Oliver Goldsmith - A Biography

Hausarbeit, 2005

5 Seiten


Universität Paderborn

WS 2005/2006

HS: The English Novel of the 18th Century

Referentin: Kathrin Ehlen

Oliver Goldsmith – A Biography

The exact date of Oliver Goldsmith’s birth is not known, but it is assumed that he was born on 10 November 1728 (Sells 24) in Ireland (Sells 21) and raised there together with his sister and three brothers (Sells 24) by his parents, who belonged to the Anglican Church, his father being a vicar (Sells 23). During his youth he experienced poverty, and there were difficulties with his father, who always tried to give Oliver good advice, but was himself not a good example for his son. He died in 1747 and left the family in poor circumstances (Sells 34). His mother, whom Oliver Goldsmith neglected as soon as he earned enough money, had to live in utterly poor conditions (Sells 194) until she died in 1770 (Sells 140). She was the one who encouraged him to be educated at a university (Sells 29).

Goldsmith had the smallpox at the age of nine, which left his face scarred (Sells 25) and added to his unprepossessing appearance with his thickset body and irregular features (Sells 24). To compensate this he was obsessed with the importance of extravagant clothing for being accepted by others (Sells 30).

Even at an early age he liked to write verses (Sells 24), read the Latin writers and learned French from Catholic priests (Sells 25). In 1744 he went to Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar where, after some ups and downs, he graduated with a BA degree in 1749[1]. When he set his mind to it, he was rather a good student, but on the other hand he was often described as thoughtless and heedless by his professors (Sells 30). After several false starts in choosing a career, he was sent to Edinburgh University in 1752 by a benevolent uncle to study medicine (Sells 41). But instead of taking a degree, he travelled throughout Europe and neglected his education (Sells 192).

Later, too, Goldsmith spent much time abroad. Yet the information on his journeys is vague, as is everything known about his life (Sells 194).

On 1 February 1756 Oliver Goldsmith moved to London (Sells 64) and spent the next eighteen years there until his death in 1774 (Sells 66). As an Irishman he had difficulties in adapting and was never considered a true Englishman (Sells 191). The political, social and economic conditions of the time seriously influenced him (Sells 66). Especially during his first seven years in London he lived among the poorest of the poor (Sells 74), got to know the dark side of the big city (Sells 73) and even thought about committing suicide (Sells 76). Thus he found some odd jobs, translating texts and working for magazines (Sells 78). Because he had no regular income and because of his addiction to gambling (Sells 37) and his expensive tastes Goldsmith was in constant need of money. He even thought of going to India as a surgeon to make his fortune[2]. But then he gained a foot-hold in the London book market when Ralph Griffith took him on as a writer and book-reviewer for his Monthly Review (Sells 77). In 1759 he published his first substantial work An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe[3], and in 1760 The Citizen of the World, a series of essays, which appeared in The Ledger[4] and won him much fame. Through this he came into contact with John Newberry, who became his business-manager in 1760 (Sells 100) and later also his banker (Sells 101). From then on his money problems became less oppressive, although he never stopped spending too much and making debts. On the other hand, Goldsmith took a keen interest in natural history (Sells 192). He even worked as a professor of Ancient History at the Royal Academy (Sells 130). At last he was accepted by several recognized writers of his time and the renowned Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who played the part of a general guide and adviser to literature (Legouis, Cazamian 802), became his friend and protector (Sells 96). But although his contemporaries agreed that he was a “great man”, Goldsmith had a reputation for absurdity. He was more often laughed at than loved. Horace Walpole (1717-1797), a widely-learnt historian of noble origin (Legouis, Cazamian 906), even called him “an inspired idiot”[5]. Goldsmith’s was not a strong character, as had already become apparent in his youth when he drifted instead of envisaging an aim. He longed for applause and affection, but he was unable to disguise his wishes behind a polite façade, and thus the urgency of his desires made him appear foolish. On top of that he could not hide his envy of others, was gullible and feckless (Sells 117), and addicted to gluttony, drink, gambling and extravagant clothing (Sells 114). But on the other hand he wrote with grace, and the underlying spirit of his work is tolerance, kindliness, and an understanding of those who suffer from tyranny, poverty or pain[6].

