Two of the earlier, and, in some respects, more important Memoirs of Oliver Goldsmith open with a quotation from one of his minor works, in which he refers to the generally uneventful life of the scholar. His own chequered career was a notable exception to this rule. He was born on the 10th of November, 1728, at Pallas, a village in the county of Longford in Ireland, his father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, being a clergyman of the Established Church. Oliver was the fifth of a family of five sons and three daughters. In 1730, his father, who had been assisting the rector of the neighbouring parish of Kilkenny West, succeeded to that living, and moved to Lissoy, a hamlet in Westmeath, lying a little to the right of the road from Ballymahon to Athlone.
Educated first by a humble relative named Elizabeth Delap, the boy passed subsequently to the care of Thomas Byrne, the village schoolmaster, an old soldier who had fought Queen Anne's battles in Spain, and had retained from those experiences a wandering and unsettled spirit, which he is thought to have communicated to one at least of his pupils. After an attack of confluent small-pox, which scarred him for life, Oliver was transferred from the care of this not-uncongenial preceptor to a school at Elphin. From Elphin he passed to Athlone; from Athlone to Edgeworthstown, where he remained until he was thirteen or fourteen years of age.
The accounts of these early days are contradictory. By his schoolfellows he seems to have been regarded as stupid and heavy,—'little better than a fool'; but they admitted that he was remarkably active and athletic, and that he was an adept in all boyish sports. At home, notwithstanding a variable disposition, and occasional fits of depression, he showed to greater advantage. He scribbled verses early; and sometimes startled those about him by unexpected 'swallow- flights' of repartee. One of these, an oft-quoted retort to a musical friend who had likened his awkward antics in a hornpipe to the dancing of Aesop,—
Heralds! proclaim aloud! all saying,
See Aesop dancing, and his monkey playing,—
reads more like a happily-adapted recollection than the actual impromptu of a boy of nine. But another, in which, after a painful silence, he replied to the brutal enquiry of a ne'er-do-well relative as to when he meant to grow handsome, by saying that he would do so when the speaker grew good,—is characteristic of the easily-wounded spirit and 'exquisite sensibility of contempt' with which he was to enter upon the battle of life.
In June, 1744, after anticipating in his own person, the plot of his later play of She Stoops to Conquer by mistaking the house of a gentleman at Ardagh for an inn, he was sent to Trinity College, Dublin. The special dress and semi-menial footing of a sizar or poor scholar—for his father, impoverished by the imprudent portioning of his eldest daughter, could not afford to make him a pensioner—were scarcely calculated to modify his personal peculiarities. Added to these, his tutor elect, Dr. Theaker Wilder, was a violent and vindictive man, with whom his ungainly and unhopeful pupil found little favour. Wilder had a passion for mathematics which was not shared by Goldsmith, who, indeed, spoke contemptuously enough of that science in after life. He could, however, he told Malone, 'turn an Ode of Horace into English better than any of them.' But his academic career was not a success.
In May, 1747, the year in which his father died,—an event that further contracted his already slender means,—he became involved in a college riot, and was publicly admonished. From this disgrace he recovered to some extent in the following month by obtaining a trifling money exhibition, a triumph which he unluckily celebrated by a party at his rooms. Into these festivities, the heinousness of which was aggravated by the fact that they included guests of both sexes, the exasperated Wilder made irruption, and summarily terminated the proceedings by knocking down the host. The disgrace was too much for the poor lad. He forthwith sold his books and belongings, and ran away, vaguely bound for America. But after considerable privations, including the achievement of a destitution so complete that a handful of grey peas, given him by a girl at a wake, seemed a banquet, he turned his steps homeward, and, a reconciliation having been patched up with his tutor, he was received once more at college.
In February, 1749, he took his degree, a low one, as B.A., and quitted the university, leaving behind him, for relics of that time, a scratched signature upon a window-pane, a folio Scapula scored liberally with 'promises to pay,' and a reputation for much loitering at the college gates in the study of passing humanity. Another habit which his associates recalled was his writing of ballads when in want of funds. These he would sell at five shillings apiece; and would afterwards steal out in the twilight to hear them sung to the indiscriminate but applauding audience of the Dublin streets.
