Olliver Goldsmith was born on November 29, 1728, in Pallas, Forney Parish, Longford, Ireland. His was a clergyman’s son. He went to local college and then to Trinity College, Dublin in 1744. He arrived in London in 1756 after leaving the University and unsuccessfully attempting his hand on many activities. He worked as a college usher, a chemist’s store assistant, a medical practitioner, and a literary hack. His life became kinder after 1759. He became a prominent member of the circle of Johnson and became known as the author of poems, plays, and novels.

The very objective of this study is to place Oliver Goldsmith in the proper perspective as a writer in the eighteenth century- the age of enlightenment and reason. He was a great genius and tried his hand at fiction, prose, drama, and poetry. His contribution to English comedy is not negligible. He reacted sharply to the Sentimental comedy which was under the spell of French playwriters of the period. The objective is to highlight how dexterously he revived the spirit of Shakespearean comedy and recreated the atmosphere of Farquhar’s Beaus Strategem on the English stage. He brought the genre of comedy on the right track because it had deviated from the norms of depicting genuine humanity and humour, and had degraded itself into maudlin and lachrymose sentimentality.

Introduction to the Life of Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith had very humble origins. He spent his childhood in the little village Lissoy in the rural surroundings of Longford, Ireland. His father was a poor Protestant curate. He went to the village school. He also studied at Trinity College, Dublin. He became the postmaster of the arts of dissipation and practical joking. After his father’s death, his mother lived in abject penury. Goldsmith’s relatives helped him thrice to emigrate to find work for a living. He was sent to Edinburgh to study medicine. He spent two years there, ostensibly engaged in study, but his heart was in tramping about the countryside and the streets with his flute to support him. He traveled to various countries on the continent of Europe depending for food and lodging on humble cottagers. He had nothing to pay except to play upon his flute. For some time, he worked as a bookseller’s hack. He took to teaching and acting but he didn’t succeed in either of them.

He was in such straits that he ran errands and slept with professional beggars. He failed in the examination for the surgeon’s mate at a hospital and reverted to hack-writing. He was not an expert of any specific discipline but he did try his hands-on natural history, English history, and Roman history for writing. During this period, he developed a graceful picturesque style of writing. Surely a great writer was in the making. His work Letters of a Citizen of the World appeared anonymously in The Public Ledger in 1762. These letters were professed to be from the hand of Chinese philosophers visiting England. The contents consisted of a critique of contemporary genteel English manners.

Goldsmith made acquaintance with Dr. Samuel Johnson and was admitted to his literary circle which included Blake, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Garrick, etc. The publication of The Traveller established his reputation as a man of letters. It was a reflective poem which narrated his early experience. He came out with a short novel The Vicar of Wakefield: regarded as a classic of the period. He wrote a lengthy poem The Deserted Village (1770). It was haphazardly planned but it was full of exquisite passages. Credit goes to him for having written such comedies as- The Good Natur’d Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1774). In spite of his recurring income obtained from various booksellers for hack compilations, his debts amounted to 2000 pounds. He died of nervous fever in 1774 and was buried at the Temple. Dr. Samuel Johnson’s epitaph on Goldsmith reads- “He touched nothing that he did not adorn”- was the most correct and concise estimate of Goldsmith’s genius. Grace was a salient feature of his style. Goldsmith was duly admired as a poet by his contemporaries. Unfortunately, The Traveller is hardly read today but his poem The Deserted Village is more widely known. Both of these poems are products of his genuinely poetical and imaginative genius. These poems anticipate the Lyrical Ballads (1798)

The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel by Goldsmith was a landmark in the history of the England novel. Its characterization is very skillful. There was nearly always an undercurrent of decent humour. His play The Good Natur’d Man was like a gust of fresh air in a sickroom. Critics regarded it as a dramatic failure on the ground that the people were not ready to abandon lachrymosity for laughter. His play, She Stoops to Conquer was a grand success. It had all the elements which constituted the perfect farce and sentimental comedy. This was the kind of comedy that Goldsmith desired on the stage.

