this account with a transport of joy, he lengthened his visage, by telling the doctor all was ruined, for without two guineas, to buy a cage for the mice, he could not present them. The doctor unfortunately, as he said himself, had but half-a-guinea in the world, which he offered him. But Pilkington was not to be beat out of his scheme; he perceived the doctor's watch hanging up in his room, and after premising on the indelicacy of the proposal, hinted that if he could spare that watch for a week, he could raise a few guineas on it, which he would repay him with gratitude. The doctor accordingly took down the watch, and gave it to him, which Jack immediately carried to the pawnbroker's, - raised what he could on it, and never once looked after the doctor, till he sent to borrow another half-guinea from him on his deathbed, which the other, under such circumstances, very generously sent him. One afternoon, as Colonel O'Moore and Mr. Burke were going to dine with Sir Joshua Reynolds, they observed Gold smith (also on his way to Sir Joshua's) standing near a crowd of people, who were staring and shouting at some foreign women in the windows of one of the houses in Leicester Square. Observe Goldsmith, said Mr. Burke to Colonel O'Moore, and mark what passes between him and me by-a nd-by at Sir Joshua's.' They passed on, and arrived before Goldsmith, who came soon after, and Mr. Burke affected to receive him very coolly. This seemed to vex poor Goldsmith, who begged Mr. Burke would tell him how he had the misfortune to offend him. Burke appeared very reluctant to speak, but, after a good deal of pressing, said t that he was really ashamed to keep up an intimacy with one who could be guilty of such monstrous indiscretions as Goldsmith had just exhibited in the square.' Goldsmith, with great earnestness, protested he was unconscious of what was meant. Why,' said Burke, t did you not exclaim, as you were looking up at those women, What stupid beasts the crowd must be for staring with such admiration at those painted Jezebels, while a man of my talents passes by unnoticed? ' Goldsmith was horror-struck, and said, 'Surely, surely, my dear friend, I did not say so. " Nay, ' replied Burke, If you had not said so, how should I have known it? That's true,' answered Goldsmith, with great humility - I am very sorry; it was very foolish I do recollect that something of that kind passed through my mind, but I did not think I had uttered it. '