What was to be done with a genius so unstable, so erratic? Nothing, apparently, but to let him qualify for orders, and for this he is too young. Thereupon ensues a sort of 'Martin's summer' in his changing life,—a disengaged, delightful time when 'Master Noll' wanders irresponsibly from house to house, fishing and flute-playing, or, of winter evenings, taking the chair at the village inn. When at last the moment came for his presentation to the Bishop of Elphin, that prelate, sad to say, rejected him, perhaps because of his college reputation, perhaps because of actual incompetence, perhaps even, as tradition affirms, because he had the bad taste to appear before his examiner in flaming scarlet breeches.
After this rebuff, tutoring was next tried. But he had no sooner saved some thirty pounds by teaching, than he threw up his engagement, bought a horse, and started once more for America, by way of Cork. In six weeks he had returned penniless, having substituted for his roadster a sorry jade, to which he gave the contemptuous name of Fiddleback. He had also the simplicity to wonder, on this occasion, that his mother was not rejoiced to see him again. His next ambition was to be a lawyer; and, to this end, a kindly Uncle Contarine equipped him with fifty pounds for preliminary studies. But on his way to London he was decoyed into gambling, lost every farthing, and came home once more in bitter self-abasement.
Having now essayed both divinity and law, his next attempt was physic; and, in 1752, fitted out afresh by his long-suffering uncle, he started for, and succeeded in reaching, Edinburgh. Here more memories survive of his social qualities than of his studies; and two years later he left the Scottish capital for Leyden, rather, it may be conjectured, from a restless desire to see the world than really to exchange the lectures of Monro for the lectures of Albinus. At Newcastle (according to his own account) he had the good fortune to be locked up as a Jacobite, and thus escaped drowning, as the ship by which he was to have sailed to Bordeaux sank at the mouth of the Garonne. Shortly afterwards he arrived in Leyden. Gaubius and other Dutch professors figure sonorously in his future works; but whether he had much experimental knowledge of their instructions may be doubted.
What seems undeniable is, that the old seduction of play stripped him of every shilling; so that, like Holberg before him, he set out deliberately to make the tour of Europe on foot. Haud inexpertus loquor, he wrote in after days, when praising this mode of locomotion. He first visited Flanders. Thence he passed to France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, supporting himself mainly by his flute, and by occasional disputations at convents or universities. 'Sir,' said Boswell to Johnson, 'he disputed his passage through Europe.' When on the 1st February, 1756, he landed at Dover, it was with empty pockets. But he had sent home to his brother in Ireland his first rough sketch for the poem of The Traveller.
He was now seven-and-twenty. He had seen and suffered much, but he was to have further trials before drifting definitely into literature. Between Dover and London, it has been surmised, he made a tentative appearance as a strolling player. His next ascertained part was that of an apothecary's assistant on Fish Street Hill. From this, with the opportune aid of an Edinburgh friend, he proceeded—to use an eighteenth-century phrase—a poor physician in the Bankside, Southwark, where least of all, perhaps, was London's fabled pavement to be found. So little of it, in fact, fell to Goldsmith's share, that we speedily find him reduced to the rank of reader and corrector of the press to Samuel Richardson, printer, of Salisbury Court, author of Clarissa.
Later still he is acting as help or substitute in Dr. Milner's 'classical academy' at Peckham. Here, at last, chance seemed to open to him the prospect of a literary life. He had already, says report, submitted a manuscript tragedy to Richardson's judgement; and something he said at Dr. Milner's table attracted the attention of an occasional visitor there, the bookseller Griffiths, who was also proprietor of the Monthly Review. He invited Dr. Milner's usher to try his hand at criticism; and finally, in April, 1757, Goldsmith was bound over for a year to that venerable lady whom George Primrose dubs 'the antiqua mater of Grub Street'—in other words, he was engaged for bed, board, and a fixed salary to supply copy-of- all-work to his master's magazine.