Goldsmith and his Age: His Career and Character

Socio-political Ethos of Goldsmith’s Time

As has been referred to earlier, literary patronage of the artist by aristocrats was coming to an end. Writers began to depend now more on their own resources and on the reading public, and no less on the booksellers as we have seen in the case of Goldsmith. He was aware of all the hard grind and drudgery of literary activities. The social content, therefore dominated literary themes. Goldsmith was highly conscious of his audience and reading public. In the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth century, the writers did thrive under certain patronage. Someone supported the writers directly and even appointed them to some civil or ecclesiastical office. The writer did not make a living professionally by writing books. Goldsmith was one of those eminent writers who challenged and revolted against such patronage. Dr. Samuel Johnson famous letter to Lord Chesterfield in February 1755 was a declaration of the writer’s independence. Goldsmith had no patron and therefore, he had to face abject penury though the popular market was expanding. Alexander Pope in The Dunciad speaks of “caves of poverty and poetry.” Henry Fielding records the hand-to-mouth existence of a hack writer in Author’s Farce. Thomas Amory in his novel John Buncle tells us how Edmond Curil- the bookseller and his hacks sleep in relays- three in a bed. Dr. Samuel Johnson in his Life of Savage paints the sordid poverty and relentless struggle of writers. But soon the profession was on the way to independence. The writer could earn his bread and butter by writing in prestigious journals, newspapers, and magazines. The Spectator extended the circle of readers. Addison took upon himself the task of educating the public morality and healthy criticism and amused his readers by satire and curious chapter sketches. A. Pope’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey were sold like hotcakes. They were not dedicated to any aristocrat or a prime but to Congreve. The Gentleman’s Magazine was founded in 1731 and several other periodicals reviewing and popularizing contemporary literature were started. The eighteenth-century fiction had a large number of readers. Richardson’s success with Pamela and Clarissa, Sterne’s with Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey< Macpherson’s Ossian were portents of an epoch of popular literary taste and sentiment.

The political and economic conditions of England fostered the growth of social consciousness along with literary proliferation. This was the trend of practical humanism. This period was known as the age of prose and reason. A general desire for social harmony prevailed as a sequel to the Civil War and the persecution of dissenters after Lord Monmouth’s rise in 1685. The remarkable feature of the period was the evolving social order with the reason being the key attribute. Economic progress was certainly responsible for the growth of social consciousness. Daniel Defoe speaks admiringly of the abundance of things, rising buildings, and new discoveries during this period. The organic conception of society linking together the high and the low, the illustrious and the obscure, emerged though the class distinctions had not entirely disappeared. More and more attention was given to the management of public affairs. John Locke desired that men should seek knowledge of material causes and effects of things and that they should develop such arts, engines, and inventions which could contribute to a happier state of society. The Bank of England was well established now. Traders, merchants, bankers, industrialists, etc preoccupied themselves with a new sophisticated economic order. They were as respectable in society as in the domain of literature. Sir Andrew Freeport in The Spectator is a remarkable character in the context. He is admired for indefatigable industry, strong reason, and a great experience.” James Boswell writes: “In this great commercial country, it is natural that a situation which produces much wealth should be considered very respectable.”

This was “The strongest assertion of the Middle class” which has emerged very strongly. The men of all sects and creeds were in fact, now willing to take up business as the very philosophy of life. England was heading for industrial property. The commercial prosperity got centered in London. It became an unfailing object of literary reflection. We find it in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Belinda’s dressing table, loaded with “All Arabia” breathing from perfume boxes; tortoise-shell and ivory stuck in combs, the various offerings of the world have been assembled for her make-up. Commercial prosperity in the Royal Exchange is well reflected in Addison’s Spectator (Paper No. 9). Ken interest began to be evinced in foreign lands as one notices in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout the eighteenth century, interest in the East was mounting: The South Sea Company was launched in 1711 and The South Sea Bubble burst in 1720. Commodore Anson Circumnavigated the globe during (1740-44), Byron’s grandfather commodore John Byron did it in (1764-66) Captain Wallis did it in 1775-78. Captain Cook made his several expeditions in 1768-71, 1772-75 and 1776-79. Eastern trade constituted a small part of British economy. Burke’s brilliant speeches refer admiringly to England’s Eastern trade and its brighter prospects. This trade was the channel for a wave of Oriental interest which spread in entire Europe. The European came to know of oriental wisdom and virtue and enlightened moral values.

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Literary Trends in the Eighteenth Century England

From the imaginative and literary writings of the period we get a glowing perspective of the countryside. Daniel Defoe painted it rosy in his Tour; Thomson’s Seasons, Gay’s Rural Sports, Dyer’s Fleece,…….all breathe an atmosphere of growing prosperity. We may contrast it with Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village mourning the lost happy peasantry of his youthful days: Under the enclosure system, the private estates replaced the old communally formed open fields and a large number of the laborious were dispossessed.

