The fifth child of a country rector in Ireland, Oliver Goldsmith entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1745 and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1749. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1752-1753 but did not take a degree. After further medical training at the University of Leiden, he traveled on the Continent, not to return to London until 1756, when he attempted to establish a medical practice.
Goldsmith soon began to supplement his meager income from medicine by contributing reviews and essays to such popular journals as the Monthly and the Critical. His first book, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759), included an important essay on the English stage. By the mid-1760s Goldsmith, or “Goldy” as Dr. Johnson fondly nicknamed him, had established a steady income as a compiler. An original member of the famous “Club” founded by Dr. Johnson in 1764, Goldsmith enjoyed the friendship of such 18th century notables
as Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who later wrote a brief biographical sketch of him. Goldsmith’s inability to handle his money, his extravagance, his generosity, and his habit of borrowing money from his friends kept the stocky, pockmarked author in debt until the end of his life. Indeed, he is said to have left debts amounting to £2,000.
Goldsmith made his early literary reputation as an essayist. The eight weekly numbers of the Bee (1759), which contain some excellent small poems, dramatic criticism, moral tales, and serious and fanciful discourses, exhibit his preoccupation with vivid and rich human detail and his felicitous style. Perhaps his finest sustained work as an essayist, however, was The Citizen of the World (1762), which had appeared serially in the Public Ledger in 1760-1761. Goldsmith employed the popular 18th-century device of a foreign traveler commenting in letters to his home country upon the strange customs of the lands through which he passed. These “Chinese Letters” exhibit Goldsmith at his relaxed, playful, and graceful best.
The Traveller (1764), Goldsmith’s first major poem, expresses such conventional ideas of his age as the vanity of human wishes and despair in the search for happiness. Best described as a philosophic-descriptive lyric, the poem is a panoramic, imaginative tour through Italy, Switzerland, and France. His poetic
masterpiece, The Deserted Village (1770), has often and erroneously been mistaken as a wholly autobiographical poem. Picturing the economic difficulties of rural life, the dangers of luxury, and “trade’s unfeeling train,” the poem expresses current 18th-century ideas in so personal, moving, and aphoristic a fashion that it remains one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language. Both poems exhibit Goldsmith’s mastery of the heroic couplet, the major poetic form of the period. He left a third long poem entitled Retaliation unfinished at his death.
Goldsmith’s one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, was received indifferently upon its publication in 1766 but soon became popular and remained the most widely read of all the 18th-century novels for the next 100 years. According to James Boswell, Dr. Johnson saved the distraught Goldsmith from a debtors’ prison by selling this manuscript, the only one he could find in Goldsmith’s lodgings, for £60.
The brief novel, which leads Dr. Primrose and his family from disaster to fresh disaster, has greater structural and thematic unity than most critics have acknowledged. Its greatest appeal, however, lies in its gentle and tolerant humor, the attractiveness of Dr. Primrose’s character, the combined pathos and irony of the narrative, and Goldsmith’s graceful prose style.
Goldsmith’s first play, The Good Natur’d Man, found little favor when it was finally produced in 1768. While it has important historical interest because it marks a major turn away from the sentimental comedy that had dominated the 18th-century stage, it preaches a prudent benevolence throughout which has little appeal for the modern reader.
The second of his plays, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), is by far the more impressive of the two. Despite a farcical plot and the patent absurdities of Young Marlowe’s mistaken assumption that the Hardcastle mansion is an inn and of Mrs. Hardcastle’s delusion that her husband is a highwayman, the play’s wit, good humor, and lively characterizations made it an immediate success and have given it continuing popularity. In their search for marriage and social position, the characters have a warmth and charm quite atypical of most plays of the period.
As compiler, author, and translator, Goldsmith participated in a host of commercial publishing ventures during his lifetime. He was involved, for example, in the publication of a five-volume abridgment of Plutarch’s Lives (1762), a two-volume History of England (1764) followed by a four-volume continuation (1771), two volumes of The Beauties of English Poesy (1767), two volumes of Roman History (1769), two volumes of Grecian History (1774), and eight volumes of An History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).