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OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728–1774)

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Originally appearing in Volume V12, Page 216 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728–1774), English poet, playwright, novelist and man of letters, came of a Protestant and Saxon family which had long been settled in Ireland., He is usually said to have been born at Pallas or Pallasmore, Co. Longford; but recent investigators have contended, with much show of probability, that his true birthplace was Smith-Hill House, Elphin, Roscommon, the residence of his mother's father, the Rev. Oliver Jones. His father, Charles Goldsmith, lived at Pallas, supporting with difficulty his wife and children on what he could earn, partly as a curate and partly as a farmer. While Oliver was still a child his father was presented to the living of Kilkenny West, in the county of West Meath. This was worth about £200 a year. The family accordingly quitted their cottage at Pallas for a spacious house on a frequented road, near the village of Lissoy. Here the boy was taught his letters by a relative and dependent, Elizabeth Delap, and was sent in his seventh year to a village school kept by an old quartermaster on half-pay, who professed to teach nothing but reading, writing and arithmetic, but who had an inexhaustible fund of stories about ghosts, banshees and fairies, about the great Rapparee chiefs, Baldearg O'Donnell and galloping Hogan, and about the exploits of Peterborough and Stanhope, the surprise of Monjuich and the glorious disaster of Brihuega. This man must have been of the Protestant religion; but he was of the aboriginal race, and not only spoke the Irish language, but could pour forth unpremeditated Irish verses. Oliver early became, and through life continued to be, a passionate admirer of the Irish music, and especially of the compositions of Carolan, some of the last notes of whose harp he heard. It ought to be added that Oliver, though by birth one of the Englishry, and though connected by numerous ties with the Established Church, never showed the least sign of that contemptuous antipathy with which, in his days, the ruling minority in Ireland too generally regarded the subject majority. So far indeed was he from sharing in the opinions and feelings of the caste to which he belonged that he conceived an aversion to the Glorious and Immortal Memory, and, even when George III. was on the throne, maintained that nothing but the restoration of the banished dynasty could save the country. From the humble academy kept by the old soldier Goldsmith was removed in his ninth year. He went to several grammar-schools, and acquired some knowledge of the ancient languages. llis life at this time seems to have been far from happy. He had, as appears from the admirable portrait of him by Reynolds at Knole, features harsh even to ugliness. The small-pox had set its mark on him with more than usual severity. His stature was small, and his limbs ill put together. Among boys little tenderness is shown to personal defects; and the ridicule excited by poor Oliver's appearance was heightened by a peculiar simplicity and a disposition to blunder which he retained to the last. He became the common butt of boys and masters, was pointed at as a fright in the play-ground, and flogged as a dunce in the school-room. When he had risen to eminence, those who had once derided him ransacked their memory for the events of his early years. and recited repartees and couplets which had dropped from him, and which, though little noticed at the time, were supposed, a quarter of a century later, to indicate the powers which produced the Vicar of Wakefield and the Deserted Village. On the 1th of June 1744, being then in his sixteenth year, Oliver went up to Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar. The sizars paid nothing for food and tuition, and very little for lodging; but they had to perform some menial services from which they have long been relieved. Goldsmith was quartered, not alone, in it garret of what was then No. 35 in a range of buildings which has long since disappeared. His name, scrawled by himself on one of its window-panes is still preserved in the college library. From such garrets many men of less parts than his have made their way to the woolsack or to the episcopal bench. But Goldsmith, while he suffered all the humiliations, threw 'away all the advantages of his situation. He neglected the studies of the place, stood low at the examinations, was turned down to the bottom of his class for playing the buffoon in the lecture-room, was severely reprimanded for pumping on a constable, and was caned by a brutal tutor for giving a ball in the attic storey of the college to some gay youths and damsels from the city. While Oliver was leading at Dublin a life divided between squalid distress and squalid dissipation, his father died, leaving a mere pittance. In February 1746 the youth obtained hisbachelor's degree, and left the university. During some time the humble dwelling to which his widowed mother had retired was his home. He was now in his twenty-first year; it was necessary that he should do something; and his education seemed to have_fitted him to do nothing but to dress himself in gaudy colours, of which he was as fond as a magpie, to take a hand at cards, to sing Irish airs, to play the flute, to angle in summer and to tell ghost stories by the fire in winter. He tried five or six professions in turn without success. He applied for ordination; but, as he applied in scarlet clothes, he was speedily turned out of the episcopal palace. He then became tutor in an opulent family, but soon quitted his situation in consequence of a dispute about pay. Then he determined to emigrate to America. His relations, with much satisfaction, saw him set out for Cork on a good horse, with £3o in his pocket. But in six weeks he came back on a miserable hack, without a penny, and informed his mother that the ship in which he had taken his passage, having got a fair wind while he was at a party of pleasure, had sailed without him. Then he resolved to study the law. A generous uncle, Mr Contarine, advanced £5o. With this sum Goldsmith went to Dublin, was enticed into a gaming-house and lost every shilling. He then thought of medicine. A small purse was made up; and in his twenty-fourth year he was sent to Edinburgh. At Edinburgh he passed eighteen months in nominal attendance on lectures, and picked up some superficial information about chemistry and natural history. Thence he went to Leiden, still pretending to study physic. He left that celebrated university, the third university at which he had resided, in his twenty-seventh year, without a degree, with the merest smattering of medical knowledge, and with no property but his clothes and his flute. His flute, however, proved a useful friend. He rambled on foot through Flanders, France and Switzerland, playing tunes which everywhere set the peasantry dancing, and which often procured for him a supper and a bed. He wandered as far as Italy. His musical performances, indeed, were not to the taste of the Italians; but he contrived to live on the alms which he obtained at the gates of convents. It should, however, be observed that the stories which he told about this part of his life ought to be received with great caution; for strict veracity was never one of his virtues; and a man who is ordinarily inaccurate in narration is likely to be more than ordinarily inaccurate when he talks about his own travels. Goldsmith,' indeed, was so regardless of truth as to assert in print that he was present at a most interesting conversation between Voltaire and Fontenelle, and that this conversation took place at Paris. Now it is certain that Voltaire never was within a hundred leagues of Paris during the whole time which Goldsmith passed on the continent. In February 1756 the wanderer landed at Dover, without a shilling, without a friend and without a calling. He had indeed, if his own unsupported evidence may be trusted, obtained a doctor's degree on the continent; but this dignity proved utterly useless to him. In England his flute was not in request; there were no convents; and he was forced to have recourse to a series of desperate expedients. There is a tradition that he turned strolling player. He pounded drugs and ran about London with phials for charitable chemists. He asserted, upon one occasion, that he had lived "among the beggars in Axe Lane." He was for a time usher of a school, and felt the miseries and humiliations of this situation so keenly that he thought it a promotion to be permitted to earn his bread as a bookseller's hack; but he soon found the new yoke more galling than the old one, and was glad to become an usher again. He obtained a medical appointment in the service of the East India Company; but the appointment was speedily revoked. Why it was revoked we are not told. The subject was one on which he never liked to talk. It is probable that he was incompetent to perform the duties of the place. Then he presented himself at Surgeons' Hall for examination, as " mate to an hospital." Even to so humble a post he was found unequal. Nothing remained but to return to the lowest drudgery of literature. Goldsmith took a room in a tiny square off Ludgate Hill, to which he had to climb
End of Article: OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728–1774)
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