Oliver Goldsmith

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Goldsmith, Oliver, was born at Pallasmore, in the County of Longford, 10th November 1728. He was the son of the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, a clergyman with a large family and a poor living. Shortly after Oliver's birth, his father was appointed to another parish, Kilkenny West, with an income of about £200 a year, and the family moved to a good house and farm at Lissoy, midway between Ballymahon and Athlone. A dependent, Elizabeth Delap, taught Oliver his letters. "Never was so dull a boy; he seemed impenetrably stupid" — was her account of his early abilities. At the age of six an attack of confluent smallpox left indelible traces, and extinguished any pretensions to good looks. At the diocesan school of Elphin he was confessed by all to be kind and affectionate, cheerful, and agreeable, nevertheless "a stupid, heavy blockhead, little better than a fool, whom every one made fun of."

He was singularly sensitive, and suffered acutely from the roughness of his fellows. His school-days were spent at several successive places of instruction — the expense being defrayed by his kind uncle Contarine, a clergyman at Kilmore, near Carrick-on-Shannon, who in youth had been the college companion of the future Bishop Berkeley. A trade was then thought of for the boy; but some early flashes of wit and his evident love for Livy and Tacitus led to his being sent to College. On 11th June 1745, his name appears on the books of Trinity College as a sizar.

Burke and Flood were his contemporaries; but he knew nothing of them. His four years' course was a period of never-to-be-forgotten misery. His tutor was unsympathetic; and like many men distinguished in after life, the strict course of college study did not suit his genius; it was with difficulty that he could find the means of support. His father died eighteen months after his entrance, and he thenceforward depended solely on occasional allowances from his uncle. He lounged about the College gates, wrote ballads for five shillings each, and crept out at night to hear them sung. On one occasion, elated by having obtained a small exhibition of thirty shillings, he gave a supper in his rooms; but the party was roughly broken up by his tutor, and Goldsmith ran away to Cork with the intention of going to America; but being unable for want of means to procure a passage, he was induced to return. Something of a reconciliation was effected; and he managed to finish a course to which he uniformly looked back with horror in after life.

On 27th February 1749-50, he took his degree of B.A., and returned home. The family desired he should qualify for orders, although he was only twenty-one, and would have to wait two years. He assented, and the time was passed at Ballymahon, near Edgeworthstown. Mr. Forster says: "It is the sunny time between two dismal periods of his life... He assists his brother Henry in the school; runs household errands for his mother; writes scraps of verses to please his uncle Contarine; and, to please himself, gets cousin Bryanton, and the Tony Lumpkins of the district, with wandering bear-leaders of genteeler sort, to meet at an old inn by his mother's house, and be a club for story-telling, for an occasional game of whist, and for the singing of songs... In the evenings of summer strolling up the Inny's banks to fish or play the flute, otter-hunting by the course of the Shannon, learning French from the Irish priests, or winning a prize for throwing the sledge-hammer at the fair of Ballymahon."

At length he presented himself to the Bishop of Elphin for ordination, but was rejected as unqualified. An engagement as a tutor followed. In the course of a year he managed to save £30, buy a horse, and start a second time for Cork, to take shipping for America. He appears on this occasion to have paid for his passage, but to have lost it by not being at hand when the vessel sailed. At the end of six weeks he returned penniless. "And now, my dear mother," he said, "after having struggled so hard to come home to you, I wonder you are not more rejoiced to see me." His uncle came forward with £50, and Oliver was in 1752 sent to London to study law. While in Dublin on his way to England, he was seduced into play, and lost everything; and in bitter shame, and after much physical suffering, returned home, and was forgiven.

He now for a time lived alternately with his brother and his good-natured uncle, telling stories, writing verses, and accompanying his cousin's harpsichord — playing with the flute. Again Mr. Contarine advanced something to start him in life, and in the autumn of 1752, Oliver, in his twenty-fourth year, left Ireland for ever, and proceeded to Edinburgh to study medicine. There he had but an unhappy time, managing as best he could to eke oat his small allowances by teaching. We hear of a tour in the Highlands; and then he visits the Continent, takes out a degree equivalent to that of Medical Bachelor, at Leyden, and travels through France, supporting himself mainly by playing on his flute, as he afterwards described in his well-known poem, The Traveller.

