Oliver Goldsmith must have been the despair of his mother – his father didn’t live long enough to see him fail at almost everything to which he turned his hand. Eventually he would write one of the finest plays, one of the best novels and one of the most ambitious long poems of the 18th century – but not before he had managed to mess up almost every opportunity that came his way.
Goldsmith was born either in Longford or Roscommon in November 1728, son of a Church of Ireland curate. In 1730 the family moved to Westmeath when his father was appointed rector to a parish in that county. In 1744 Goldsmith was admitted to Trinity College – there he learned to drink, gamble and play the flute. Although neither he nor the college greatly profited from his brief tenure his subsequent fame has earned him one of the two most prominent statutes in that venerable institution, overlooking College Green.
His father died around the time he graduated and Goldsmith moved back in to the family home so that he could be a burden on his poor mother rather than on himself. He got a job as a tutor, and quickly lost it after a quarrel. He decided to emigrate to America, but managed to miss his boat. He then took fifty pounds with him to Dublin to help establish himself as a student of law, but instead he lost it all gambling. He pretended to study medicine in Edinburgh, but rather than knuckle down he took off on a Grand Tour of Europe, keeping body and soul together by busking with his flute.
Eventually he settled in London and began to churn out hack writing work to keep him gambling in the manner to which he had become accustomed. Because, in spite of himself, he also occasionally published something of merit, he came to the attention of the famous wit and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. He became a founder member of the club of writers and intellectuals unimaginatively entitled ‘The Club’. This included Johnson, his biographer James Boswell, the actor-manager David Garrick, the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke and the painter Joshua Reynolds. Heady company for a young ne’er do well from Ballymahon.
In 1760 he wrote the epic poem The Deserted Village – elements of which schoolchildren of a certain age were once forced to learn by heart. This tells the story of the fictional village of Auburn that has been laid waste to make way for the ornamental gardens of a local landowner. The poem is a critique of rural depopulation and the seizure of valuable agricultural land by the wealthy.
… The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth
He followed this up with his charming novel The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766 and one of the greatest comic plays in the English language, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773. Prior to that classic play he had a modicum of success with The Good Natured Man, which bombed on the London stage but, perversely, sold a lot of copies when the text was published.
Success enabled Goldsmith to carry on a style of life that virtually guaranteed an early exit. And so it proved. He continued to gamble and drink on a spectacular scale and ended up in debt and in bad health, simultaneously. He died in 1774 at the age of 45.
Despite all his achievements as a novelist, playwright and poet he’s probably still best remembered today for an inspired piece of doggerel, no pun intended, Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog – the title gives away the ending but the short verse is a satire on hypocrisy, corruption and pietism in which a man of acknowledged substance, guilty of all three vices, is bitten by a dog and given up for dead by the commentariat – then comes the sting in the tail (and yes, the pun is intended this time)
But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.
Oliver Goldsmith’s play The Good Natured Man opened in London to less than ecstatic reviews 247 years ago, on this day.
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