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
It was the fag end of the reign of George II. Thanks to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the pursuit of literature was becoming an independent profession. A man of letters was getting free from the patronage of the aristocracy. Whitehead was the Poet Laureate of England. Griffiths- a bookseller of Paternoster Row- engaged Goldsmith as a hack upon his Monthly Review. For boars, lodging and a little sum of pocket money, he wrote stray articles and reviews. When his landlord was carried off to prison for debt, Goldsmith, being very compassionate by nature, could not endure the distress of the man’s wife. He pawned his new clothes and handed her the money. Hearing this, Griffiths- thought of Goldsmith as a villain and threatened him with extreme measures. Goldsmith began to write articles for the Bee, The Busybody, and The Lady’s Magazine and made a literary reputation for himself: His book An Inquiry into the State of Polite Learning in Europe appeared in Europe. In course of time Bishop Percy,
Garrick, Smollett, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Dr. Samuel Johnson became his acquaintances. He has given a guinea article in the Public Ledger. His Chinese Essays were first published in it. He would have prospered if his extravagance had not kept him nearly always in debt. He was fond of hosting suppers and had developed a taste for fine clothes. He liked colored events. He was sponged upon for guineas and half-guineas by some rascals who knew that he was a man of kind disposition. A guinea could never remain for a single day in his pocket. He was in the employment of Newsbery (a bookseller). He worked very hard throughout the day and spent his evening in the company of Dr. Samuel Johnson at Sir Joshua’s, or at the Literary Club. When he left Newbery, he landed in trouble. James Boswell record in his Life of Dr. Johnson: “I received one morning” said Dr. Johnson “a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress and as it was not in his power to come to me- begging that I could come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed and found that his landlady had him arrested for his rent at which he was in a great passion. 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 merits; 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 novel was The Vicar of Wakefield and its publisher was the younger Newbery.
The novel proved to be the turning point in Goldsmith’s literary career. He presented the credentials of his creative genius in the form of this novel. Oliver Goldsmith was a man of infinite good humour: “Where he had aroused the scorn of the Club by foolish attempts at wise discourse, his simplicity would in a moment transform contempt into friendship.” Though he was guilty of vanity, recklessness, and obstinacy, he was entirely free from the “sins of the spirit.” He was essentially as lovable a person as his own Vicar of Wakefield. In his physical appearance, he was a shrewd-looking, low-statured man with five feet five inches, with a big round head, a pale scarred face with a bulging forehead and large pouting lips. His friend Dr. Samuel Johnson was a giant figure over six feet. Let me imagine when the two writers met in Fleet Street London, Goldsmith in his gaudy-coloured velvet and gold lace must have looked a curious personality. He was known as “Nall” or “Nolly” or “Goldy” or Poor Little Goldsmith” Beauclerk writes about him: “We were entertained as usual by Goldsmith’s absurdities.” Masson remarks, “He is a positive idiot except when he has a pen in his hand.” His friend Garrick commented upon Goldsmith’s grave: “Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll, Who wrote like an angel but talked like poor Poll.”
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.
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.
7. Make an assessment of Goldsmith as a writer.
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