It would be a blunder to forget that the evolving social order in the eighteenth century was accompanied by violence. It is worthwhile to refer to Anti-Roman Catholic Popish Plot and attempts to block James II’s succession and also Lord Shaftsbury’s plot against James II in favour of Lord Monmouth. Dryden has dexterously exposed it in his satires- The Medal and Absalom and Achitophel. Then came Lord Monmouth’s revolt, the anti-Dissenter riots, provoked by the Tory Occasional Conformity Bill, of which the literary offshoot was Daniel Defoe’s parody- The Shortest Way with the Dissenters and the bitter Tory campaign against Marlborough in which Jonathan Swift’s Conduct of The Allies accelerated his fall. Intrigues of parties, on the verge of Civil War in the Whig Replacement of the Stuart line by the Hanoverian one in 1714, personal animosities during the Prime Ministership of Walpole, John Wilkes’s disputed election to the Parliament and lastly the American War of Independence followed. The French Revolution in 1789 was a great event in France: The fort of Bastille was stormed by the masses. Queen Antoniette was guillotined. The age of Oliver Goldsmith was ripe for socio-political upheavals and drastic changes.

The literature of the period, therefore, reflects the irresistible desire of the people to maintain law and order. The reason was the very basis of desirable social order. Saint Evremond tells us: “We love plain truth; good sense has gained ground upon the illusions of fancy and nothing satisfies us nowadays but solid reason.: Dryden thought of “wit” as “propriety of words and thoughts adapted to the subjects”. Pope defined it as “what oft was thought but beer so well expressed.” Hume, harping upon the Aristotelian idea of the constant universals of human nature,” sought to explore it further. Therefore, wit in the eighteenth century meant not only stating and formulating the familiar truths but it was also impressing upon mankind with fresh ways of thinking and discovering new truths. We can understand why propriety, perspicuity, elegance, and cadence came to he highly valued both in poetry and prose: The discourse or content was to be happily-worded. Horace’s Art Poetica and Boileau’s Lirt Poetique ruled the day. Jonathan Swift in his Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding emphasized the value of good conversation and etiquette. Oliver Goldsmith in his Account of the Augustan Age bears witness to the accomplishment of these values: A happy union of literature and polite society marked the salient feature of the age.

These Augustans debt to the past cannot be underestimated. Though they lived their own lives, had their moral ideas, and developed their lifestyle. They showed deep respect for the way the things had been done in the glorious classical past. They regard their lives collective as an integral part of a majestic ideal of humanity. They tried their best to emulate the great masters. Dryden quotes Longinus in his Preface to Troilus and Cressida (1669): “Those great men whom we propose to ourselves as patterns of our limitation serve us as a torch which if lifted up before us, to enlighten our passage and often elevate our thoughts as high as the conception we have of our author’s genius.” It is stated in the 86th Guardian: “The ancient were fountains of good sense and eloquence.” Burke’s letter to a member of National Assembly(1791) speaks volumes of England’s disdain of Rousseauesque anarchy.

Goldsmith and his Contemporarily Drama and Fiction

Oliver Goldsmith was a playwright of no little importance. In his play She Stoops to Conquer, there is an undercurrent of hemour and satire. It marks a sort of relief from the turgidity of the heroic drama to lighter stuff.

The gaiety, cynicism and the strain of immorality of the Restoration period are fully reflected in this witty play. It satirizes the social behaviour of a certain class of English society. It is a sentimental comedy which reacts against Restoration wit and license. Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer incorporates a genuine spirit of comedy.

Satire came very handy to the Restoration playwrights and which was the legitimate element of drama had degenerated into farce. A new impulse now came to sustain the drama: it was sentimentalism. Sentimentality and bourgeois respectability went hand in hand. The desire to attack licentious morality of the period, the finer intelligence of Henry Fielding got deviated from the stage to the novel. He came out with Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Tom, the bastard, he sats the natural impulses of genuine humanity against hypocritical and calculating ‘vartue.’ While determining the grow of the sentimental movement we should take into account the bourgeois concept respectability and stiff calculating commercialism. It is to be noted that a counter-movement began at the same time. It is crystal clear in Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Sentimentalism which encroached upon the drama and the fiction of the day expressed decadent morals. A weaker form of sentimentality implies unmanly pity, lack of moral strength, and puritanical hypocrisy. Jean Jaqucs Rousseau is sentimental but his sentimentalism is saturated with humanitarianism. Sentimentalism, which penetrated the comedy of the period, banished murth and laughter from the stage. Etherege, Wycherley, Farquhar, Congreve might be rather lax in their moral tone but they did catch the genuine spirit of comedy. They not only provoked mirth and laughter but they also recognized the social problems of the days.

