Oliver Goldsmith


Oliver Goldsmith rose from provincial beginnings to become a literary lion by the time he was in his 30s, and at a time when the roll call of English arts contained such names as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Today, he is still highly regarded, especially for his often-reprised play She Stoops To Conquer, his poems The Deserted Village and The Traveller and his classic novel TheVicar of Wakefield. Like many others in this elite group, Goldsmith may justifiably be claimed as a writer of the Right.

Goldsmith was born in 1728 or 1730, either in Pallas, County Longford or Ardnagowan in County Roscommon, the fifth child of a Church of Ireland clergyman. In 1730, his family moved to Lissoy in Westmeath, where his father became curate. At the age of seven or eight, he suffered a serious attack of smallpox, which badly scarred him and made him self-con­scious about his appearance for the rest of his life.

He was a lazy and sensitive pupil, but always popular with his classmates (and later—Joshua Reynolds once remarked that “There is no-one whose company is more liked") because of his gregarious dis­position and generosity. Always lively, he was “foremost in all mischievous pranks” (1), and always ready to carouse, play games with children and sing ballads or play his flute. Even when impoverished, he would often give away his last bit of money, even to strangers. He had flashes of precocious wit, which promised future intelligence, such as the time when, being mocked for his ungainliness when dancing and called “Aesop” by the fiddler, the nine year old replied, “Heralds proclaim aloud this saying—see Aesop dancing, and his monkey playing”.

In 1745, he entered Trinity College, Dublin as a sizar, which meant that in return for board and tuition he had to do some of the College servants’ work (2). A restless stu­dent in restless times, he was often in­volved in scrapes, including a ‘Town versus Gown’ riot in which two were killed. After graduating BA in 1750, he found a job as a private tutor but found his position too servile to tolerate, and ‘borrowed’ £30 to pay his passage to America. But he got no further than Cork, returning home several weeks later without any money, on a horse aptly named Fiddle-back instead of the good animal he had taken with him.

His family despairingly sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine. After two mostly wasted years, he left for Leyden and then toured the continent for a year, sup­porting himself by flute-playing. Here he met Voltaire, about whom Goldsmith later wrote a Memoir that was surprisingly laudatory for someone of Goldsmith’s Tory tastes. Upon his return, penni­less, to London, he somehow got a medical degree (which he may have awarded to himself), became an apothecary’s assis­tant, taught at a school in Peckham (then a pleasant Surrey village, now one of London’s less salubrious inner-city districts) and corrected proofs for the novelist Samuel Richardson. Whilst working at the school, he met the editor of the Monthly Review, who gave him his first writing work, anonymous articles which did not give him any reputation, but much valuable experience.

Goldsmith did not really see himself as a writer until much later, and he did not even keep copies of his own works in his library (3). Even after the publication, in 1758, of his first sustained effort, a transla­tion of a French manuscript (4) he kept trying to obtain medical positions, in India and elsewhere. In 1759, he published his first substantial original work, the well-received An Enquiry bito the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, and began to contrib­ute to Smollett’s Critical Review and other periodicals. He was made editor of a weekly miscellany, The Bee, which he greatly en­joyed; but his first real success was the collection of diverting essays he wrote for an obscure magazine, published in 1762 as The Citizen of the World. He used the literary device of a visiting Chinaman, wryly describing and satirizing British life and customs.

Despite their popularity, Goldsmith made no money from these, and had to keep doing hackwork. He spent any money he earned on repaying old debts (despite his poverty, he was known to be honest and could always borrow more) and buying colourful clothes which, he hoped, would make up for his “short and clumsy figure, and his face pitted and discoloured with the smallpox” (5).

Once, his landlady had him arrested for non-payment of his rent, and he was constrained to ask Johnson to sell a novel of his (possibly the Vicar) to a publisher for £60. Ultimately, he died in poverty, notwithstanding his considerable fame. As his semi-auto­biographical character, “The Man In Black” says “ . . . we were perfectly instructed in the art of giving away thousands before we were taught the more necessary qualifica­tions of getting a farthing.” (6)

He often spoke laxly. Boswell said Goldmsith was always “too eager to be bright” (7). Although Boswell was undoubt­edly jealous of Goldsmith’s influence on Johnson, this is consistent with others’ descriptions. Horace Walpole called Goldsmith “an inspired idiot”, and supposedly friendly Garrick made up an unkind mock-epitaph:

“Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness call’d Noll

Who wrote like an angel, but talk’d like Poor Poll.”