The arrangement thus concluded was not calculated to endure. After some five months of labour from nine till two, and often later, it came suddenly to an end. No clear explanation of the breach is forthcoming, but mere incompatability of temper would probably supply a sufficient ground for disagreement. Goldsmith, it is said, complained that the bookseller and his wife treated him ill, and denied him ordinary comforts; added to which the lady, a harder taskmistress even than the antiqua mater above referred to, joined with her husband in 'editing' his articles, a course which, hard though it may seem, is not unprecedented. However this may be, either in September or October, 1757, he was again upon the world, existing precariously from hand to mouth. 'By a very little practice as a physician, and very little reputation as a poet [a title which, as Prior suggests, possibly means no more than author], I make a shift to live.' So he wrote to his brother-in-law in December. What his literary occupations were cannot be definitely stated; but, if not prepared before, they probably included the translation of a remarkable work issued by Griffiths and others in the ensuing February. This was the Memoirs of a Protestant, condemned to the Galleys of France for his Religion, being the authentic record of the sufferings of one Jean Marteilhe of Bergerac, a book of which Michelet has said that it is 'written as if between earth and heaven.'
Marteilhe, who died at Cuylenberg in 1777, was living in Holland in 1758; and it may be that Goldsmith had seen or heard of him during his own stay in that country. The translation, however, did not bear Goldsmith's name, but that of James Willington, one of his old class-fellows at Trinity College. Nevertheless, Prior says distinctly that Griffiths (who should have known) declared it to be by Goldsmith. Moreover, the French original had been catalogued in Griffiths' magazine in the second month of Goldsmith's servitude, a circumstance which colourably supplies the reason for its subsequent rendering into English.
The publication of Marteilhe's Memoirs had no influence upon Goldsmith's fortunes, for, in a short time, he was again installed at Peckham, in place of Dr. Milner invalided, waiting hopefully for the fulfilment of a promise by his old master to procure him a medical appointment on a foreign station. It is probably that, with a view to provide the needful funds for this expatriation, he now began to sketch the little volume afterwards published under the title of An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, for towards the middle of the year we find him addressing long letters to his relatives in Ireland to enlist their aid in soliciting subscriptions for this book. At length the desired advancement was obtained,—a nomination as a physician and surgeon to one of the factories on the coast of Coromandel. But banishment to the East Indies was not to be his destiny. For some unexplained reason the project came to nothing; and then—like Roderick Random—he presented himself at Surgeons' Hall for the more modest office of a hospital mate. This was on the 21st of December, 1758. The curt official record states that he was 'found not qualified.' What made matters worse, the necessity for a decent appearance before the examiners had involved him in new obligations to Griffiths, out of which arose fresh difficulties. To pay his landlady, whose husband was arrested for debt, he pawned the suit he had procured by Griffiths' aid; and he also raised money on some volumes which had been sent him for review. Thereupon ensued an angry and humiliating correspondence with the bookseller, as a result of which Griffiths, nevertheless, appears to have held his hand.
By this time Goldsmith had moved into those historic but now non- existent lodgings in 12 Green Arbour Court, Old Bailey, which have been photographed for ever in Irving's Tales of a Traveller. It was here that the foregoing incidents took place; and it was here also that, early in 1759, 'in a wretched dirty room, in which there was but one chair,' the Rev. Thomas Percy, afterwards Bishop of Dromore, found him composing (or more probably correcting the proofs of) The Enquiry. 'At least spare invective 'till my book with Mr. Dodsley shall be publish'd,'—he had written not long before to the irate Griffiths—'and then perhaps you may see the bright side of a mind when my professions shall not appear the dictates of necessity but of choice.' The Enquiry came out on the 2nd of April. It had no author's name, but it was an open secret that Goldsmith had written it; and to this day it remains to the critic one of the most interesting of his works.
