Goldsmith, Oliver

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Goldsmith, Oliver (1730?-1774): Anglo-Irish, Writer.

Oliver Goldsmith is best known for his philosophical romance The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), his polemical elegy “The Deserted Village” (1770), and his comedy She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Son of an Anglo-Irish priest, Goldsmith attended Trinity College, Dublin as a sizar and took his B.A. in 1749. After unsuccessfully seeking ordination in the Church of Ireland, Goldsmith studied medicine at the Universities of Edinburgh and Leiden, knocked about Europe, arrived in London in 1756, and meagerly supported himself there as a physician, school-usher, and hack writer. Whether he ever actually received a foreign medical degree during his travels, he was generally known as Dr., after the publication of his first major literary work, An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe (1759).

Having met Johnson, Samuel in 1761, Goldsmith became one of the original members of Johnson’s “Club.” Like Johnson, Goldsmith wrote in almost every imaginable genre: poetry, drama, fiction, essay, history, biography, and natural science. Although his writings--particularly his poems, “The Traveller” (1764) and the “The Deserted Village,” and his comedies, The Good-Natured Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer--eventually earned him a considerable amount of money, his extravagance, imprudence, and generosity impoverished him, and he died deeply in debt in 1774.

The Vicar of Wakefield recounts the Job-like trials and ultimate triumph of a whimsical Anglican vicar, the Rev. Dr. Primrose, and his family. The Primroses begin as a model of rural happiness, only to suffer successive misfortunes, partly through their own vanities and naiveties and partly through the villainies of others (including those of an unscrupulous young squire who abducts one of Primrose’s daughters). Dr. Primrose finally lands in jail, reforms his fellow prisoners, and achieves a moral triumph that the fairy-tale ending of the story rewards with prosperity and happiness.

She Stoops to Conquer is also set in the country and follows the comic misadventures of two young men who are tricked into mistaking the home of a hospitable country squire as an inn, the squire as an innkeeper, and the squire’s daughter as a serving wench. Particularly notable are the squire’s wife and stepson, who rise above mere stock characters (the rural lady vainly pining for urban sophistication and the country bumpkin who prefers liquor to literature). “The Deserted Village” paints an idyll of traditional rural life, with its healthy labor and innocent diversions, then laments its destruction by the ejection of the hearty yeomen and their families by greedy and luxurious landowners, with consequent rural depopulation, urban degradation, and mass emigration. “Ill fares the land,” Goldsmith warns, “to hastening ills a prey / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Further reading:

Peter Dixon, Oliver Goldsmith Revisited, 1991.

Treadwell Ruml

California State University