It was hypocrisy masquerading as sentimentalism. The sentimental movement may be traced back to the early eighties of the seventeenth century. The political interest of the public during the last phase of Charles II, the reign of James II and the Rebellion contributed to the dramatic literature as the people had become highly aware of religious, political and moral forces interacting in society. The Puritan ascendancy and commercialism went side by side and the net outcome was hypocritical and calculating virtue. Henry Fielding with his unclouded reason was the first writer to react against it.

The Sentimental Comedy and Goldsmith’s Reaction Against it

The recurring theme of the sentimental comedy is that their licentious characters get reformed in course of time. Sir Richard Steele started the vogue of the Sentimental comedy. He threw all his weight on the side of morality as he believed in domestic happiness, in faithful love and in the goodness of the human heart. His play The Tender Husband emphasizes honorable love as the very basis of domestic happiness. The Sentimental comedy as a brand of drama was saturated with emotional sense and sentimental platitudes: it was divorced from realism. It was centered primarily on the middle class of society. It depicted the world of fops and dandies and fashionable ladies and exposed all follies and vices of society. Sentimental comedy was, thus, a degenerated mode of drama. In it, we had tears in a place of laughter, melodramatic situations instead of intrigue, heart-breaking heroines and passionate lovers, and honest servants instead of rogues, gallants and witty damsels. The role purpose of the sentimental comedy, it seemed, was to make men and women charitable honourable. Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith were the pioneers of anti-sentimental movement and reached sharply against the sentimental comedy. As early as 1759, Goldsmith condemned it in The Present State of Polite Learning She Stoops to Conquer(1773) stormed the sentimental comedy more successfully than The Good Natured Man(1768) did Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal is it equally brilliantly. Oliver Goldsmith rightly conceived amusement to be the primary objective of comedy. Sheridan comments the humour- ‘guaint and sly’ gay invention and satire should be the proper stuff comedy. The Sentimental comedy which substituted emotional tension and tears for mirth and laughter, and trotted forth mawkish sentiments was called into being by bourgeois pseudo-morality, humbug, and horror of vulgarity. It was called genteel comedy as it rejected the absurdities of the vulgar, the follies and vices as ‘low’. Goldsmith reacted against this mode of spurious comedy in which the virtues of private life are exhibited rather than vices exposed, and the distresses rather than faults of mankind make our interest.

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In these plays, the characters were good and exceedingly generous and extravagant.

If they happened to have faults of foibles, they were applauded. Thus follies instead of being ridiculed were commended. Goldsmith reacted against this genteel comedy. He proposed to restore humour and nature to comedy. He regarded humour and comic situations as the very sine que non of comedy. Lachrymose and Maudlin sentimentality was no substitute for humour and character. She Stoops to Conquer by Goldsmith revived the spirit of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal the English drama reached the culmination of anti-sentimental movement.

A Pointwise Summary of the Contents of this unit:

1. Oliver Goldsmith was an eighteenth-century writer. He had a versatile literary genius

2. He was an Irish by birth. He started from scratch, as he had very humble origins.

3. He worked as a bookseller’s hack as a young man.

4. He contributed his articles to the newspapers and journals.

5. He tried his hand at writing poems, plays, fiction, essays, etc.

6. He came in close contact with Dr. Johnson and his circle of scholars.

7. Goldsmith had an extraordinary sense of humour.

8. He was a man of sweet disposition and remained in debt in spite of lucrative income He hosted suppers to his friends and spent rather extravagantly.

9. He was called ‘Nolly’ or ‘Goldy’ among his chums.

10. Dr. Johnson admired his literary genius and sense of humour.

11. Goldsmith was not patronized by any prince or nobleman.

12. The eighteenth century was a period of developing trade and commerce. It was also a period of political and religious upheavals.