Obviously, in a duodecimo of some two hundred widely-printed pages, it was impossible to keep the high-sounding promise of its title; and at best its author's knowledge of the subject, notwithstanding his continental wanderings, can have been but that of an external spectator. Still in an age when critical utterance was more than ordinarily full-wigged and ponderous, it dared to be sprightly and epigrammatic. Some of its passages, besides, bear upon the writer's personal experiences, and serve to piece the imperfections of his biography. If it brought him no sudden wealth, it certainly raised his reputation with the book- selling world. A connexion already begun with Smollett's Critical Review was drawn closer; and the shrewd Sosii of the Row began to see the importance of securing so vivacious and unconventional a pen. Towards the end of the year he was writing for Wilkie the collection of periodical essays entitled The Bee; and contributing to the same publisher's Lady's Magazine, as well as to The Busy Body of one Pottinger. In these, more than ever, he was finding his distinctive touch; and ratifying anew, with every fresh stroke of his pen, his bondage to authorship as a calling.
He had still, however, to conquer the public. The Bee, although it contains one of his most characteristic essays ('A City Night-Piece'), and some of the most popular of his lighter verses ('The Elegy on Mrs. Mary Blaize'), never attained the circulation essential to healthy existence. It closed with its eighth number in November, 1759. In the following month two gentlemen called at Green Arbour Court to enlist the services of its author. One was Smollett, with a new serial, The British Magazine; the other was Johnson's 'Jack Whirler,' bustling Mr. John Newbery from the 'Bible and Sun' in St. Paul's Churchyard, with a new daily newspaper, The Public Ledger. For Smollett, Goldsmith wrote the 'Reverie at the Boar's Head Tavern' and the 'Adventures of a Strolling Player,' besides a number of minor papers.
For Newbery, by a happy recollection of the Lettres Persanes of Montesquieu, or some of his imitators, he struck almost at once into that charming epistolary series, brimful of fine observation, kindly satire, and various fancy, which was ultimately to become the English classic known as The Citizen of the World. He continued to produce these letters periodically until the August of the following year, when they were announced for republication in 'two volumes of the usual Spectator size.' In this form they appeared in May, 1762.
But long before this date a change for the better had taken place in Goldsmith's life. Henceforth he was sure of work,—mere journey- work though much of it must have been;—and, had his nature been less improvident, of freedom from absolute want. The humble lodgings in the Old Bailey were discarded for new premises at No. 6 Wine Office Court, Fleet Street; and here, on the 31st of May, 1761, with Percy, came one whose name was often in the future to be associated with Goldsmith's, the great Dictator of London literary society, Samuel Johnson. Boswell, who made Johnson's acquaintance later, has not recorded the humours of that supper; but it marks the beginning of Goldsmith's friendship with the man who of all others (Reynolds excepted) loved him most and understood him best.
During the remainder of 1761 he continued busily to ply his pen. Besides his contributions to The Ledger and The British Magazine, he edited The Lady's Magazine, inserting in it the Memoirs of Voltaire, drawn up some time earlier to accompany a translation of the Henriade by his crony and compatriot Edward Purdon. Towards the beginning of 1762 he was hard at work on several compilations for Newbery, for whom he wrote or edited a History of Mecklenburgh, and a series of monthly volumes of an abridgement of Plutarch's Lives. In October of the same year was published the Life of Richard Nash, apparently the outcome of special holiday-visits to the then fashionable watering-place of Bath, whence its fantastic old Master of the Ceremonies had only very lately made his final exit. It is a pleasantly gossiping, and not unedifying little book, which still holds a respectable place among its author's minor works.