Goldsmith's remarks on the state of things in France at this period show considerable foresight. He had an interview with Voltaire, visited Switzerland, and despatched to his brother Henry eighty lines of poetry afterwards published in The Traveller. It is likely that he visited Milan, Verona, Mantua, and Florence, and that he received another medical degree at Padua. He did not find travelling in Italy so easy as in France — in his own words: "My skill in music could avail me nothing in Italy, where every peasant was a better musician than I."

On 1st February 1756 he landed at Dover on his return, and a few days later found him penniless and friendless in the streets of London. It is on record that, to enable him to reach the metropolis, he had been obliged to give a comic performance in a barn. For a time he procured employment at an apothecary's, living in a wretched lodging. This may have been the period of his life to which he referred a few years later, when he startled a polite circle at Sir Joshua Reynolds's by speaking of something having occurred "when I lived among the beggars at Axe-lane."

He was next a reader in the office of Mr. Richardson, the printer, author of Clarissa; and in the beginning of 1757 was installed as usher at a school at Peckham. This he afterwards regarded as about the most miserable of the many miserable experiences of his life. He probably referred to it when he wrote: "The usher is generally the laughing-stock of the school. Every trick is played upon him; the oddity of his manner, his dress, or his language, is a fund of eternal ridicule; the master himself now and then cannot avoid joining in the laugh; and the poor wretch, eternally resenting this ill usage, lives in a state of war with all the family." Yet even here he found solace in the society of children, delighting them with his stories, and amusing them with his flute and conjuring tricks.

After a few weeks, Mr. Griffiths, a friend of his employer's, engaged him to assist in editing the Monthly Review, one of the many periodicals that at this period enjoyed an ephemeral existence in London. Goldsmith afterwards averred that all he had written for this review was tampered with by Griffiths or his wife. Hopeless of success as an author, he returned to Peckham school, where he commenced his Inquiry into Polite Learning. His next change was to get an appointment to the Coromandel Coast, which he lost through want of means to procure an outfit; after which he unsuccessfully offered himself for the position of naval hospital mate.

The opening of 1759 found him engaged on a life of Voltaire. Amid all his troubles and changes he must have been gradually making a name for himself, for we read of Percy, author of the Reliques, seeking an introduction, and stumbling up the dark stairs of his poor lodging. In October 1759 he commenced the Bee, a threepenny weekly after the manner of the Rambler, which saw but eight numbers. He continued to contribute to various magazines — the first of his delightful series of "Chinese Letters" appearing in the Public Ledger, 24th January 1760. These essays led to an acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, who ever afterwards continued his truest friend and best adviser. To present a respectable figure in the higher circles to which he was now introduced, and to gratify his natural vanity, he indulged in lavish expenditure for clothes and other things, and involved himself in heavy debts, that increased and hung over him all his life, and remained unliquidated to the extent of £2,000 at his death.

In 1763 he was one of those who inaugurated the famous literary club, with which the names of Johnson, Burke, Garrick, Reynolds, Charlemont, Beauclerc, Langton, Boswell, and other eminent literary men are associated. A characteristic anecdote regarding the sale of The Vicar of Wakefield must not be omitted. One morning in the autumn of 1764, Johnson received a message from him that he was in great distress-being in the custody of bailiffs for his rent. Johnson sent him a guinea for immediate necessaries, and following as soon as he was dressed, found Goldsmith in a towering passion. Johnson continues: "I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had got a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me that he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it, and saw its merit; told the landlady I would soon return; and having gone to a bookseller, sold it for £60. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill."

This work was The Vicar of Wakefield, which, published fifteen months later, established Goldsmith's reputation as a prose writer. In December of the same year appeared The Traveller, a poem based upon his own experiences abroad, which, like The Deserted Village, afterwards published, was marked by exquisite diction, serene graces of style, and rich, mellow flow of verse. His comedy of the Good-natured Man was acted in January 1768, after which he entered upon his Roman, Grecian, and English Histories, his Animated Nature, and other compilations, charming and attractive in style, but which, after enjoying an extensive popularity for nearly a century are now entirely superseded as text books.

His comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, published in 1773, was a complete success, and the first few nights of its performance brought him in fully £400. But none of these successes availed to free him from his grinding difficulties; and, at length, overworked and harassed by debt, he fell ill of a nervous fever in London, on 25th March 1774, and lingered on until the morning of 4th April, when he died, aged 45.

Nothing gives one a higher idea of the estimation in which he was held, than the manner in which the news of his death was received — Burke, we are told, burst into tears; Reynolds laid aside his pencil; the meetings of the Club were adjourned; while the staircase of his lodging was crowded by many who had no friends but himself — "outcasts," says Mr. Forster, "of that great, solitary, wicked city, to whom he had never forgotten to be kind and charitable." His funeral at the Temple Church was attended by every name distinguished in literature and art. The one romance of Goldsmith's life was connected with his regard for a Miss Horneck, the "Jessamy Bride," as he was wont to call her, the younger of two beautiful girls with whom he was acquainted.

With Mrs. Horneck and her daughters he had at one period made a short tour in France, and some of his most charming letters were addressed to them; but with his monetary difficulties, and his uncouth person, he felt he could never pass the bounds of an acquaintanceship. Goldsmith was generous, improvident, and careless of money considerations to a culpable extent, yet we must remember that he ever steadily refused to prostitute his pen to party, or seek worldly advantage or the means of paying his debts by the sacrifice of his independence. As we turn over the pages of The Vicar of Wakefield, his poems, and his essays, we are impressed with the conviction that he was far in advance of his age in his views regarding prison discipline and many other social questions.

"In person," says Judge Day, quoted by Allibone, "he was short, about five feet five or six inches; strong, but not heavy in make; rather fair in complexion, with brown hair; such, at least, as could be distinguished from his wig. His features were plain, but not repulsive — certainly not so when lighted up by conversation. His manners were simple, natural, and, perhaps, on the whole, we may say, not polished; at least without the refinement and good breeding which the exquisite polish of his compositions would lead us to expect. He was always cheerful and animated — often, indeed, boisterous in his mirth; entered with spirit into convivial society; contributed largely to its enjoyments by solidity of information, and the naivete and originality of his character; talked often without premeditation, and laughed loudly without restraint."

Sir Walter Scott says: "We read The Vicar of Wakefield in youth and age: we read it again and again, and bless the memory of an author who contrives so well to reconcile us to human nature." His character is thus summed up in Chambers's Encyclopaedia — "Goldsmith was the most natural genius of his time. He did not possess Johnson's mass of intellect, nor Burke's passion and general force, but he wrote the finest poem, the most exquisite novel, and — with the exception, perhaps, of the School for Scandal — the most delightful comedy of the period. Blundering, impulsive, vain, and extravagant, clumsy in manner, and undignified in presence, he was laughed at and ridiculed by his contemporaries; but with pen in hand, and in the solitude of his chamber, he was a match for any of them, and took the finest and kindliest revenges. Than his style — in which, after all, lay his strength — nothing could be more natural, simple, and graceful. It is full of the most exquisite expressions and the most cunning turns.

Whatever he said, he said in the most graceful way. When he wrote nonsense, he wrote it so exquisitely that it is better often than other people's sense. Johnson, who although he laughed at, yet loved and understood him, criticized him admirably in the remark: 'He is now writing a natural history, and will make it as agreeable as a Persian tale.'"

Concerning his sisters and brothers, Mr. Forster tells us that his sister Catherine married a wealthy husband, and his sister Jane a poor one, and that both died in Athlone some years after Oliver. His brother Henry entered the church, and died in 1768; Maurice became a cabinet-maker at Charlestown, Roscommon, and we are told "departed from a miserable life" in 1792; Charles went to seek his fortune in Jamaica in early manhood, and died there about 1815; John died in childhood. It would be fortunate if all biographies were as completely and conscientiously worked out as John Forster's Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith.

Sources

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

125a. Encyclopaedia, Chambers's. 10 vols. London, 1860-'8.

149. Goldsmith, Oliver, Life and Adventures: John Forster. London, 1848.

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