13. The Sentimental comedy, which excluded mirth and laughter, depended largely on lachrymose and maudlin emotion. It did not depict genuine humanity and nature. The French influence was rather morbid on the English drama.

14. Goldsmith and Sheridan reacted sharply against the Sentimental Comedy.

15. Goldsmith revived the spirit of Elizabethan/Shakespearean comedy with humour and depicted genuine human reality.

16. His play She Stoops to Conquer was a brilliant success.

17. Goldsmith had wonderful potentialities as a novelist. His novel The Vicar of Wakefield speaks volumes of his mind.


Penury: Abject poverty. For example, Goldsmith lived in penury in his early days.

Lsd: Pound shilling and penny. (Please note that LSD is a drug)
genteel: Polite in an exaggerated manner.

hack: A hack was the helper who performed odd jobs in offices. Goldsmith was himself a bookseller’s hack.

lachrymosity: A tendency or instinct to be moved to tears. For example, women become lachrymose in emotional moments.

disposition: nature or temperament. For example, Goldsmith was a man of a kindly disposition.

Guinea: a gold coin. sentimental:emotional. licentious: sexually immoral.

Curate: An assistant to a Vicar.

Vicar: A church priest.

Protestantism: A Christian sect which came into existence in protest of the corrupt practices of Roman Catholic church in the sixteenth century.

Guillotin: A French device of execution: The person to be executed was made to stand on a platform and a sharp blade operated with a liver and chopped off his head like a fruit.

Self Assessment Questions

1. Who was the bookseller’s hack? What was his work?

Answer: Oliver Goldsmith.

2. Tell us the titles of at least two plays by Goldsmith.
Answer: The Good Natur’d Man and She Stoops to Conquer.

3. Why was Goldsmith in debt?
Answer: He was a man of sweet disposition and remained in debt in spite of lucrative income. He hosted suppers to his friends and spent rather extravagantly.

4. Name a few renowned friends of Goldsmith in London.
Answer: Bishop Percy, Garrick, Smollett, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Dr. Samuel Johnson.

5. Who was called ‘Noll’ or ‘Nolly’ or ‘Goldy’!
Answer: Oliver Goldsmith.
6. Who wrote the famous biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson?
Answer: James Boswell.

7. Refer to a few socio-political events of the eighteenth century in England.
Answer: Growth of social consciousness along with literary proliferation well establishment of Bank and trade propered.

8. What is Goldsmith’s grievance in The Deserted Village?
Answer: The Deserted Village mourning the lost happy peasantry of his youthful days: Under the enclosure system, the private estates replaced the old communally formed open fields and a large number of the laborious were dispossessed.

9. What do you mean by genteel comedy?
The Sentimental comedy which substituted emotional tension and tears for mirth and laughter, and trotted forth mawkish sentiments was called into being by bourgeois pseudo-morality, humbug, and horror of vulgarity. It was called genteel comedy as it
rejected the absurdities of the vulgar, the follies and vices as ‘low’.

10. Why is Sheridan associated with Goldsmith?
Answer: She Stoops to Conquer by Goldsmith revived the spirit of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal the English drama reached the culmination of anti-sentimental movement.

Sum Up

Goldsmith recorded his ideals against the Sentimental comedy in his Essay on the Theatre: or A Comparison Between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy 1772. He attacked the Sentimental comedy in his preface to The Good Natur’d Man and placed his cards plainly upon the table.

He was a versatile genius: He tried his hand poetry. He wrote The Deserted Village and The Traveller. He wrote a novel The Vicar of Wakefield and a number of essays; and plays- The Good Nautr’d Man and She Stoops to Conquer. He would have achieved greater success if he had devoted himself entirely to drama. However, his achievement as writer of comedies is remarkable. In the play, She Stoops to Conquer he recreates the atmosphere of Farquhar’s Beaux Strategem and revitalizes a breath of genuine humanity to drama stifled with excessive emotions.

Review Questions

1. Describe the life of Oliver Goldsmith as a Bookseller’s hack.

2. Write a note on Goldsmith’s friendship with Dr.Samuel Johnson.

3. What were the personal qualities of Goldsmith?

4. Comment upon the socio-political conditions in eighteenth-century England.

5. Write an essay on the eighteenth century Drama with reference to comedy.

6. Why did Goldsmith react to the Sentimental Comedy?

7. Make an assessment of Goldsmith as a writer.

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