This must be set against spasmodic flashes of verbal dexterity. Goldsmith said the influential (and still unidentified) political commentator who wrote under the pseudonym “Junius” was “. . . like a flower upon a dunghill. He appeared in a newspaper in which the writing was so bad that his seems very good” (8).

Or, again, when decrying Johnson’s conversational roughhousing:

If Johnson’s pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it” (9).

Annoyed by Johnson's pre-eminence during meetings of the Club, he once said that Johnson was “for making a monarchy out of what should be a repub­lic” (10). 

Goldsmith was also notoriously gullible; he was once fooled into believing that a squire’s house was an inn. The squire went along with the joke and pretended to be the landlord until the next morning, when he revealed his true identity after Goldsmith had just ordered him peremptorily to bring a hot cake. (This idea was later used in She Stoops to Con­quer.)

Although Goldsmith sometimes wrote ironically, and had no interest in party politics, evidence for an intrinsic Toryism is easy to unearth.

[Goldsmith’s] impulse is to believe in the capacity of people to sort themselves out in the world in which they live (11).

It is significant that many of his closest friends were arch-conservatives – most notably Johnson and Burke. He was also renowned for his romantic Jacobitism, something of a defining mark for Tories of the period. So was his support for monarchy, expressed thus in The Citizen of the World:

...the people of Rome, a few great ones excepted, found more real freedom under their em­perors though tyrants, than they had expe­rienced in the old days of the common­wealth, in which their laws were ever more numerous and painful, in which new laws were every day enacting. (12)

He distrusted the universal panaceas being propounded by Whigs:

It is impossible to form a philosophic system of happiness which is adapted to every condition of life, since every person who travels in this great pursuit takes a different road (13)

He was wary of abstractions and wish­ful thinking, which again he saw as Whig characteristics:

Every wish therefore which leads us to expect happiness somewhere else but where we are…lays a foundation of uneasi­ness, because it contracts debts we cannot repay (14).

Rather like the Prince of Abyssinia in Johnson’s conservative novel Rasselas, Goldsmith’s Traveller wanders for years in the wilderness looking for political perfection, only to realise towards the end of the poem

“Why have I stray'd from pleasure and repose,

To seek a good each government bestows?

In every government, though terrors reign,

Though tyrant kings, or tyrant laws restrain,

How small, of all that human hearts endure,

That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” (15)

He was, of course, a ‘sexist’:

I can no more pardon a fair one for endeavouring to wield the club of Hercules, than I could him for attempting to twirl her distaff (16).

He delineated the foolishness of undiscriminating benevolence in The Good Natur'd Man, in which the over-altruistic hero belatedly recognizes that in order for charity to be effective, it must be directed carefully. This is not to say that Goldsmith was not generally altruistic. The frustrated universal sympathy of his essay A City Night Piece resounds down the years:

Why, why was I born a man, and yet see the sufferings of wretches I cannot relieve? Poor houseless creatures!

Goldsmith believed that the welfare of Britain depended on preserving rural life (and the landscape of memory) and keeping com­merce in check. His suspicion of urbanism and regret for passing bucolic pleasures, typically conservative traits, are expressed magnifi­cently in The Deserted Village. In the dedication to Joshua Reynolds, he ex­plains how “In regretting the depopulation of the country I inveigh against the increase of luxuries”.

The most famous couplet of the poem manifests a truly Tory suspicion of the new capitalism and its apparent effects on rural communities:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

The rise of new agricultural methods—notably the enclosure of livestock which had formerly roamed freely, and Jethro Tull’s efficient new seed drill – drove people off the land and into the cities to find work, leaving behind a melancholy landscape of shrunken or deserted villages, lumps in the ground where there had once been houses and churches, grassed-over grooves which had once been busy lanes:

Where once the cottage stood, the hawthorn grew /

Remembrance wakes with all her busy train /

Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain...

