Oliver Goldsmith

In the winter of 1756, a penniless, tired young man arrived in Dover, England by boat. Having just spent several years traveling continental Europe alone, he now urgently needed to find a source of income. The question was how to earn it: as a writer? A teacher? Using his unrecognized Dutch medical degree? The young man, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), eventually settled on the first of these options. While never financially secure and always writing for money, Goldsmith produced works of history, poetry, essays, plays, and a novel that helped define an era.

Oliver Goldsmith Oliver Goldsmith

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Table of contents

    Oliver Goldsmith: Biography

    Oliver Goldsmith's Biography
    Birth:November 10th 1728
    Death:4th April 1774
    Father:Rev. Charles Goldsmith
    Mother:Ann Jones Goldsmith
    Cause of death:Misdiagnosis of kidney infection
    Famous Works:
    Literary Period:Age of Sentimentality, 18th Century Literature

    Oliver Goldsmith was born on November 10th, 1728 in Ireland and grew up in rural County Westmeath. His father was a reverend in the Anglican Church, and his family was respectable but poor. As a boy, he showed little promise as a student. He also suffered from smallpox, which disfigured his face.

    In 1745 he went off to Trinity College in Dublin as a sizar, meaning that he worked as a kind of servant for wealthier students to earn his keep. After graduating in 1749, he went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine but didn’t complete his course of studies.

    Instead, Goldsmith embarked on a two-year tour of continental Europe, traveling around Holland, France, Italy, and Switzerland. He busked with his flute, begged, and slept rough to survive, returning penniless to England in 1756 with an M.D. of dubious validity.1

    Oliver Goldsmith, Trinity College Dublin Library, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - The library in Trinity College, Dublin, where Goldsmith earned an A.B. in 1749.

    In the early 16th century, England established direct rule over Ireland, pushing out the local Gaelic rulers and replacing them with English landlords. England imposed its laws and its religion (Ireland being predominantly Catholic and England Protestant) with increasing severity in the 17th century. This resulted in centuries of warfare lasting through the 20th century when an independent Republic of Ireland was eventually established.2

    While Goldsmith's father was an Anglican clergyman and so associated to some degree with the English ruling elite, his family was not wealthy or socially superior. Goldsmith mixed freely with Protestants and Catholics in the Irish countryside, learning Gaelic and Irish folklore.

    There were no wars or rebellions in Ireland in Goldsmith's lifetime, but the economic depression in Ireland caused by England's policies was a serious topic. This is indirectly addressed in a number of Goldsmith's works, such as "The Deserted Village" and The Vicar of Wakefield.3

    Oliver Goldsmith went to London, where he unsuccessfully tried to practice medicine and performed various odd jobs before becoming a writer for hire. This was a poorly paid and disreputable position at the time, and Goldsmith had to write incessantly to earn enough money to survive. In these years, Goldsmith was one step away from starvation or debtor’s prison.

    Oliver Goldsmith wrote copious reviews, histories, translations, biographies, and essays. He was quickly distinguished by the quality of his writing, particularly his first book, which relied heavily on his own experience studying and traveling, An Enquiry into the Current State of Polite Learning (1759). His various histories, translations, and essays, especially his collection of "letters" from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant to London, The Citizen of the World (1762), continued to build his reputation, but it was his poem "The Traveler, or a Prospect of Society" (1764) that skyrocketed Goldsmith to literary fame.

    After 1764, Oliver Goldsmith was a genuine literary celebrity, meeting with The Club organized around Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784), becoming close friends with the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the star actor David Garrick (1717-1779), and generally rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and powerful. At the end of the year, he had secured a kind of literary patronage from Robert Nugent, a wealthy and influential fellow Irishman.

    Oliver Goldsmith, Portrait of Goldsmith by Joshua Reynolds, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A portrait of Goldsmith by his close friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

    Despite his established reputation, Oliver Goldsmith still relied on publishing to earn money. He developed a taste for luxurious clothes and housing, and his extravagant spending meant he was constantly in debt. He continued successfully publishing, including his first novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, in 1766. In 1768, he produced his first piece for the theater, The Good-Natured Man. He continued producing literature of excellent quality at remarkable speed, publishing his best-known poem, "The Deserted Village", in 1770, and a second successful theatrical work, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773, the year before his death.3

    Overworked and exhausted, Oliver Goldsmith contracted a fever in March of 1774. His symptoms continued to worsen, and he generally ignored the advice of his physicians, which conflicted with his own self-diagnosis. By the end of the month, he was entirely bed-ridden, and on April 4th, 1774, he suffered a series of seizures before dying.4

    Oliver Goldsmith's Books

    As someone who depended entirely on publications for his income, Oliver Goldsmith produced reams of reviews, essays, letters, histories, poems, and stories. These were all popular in their time, but his breakthrough An Enquiry into the Current State of Polite Learning, his collection of letters from a new immigrant's perspective, The Citizen of the World, and his only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, are still widely read and studied.