There is little known about his relations to women, only his acquaintance with Mrs Horneck and her daughters seems to have been of some importance in his life (Sells 136). He even spent one month in Paris with them (Sells 139), and Mary, the daughter he liked best (Sells, 136), was the only woman who was ever close to him, but it is not sure whether his feelings for her were those of a lover or just paternal (Sells 196).

Oliver Goldsmith did everything excessively, he worked too much, played too much, and drank too much. As a result, his health began to fail in 1771. He suffered from insomnia and a serious inflammation of the bladder (Sells, 145; 148). Instead of consulting competent doctors, he treated himself[7] and gave expensive parties to cover up his physical and financial worries (Sells 180). He HHHeeiewindDuring the next two years Goldsmith’s health deteriorated, and he even stopped writing (Sells 184). In 1774 he had kidney trouble, which finally brought on his death on April 3 the same year (Sells 187).

When Oliver Goldsmith died, he was 2,000 English Pounds in debt, which corresponds to approximately 20,000 English Pounds today (Sells 188). David Garrick, a highly acclaimed actor and one of Goldsmith’s “friends”, remembered him with the following lines, “Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll, who wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll”[8].

Goldsmith’s talent for writing was not restricted to one literary genre alone. In a series of essays, collected under the title The Citizen of the World (1762), he applied the method of fictitious letters purporting to be written by a Chinese businessman, living in England, to his friend in Peking. This offered Goldsmith the possibility of looking at English society from the outside and commenting on it in a mildly satirical, humorous way (Legouis, Cazamian 903). The means of objective (dramatical) irony was typical of his writings: life presents itself to the assumed observer as a series of ironical situations (Wolff 136). An example of this can be found in the 4th Chinese letter: An English prisoner praises Britain as the country of freedom from behind bars, and worries that his personal liberty could be endangered by a French invasion (Wolff 136).

Goldsmith’s long poem The Traveller (1764) won him much praise in his lifetime, and has remained popular (Legouis, Cazamian 841) because of its harmonious poetic style, the beauty of the descriptive passages and the sweetness of the verse[9]. The warmth and tenderness, but also the melancholy expressed in it, already anticipate the romantic movement[10]. The general purpose of the poem The Traveller is hinted at in the forty-third Chinese letter: “I have endeavoured to show, […] that every state has a particular principle of happiness, and that this principle in each may be carried to a mischievous excess”[11]. Here the author successfully combines lyrical language with instructive aims.

Just as Goldsmith’s poems have not been forgotten, neither have his plays, at least his most famous one, She Stoops to Conquer, is still regularly enacted on the British stage. In contrast to the sentimental comedies of his time, Goldsmith postulated that comedies should aim at ridiculing folly (Taylor xv), not at trespassing upon tragedy with the result of provoking gentle tears (Legouis, Cazamian 891). The plot is not original: Two pairs of lovers have to suffer some difficulties, misunderstandings and distress before they are happily united. But the characters, drawn from life[12], and the situations they encounter, make this comedy a source of merriment and real laughter (Legouis, Cazamian 891).


[1] http://www.netpoets.com/classic/biographies/030000.html - last visit: 09.10.2005

[2] http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/goldsmth/about.html - last visit: 09.10.2005

[3] http://www.netpoets.com/classic/biographies/030000.html - last visit: 09.10.2005

[4] http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/goldsmth/about.html - last visit: 09.10.2005

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/goldsmth/about.html - last visit: 09.10.2005

[8] Ibid.

[9] http://oliver-goldsmith.biography.ms/ - last visit: 09.10.2005

[10] http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/goldsmth/about.html - last visit: 09.10.2005

[11] http://www.bartleby.com/220/0916.html - last visit: 12.10.2005

[12] http://www.bartleby.com/220/0916.html - last visit: 12.10.2005

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Oliver Goldsmith - A Biography
Universität Paderborn
ISBN (eBook)
440 KB
oliver, goldsmith, biography
Arbeit zitieren
Kathrin Ehlen (Autor), 2005, Oliver Goldsmith - A Biography, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/196508


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