But a recently discovered entry in an old ledger shows that during the latter half of 1762 he must have planned, if he had not, indeed, already in part composed, a far more important effort, The Vicar of Wakefield. For on the 28th of October in this year he sold to one Benjamin Collins, printer, of Salisbury, for 21 pounds, a third in a work with that title, further described as '2 vols. 12mo.' How this little circumstance, discovered by Mr. Charles Welsh when preparing his Life of John Newbery, is to be brought into agreement with the time-honoured story, related (with variations) by Boswell and others, to the effect that Johnson negotiated the sale of the manuscript for Goldsmith when the latter was arrested for rent by his incensed landlady—has not yet been satisfactorily suggested. Possibly the solution is a simple one, referable to some of those intricate arrangements favoured by 'the Trade' at a time when not one but half a score publishers' names figured in an imprint. At present, the fact that Collins bought a third share of the book from the author for twenty guineas, and the statement that Johnson transferred the entire manuscript to a bookseller for sixty pounds, seem irreconcilable. That The Vicar of Wakefield was nevertheless written, or was being written, in 1762, is demonstrable from internal evidence.
About Christmas in the same year Goldsmith moved into lodgings at Islington, his landlady being one Mrs. Elizabeth Fleming, a friend of Newbery, to whose generalship this step seems attributable. From the curious accounts printed by Prior and Forster, it is clear that the publisher was Mrs. Fleming's paymaster, punctually deducting his disbursements from the account current between himself and Goldsmith, an arrangement which as plainly indicates the foresight of the one as it implies the improvidence of the other. Of the work which Goldsmith did for the businesslike and not unkindly little man, there is no very definite evidence; but various prefaces, introductions, and the like, belong to this time; and he undoubtedly was the author of the excellent History of England in a Series of Letters addressed by a Nobleman to his Son, published anonymously in June, 1764, and long attributed, for the grace of its style, to Lyttelton, Chesterfield, Orrery, and other patrician pens.
Meanwhile his range of acquaintance was growing larger. The establishment, at the beginning of 1764, of the famous association known afterwards as the 'Literary Club' brought him into intimate relations with Beauclerk, Reynolds, Langton, Burke, and others. Hogarth, too, is said to have visited him at Islington, and to have painted the portrait of Mrs. Fleming. Later in the same year, incited thereto by the success of Christopher Smart's Hannah, he wrote the Oratorio of The Captivity, now to be found in most editions of his poems, but never set to music. Then after the slow growth of months, was issued on the 19th December the elaboration of that fragmentary sketch which he had sent years before to his brother Henry from the Continent, the poem entitled The Traveller; or, A Prospect of Society.
In an edition of Goldsmith's poems, any extended examination of his remaining productions would be out of place. Moreover, the bulk of these is considerably reduced when all that may properly be classed as hack-work has been withdrawn. The histories of Greece, of Rome, and of England; the Animated Nature; the lives of Nash, Voltaire, Parnell, and Bolingbroke, are merely compilations, only raised to the highest level in that line because they proceeded from a man whose gift of clear and easy exposition lent a charm to everything he touched. With the work which he did for himself, the case is different. Into The Citizen of the World, The Vicar of Wakefield, and his two comedies, he put all the best of his knowledge of human nature, his keen sympathy with his kind, his fine common-sense and his genial humour. The same qualities, tempered by a certain grace and tenderness, also enter into the best of his poems.
Avoiding the epigram of Pope and the austere couplet of Johnson, he yet borrowed something from each, which he combined with a delicacy and an amenity that he had learned from neither. He himself, in all probability, would have rested his fame on his three chief metrical efforts, The Traveller, The Hermit, and The Deserted Village. But, as is often the case, he is remembered even more favourably by some of those delightful familiar verses, unprinted during his lifetime, which he threw off with no other ambition than the desire to amuse his friends. Retaliation, The Haunch of Venison, the Letter in Prose and Verse to Mrs. Bunbury, all afford noteworthy exemplification of that playful touch and wayward fancy which constitute the chief attraction of this species of poetry. In his imitations of Swift and Prior, and his variations upon French suggestions, his personal note is scarcely so apparent; but the two Elegies and some of the minor pieces retain a deserved reputation. His ingenious prologues and epilogues also serve to illustrate the range and versatility of his talent.