    An Enquiry into the Current State of Polite Learning (1759)

    This collection of fourteen essays deals with topics such as the decline of learning from ancient times, the negative effects of contemporary book reviews and literary criticism, and differing methods of education across Europe. While parts of it contain what we would today think of as plagiarism, much of it draws heavily on Goldsmith’s own experience at Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Edinburgh, and his travels through Europe, particularly France and Italy. The book was not without controversy but raised a great deal of interest in Goldsmith as an up-and-comer on the London literary scene.

    The Citizen of the World (1762)

    This book is a compilation of "The China Letters", 119 essays that Oliver Goldsmith had earlier published individually in newspapers. They are written from the perspective of a newly arrived immigrant from China, Lien Chi Altangi. Thoughtful, philosophical, and well-educated but with no preconceptions or prejudices of what he will find in London, his observations offer a funny but unsparing criticism of the brutality, hypocrisy, and artificiality of 18th-century English culture. Popular characters he encounters include the generous but secretive Man in Black and the pretentious ‘Beau’ Tibbs.

    The Vicar of Wakefield (1762)

    This novel tells the story of Charles Primrose, a vicar with a large family in Yorkshire.

    Oliver Goldsmith, Vicar of Wakefield Frontispiece Primrose, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A depiction of the Primrose family in an 1817 frontispiece.

    After a financial catastrophe, he loses all of his wealth and property and is forced to move to a new post in the countryside. Despite his increasing poverty and bad luck, Charles (like Pangloss from Candide) remains optimistic. There is a villainous local squire named Thornhill in this new parish. Thornhill has Charles imprisoned, seduces one of his daughters, and tricks her into a fake marriage. Thornhill reveals that he has done this 6-8 times already, forcing the victims into prostitution afterward.

    George, Charles' son, goes to England to become a writer. In desperation, he nearly joins the military before being taken in by a troupe of actors. He comes home on an acting tour, and Thornhill contracts him as a soldier to be sent to the West Indies so that he can defile George’s girlfriend.

    The novel has strong autobiographical components, with many of the events being thinly disguised incidents from Oliver Goldsmith’s own life. While it is a comic novel, critics disagree about whether it is meant to be satirical or sentimental. The novel also has elements of social criticism, indirectly condemning social inequality and the British colonization of Ireland.

    Oliver Goldsmith's Plays

    Oliver Goldsmith only just began to write for the theater towards the end of his life. The two plays that he wrote proved enormously popular in their own day and are still read and produced today.

    Oliver Goldsmith, Drury Lane Theater, StudySmarter

    Fig. 4 - Drury Lane Theater, where Goldsmith's plays were first performed.

    The Good-Natured Man (1768)

    This comedy's protagonist is a kind but credulous man named Honeywood. He is in love with a wealthy young woman, Miss Richland, and she with him, but he is too afraid to propose to her.

    One evening two bailiffs, sent by his uncle to try to teach him a lesson, arrive at his house to imprison him. Worried about what everyone will think, he tries to cover up the situation by passing them off as guests. The two bailiffs are dressed in fine clothes and join in a discussion about French influence on English taste, which Honeywood has to try to interpret for his other guests.

    After he is arrested, he is bailed out by Miss Richland. Unaware who paid the bail, he assumes it is his rich and influential friend, Lofty. Feeling indebted to Lofty, he tries to help him marry Miss Richland, who he is interested in for her money and looks alone.

    Miss Richland’s guardian, meanwhile, a distant relative named Mrs. Croaker, has every intention of marrying her son, Leontine, to Miss Richland. Her concerns are purely with Miss Richmond’s fortune, and they have no interest in each other. Ultimately, Honeywood learns who bailed him out and marries Miss Richland.

    She Stoops to Conquer (1773)

    This comedic play is a story of misunderstanding and mistaken identity. A suitor, Marlow, is tricked into believing that the house of his potential lover, Kate Hardcastle, is an inn. He proceeds to treat Kate’s father and mother like innkeepers, rudely ordering food, demanding to see rooms, and telling his servants to drink as much as they can. Marlow is painfully shy around upper-class women, but something of a rake with lower-class ones. After an extremely awkward interview with Kate, she manages to convince him that she’s a barmaid by changing her outfit and voice. His attitude towards her changes entirely, and he tries to forcibly kiss her and carry her off.

    In a subplot, Kate’s cousin, Constance, is in love with a man named Hastings. Kate’s mother wants Constance to marry her son from another marriage, Tony, in order to keep her wealth in the family. After an unsuccessful attempt to elope, Tony officially refuses to marry Constance so she and Hastings can be together.

    By stooping to the level first of a barmaid and then of a poor relative, Kate manages to elicit professions of love and tenderness from the formerly cold Marlow. In the end, all of the deception is revealed, but everyone forgives each other. Hastings is to marry Constance and Marlow is to marry Kate.