There in the ruin, heedless of the dead /

The shelter-seeking peasant builds his shed. 

His political philosophy is realistic with­out being cynical:

The polite of every country have several motives to induce them to a rectitude of action...the vulgar have one – the enforcements of religion (17)

Although never hidebound, he had vast respect for tradition:

The simplicity, con­ciseness, and antiquity of custom, give an air of majesty and immutability that inspires awe and veneration; but new laws are too apt to be voluminous, perplexed and indis­criminate (18)

He was of course an “elitist” –

…just experience tells, in every soil,

That those who think must govern those that toil;

And all that Freedom's highest aims can reach,

Is but to lay proportion'd loads on each. (19).

The Vicar of Wakefield can also be seen as “a Tory comedy, a satirical parody” (20). The Vicar, Dr, Primrose, is kindly, unworldly, and the father of six children. He is bankrupted, and a squire seduces and abandons one of the girls, then has the Vicar imprisoned for non-payment of debts and one of the his sons imprisoned for trying to avenge his sister’s honour. The vicarage is destroyed by fire, and another daughter is abducted by an unknown villain. The family bear all these misfortunes with fortitude and humility and all ends well, with honour and fortune restored. Moral rectitude and family solidarity have allowed them to prevail.

Apart from his sartorial extravagances, Goldsmith led a moderate, reasonably happy life, surrounded by friends, although he never married. In the last few years, his life was overshadowed by ill health (he died of nervous fever) and, as ever, by debt. His last recorded words are poignant. “Is your mind at ease?” asked the doctor in atten­dance on his death-bed, noticing that his patient's pulse rate had increased. “No, it is not” replied Goldsmith, and he never spoke again. He died in the early morning of the 4th of April 1774, and was buried in the Temple.

Upon hearing of his death, Burke burst into tears, and Reynolds put down his pencil and left his studio for the day, some­thing he had never done before and never did again. Many poor people thronged around his house sorrowfully when they heard the news. “Was ever poet so trusted before?” asked Johnson, when he heard that “Nolly” had run up debts of over £2,000, and wrote the Latin epitaph which is etched beneath Nollekens’ sculpture of Goldsmith in Westminster Abbey, in re­membrance of a good man and natural philoso­pher who “touched nothing that he did not adorn” who was “Of all the passions . . . A powerful yet gentle master.” 

Principal works

1759 An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe

1762 The Citizen of the World

1764 The Traveller

1766 The Vicar of Wakefield

1768 The Good Natur’d Man

1770 The Deserted Village

1772 Threnodia Augustalis

1773 She Stoops to Conquer

1774 Retaliation (posthumously)


1. Oliver Goldsmith, Washington Irving, first pub­lished 1849, my edition George Routledge & Sons, London, 1890

2. With such an inauspicious entry into Trinity life, Goldsmith would probably have been amazed had he foreseen that one day there would be a full-size bronze statue of him in front of Trinity College, adjacent to one of Edmund Burke

3. Eighteenth Century Vignettes, Austin Dob­son, my edition Thomas Nelson & Sons, London, 1896

4. The Memoirs of a Protestant, condemned to the Galleys of France, for his Religion by J Marteilhe de Bergerac

5. The Citizen of the World, Letter XXVII

6. Oliver Goldsmith, op. cit.

7. Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-63, first published 1950, my edition Reprint Society, 1952

8. Boswell In Search of a Wife, 1786-1769, first published 1957, my edition Reprint Society 1958

9. Life of Johnson, first published 1791, my edition National Illustrated Library, 1851

10. Ibid.

11. Essay by Thomas Kilroy, in Goldsmith – The Gentle Master, edited by Sean Lucy, Cork University Press, 1984

12. Citizen of the World, Letter L

13. Op. cit., Letter XLIV

14. Ibid.

15. The Traveller

16. Citizen of the World, Letter LXII

17. The Bee, No. VII

18. Ibid.

19. The Traveller

20. Essay by Michael Tatham in Conservative Thinkers, edited by Roger Scruton, Claridge Press, Lon­don, 1988