    Oliver Goldsmith's Writing Style

    Oliver Goldsmith wrote towards the end of the age of Neoclassical or Augustan literature, which was preoccupied with its relation to the classical Greek and Roman literary heritage as well as with the formal rules that should govern writing, down to how vowels and syllables should be arranged.

    One example of the high formality of Neoclassical or Augustan literature is the use of the heroic couplet. In a heroic couplet, every line of poetry has ten syllables. The stress pattern of each line is iambic, meaning every other syllable should be stressed unless there is some compelling artistic reason to break the unstressed-stressed pattern. Finally, every pair of lines must have an end-rhyme.

    Essentially all of Goldsmith's poetry was written under the demanding formal constraints of the heroic couplet. Take an example from the opening stanza of his most well-known poem, "The Deserted Village." The syllables are divided with a vertical bar, and the stressed syllables are highlighted in red. Note the amazing regularity of the lines:

    Sweet | Aub | urn! love | liest | vill | age | of | the | plain,

    Where | health | and | plen | ty cheered | the | lab | oring | swain,

    Where | smil | ing | spring | its | ear | liest | vis | it | paid,

    And | part | ing sum | mer's ling | ering | blooms | de | layed (lines 1-4)

    Oliver Goldsmith managed to write within the confines of this style while not sounding pompous or artificial, maintaining a grace and simplicity that belies its difficulty and craftsmanship. Even more remarkable was the volume and pace at which Goldsmith was able to produce this quality of writing. In the words of his close friend and contemporary, Samuel Johnson, he “touched every kind of writing, and touched none that he did not adorn.”3

    Oliver Goldsmith: Quotes

    Oliver Goldsmith produced many memorable turns of phrase in poetry, prose, and conversation.

    In the opening stanza of "The Traveler," the poem that made him a literary celebrity, Goldsmith catalogues the difficulties of traveling through remote regions of Europe before remarking that:

    Where’er I roam, whatever realms to see,

    My heart untraveled fondly turns to thee (lines 7-8)

    In Goldsmith's best-known poem, "The Deserted Village," Goldsmith gives a moving portrait of a place abandoned to the ravages of time. The poem is not merely nostalgic or sentimental, however, but a criticism of the colonial exploitation of Ireland and of the growing inequality in English society:

    Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,

    Where wealth accumulates and men decay (lines 51-52)

    In the opening act of Goldsmith's most famous play, She Stoops to Conquer, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle are having a debate about the relative merits of the country and the city. In favor of the slow pace of country life, Mr. Hardcastle makes the following remark:

    I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines. (Act 1)

    Although Goldsmith was often mocked as an inarticulate conversationalist, there is quite a bit of evidence that what he said was often simply over the heads of his interlocutors. James Boswell, who spent a good deal of time with Goldsmith, records him making the following remark about his religious belief:

    As I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the tailor, so I take my religion from the priest.3

    Oliver Goldsmith - Key takeaways

    • Born in 1728 in Ireland, Oliver Goldsmith studied medicine before traveling continental Europe and settling down in London as a writer in 1756.
    • Poor but fond of luxuries, Goldsmith earned his living entirely through his writing and so produced a prodigious amount.
    • Much of Goldsmith's best writing, such as his only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, and his best-known poems, "The Traveler" and "The Deserted Village", contain strong autobiographical elements and subtle social criticism.
    • Goldsmith's two plays, The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer, were both enormously popular comedies.
    • Goldsmith's writing is characterized by seeming ease and simplicity under highly demanding formal constraints.


    1. S. Greenblatt (general editor). The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 1. Norton, 2012.

    2. J. Merriman. A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Present. Norton, 2010.

    3. N. Clarke. Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. Harvard UP, 2016.

    4. W. Irving. Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1864.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Oliver Goldsmith

    Who was Oliver Goldsmith?

    Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish novelist, playwright, and poet in the late 18th century. He was one of the defining figures of the August age of English literature.

    Why is Oliver Goldsmith important?

    Many of Oliver Goldsmith's works are still studied today for the beauty of their language, their wit, and their humor. Goldsmith's work also contains subtle criticism of inequality and colonial exploitation that is still relevant today.

    Who said Goldsmith "wrote like an angel but talks like poor Poll"?

    This remark was made by Goldsmith's close friend, the star actor David Garrick (1717-1779). It jokingly points to the discrepancy between Goldsmith's literary brilliance and his poor conversational abilities. 

    Which book of Oliver Goldsmith's is a collection of essays?

    Oliver Goldsmith was a prolific writer, and published many collections of essays as books. Two of the most well-known of these are his An Enquiry into the State of Polite Learning (1759) and The Citizen of the World (1762).

    How did Oliver goldsmith die?

    Oliver Goldsmith died of complications from a fever. Although he was young, he was overworked and exhausted. He also refused to follow medical advice.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Oliver Goldsmith born?

    Which of the following best describes Oliver Goldsmith's social background?

    Where was Goldsmith born?

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