Goldsmith, Oliver (1728–74), poet, essayist, dramatist, and novelist, was born 10 November 1728 at Pallas, Co. Longford (though 1729 and 1730 have also been suggested for the year of his birth, and Lissoy, Co. Westmeath, for its location) He was the second of five sons (and three daughters) of the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, curate of the Church of Ireland parish nearby at Forgney, and his wife Anne, daughter of the Rev. Oliver Jones, master of the diocesan school in Elphin. He attended schools at Pallas, Elphin, and Athlone, and in childhood contracted smallpox, which scarred his face thereafter. On 11 June 1745 he entered TCD as a sizar, or student-servant; thus he owed no fees, and an uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarine, defrayed most of his other expenses. In 1747 his father died and he won an Erasmus Smith exhibition (scholarship), despite being publicly admonished that year for his part in a student riot. An indolent scholar, given to gambling and frequenting the theatre, he graduated (1749), failed to obtain ordination in the Church of Ireland, became tutor to the Flinn family in Co. Roscommon, then travelled to Cork, intending emigration to America. This miscarried, as did a plan to study law in London. He entered the University of Edinburgh in September 1752 to study medicine instead, moving in February 1754 to the University of Leyden. After a year, he journeyed on foot, first to Paris (apparently for further medical studies), then through Germany and Switzerland to Italy, staying often at Irish monasteries, and perhaps studying for a few months in Padua.
Goldsmith never returned to Ireland, but arrived in England about the beginning of February 1756, practised medicine unsuccessfully in Southwark, tried schoolmastering in Surrey, and may also have read proofs in Samuel Richardson's printing-house. In 1757 he became a professional writer after meeting Ralph Griffiths, of the Monthly Review, who employed him for about six months; freelancing as well, he translated (as ‘James Willington’) Jean Marteilhe's Mémoires d'un protestant (published February 1758). Later that year Goldsmith issued subscriptions for An enquiry into the present state of polite learning in Europe, his first major work, to raise funds to take an East India Company medical post in Coromandel; on 21 December 1758 he failed to qualify at Surgeons' Hall as a hospital-mate, however, and news of French victories in India soon caused him to abandon his hopes altogether. Relying on his pen, in January 1759 he began writing for Tobias Smollett's Critical Review, and the Enquiry was published anonymously on 2 April; a derivative and superficial view of European letters from classical times to his own day, it met negative reviews which yet commended Goldsmith's style. He became a prolific, anonymous writer for many magazines and reviews; fond of small luxuries, rarely paying debts on time, and often shifting his lodgings, he yet polished that fluid, pointed style to epitomise eighteenth-century ‘polite’ writing. His best work in this vein, the ‘Chinese letters’ for John Newbery's Public Ledger (1760–61), wryly observing English society from the imagined perspective of a cultured Chinese visitor, were collected as The citizen of the world in 1762. At the end of May 1761 he and Samuel Johnson met and became firm friends.
In 1762, writing for Lloyd's Evening Post, translating Plutarch, and producing a biography of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash, Goldsmith fell so much in debt for his lodgings that he was arrested by bailiffs. Released after Newbery (apparently at Dr Johnson's behest) advanced him funds for The vicar of Wakefield, then in progress, he took lodgings in Newbery's house from late 1762 until September 1764. For Newbery, Goldsmith produced graceful, learned hack-work, including a children's History of England (published June 1764). He moved to the Temple in September 1764, where he lived in various quarters thereafter, and in October sold his oratorio libretto, ‘The captivity’, to Newbery and James Dodsley. Also in 1764 ‘The Club’ was formed with Goldsmith, Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, and Edmund Burke (qv) its most prominent members, and at the end of the year Newbery published The traveller, finally identifying ‘Oliver Goldsmith, MB’ as the author. Based plangently on his own European wanderings, the poem brought him such reputation as, Reynolds suggested, might justify his resuming medical practice; this attempt failed (though in February 1769, Oxford granted him a medical degree ad eundem, under the impression that Dublin had awarded one previously). Left with no resort but writing, he kept a remarkable pace, as editing anthologies, compiling histories of Rome and England, writing prefaces and biographies (that of the poet Thomas Parnell (qv), published in 1770, is best known), and constant journalism alternated with original work: Essays, wittily charming (published 3 June 1765); the hugely popular Vicar of Wakefield (27 March 1766); his first play, ‘The good-natur'd man’ (produced by George Colman at Covent Garden, 29 January 1768); The deserted village, at once sentimental and pointed (published 26 May 1770). In December 1769 the Royal Academy appointed him to an honorific, unpaid professorship of ancient history.
When Colman produced ‘She stoops to conquer’ at Covent Garden (15 March 1773), Goldsmith was still committed to magazine journalism and compilations, but he was well established as an author in his own right. Early the next year, responding to David Garrick's satirical encomium on himself, he nearly completed Retaliation before falling ill. He insisted on treatment with the popular ‘Dr James's fever powders’, containing antimony, which probably hastened his death on 4 April 1774, at his quarters in the Temple. He was buried in the Temple cemetery on 9 April, though the exact site is unknown. To defray his numerous debts, Retaliation was quickly published (19 April), followed by a number of compilations left nearly complete at his death and, in 1776, The haunch of venison. Some of his historical and biographical writing was reprinted well into the nineteenth century, but his literary works, especially The vicar of Wakefield, The deserted village, and ‘She stoops to conquer’, have assured him popularity well beyond most eighteenth-century authors, for he leavens moral conventionality with humorous good nature or sharpens it with humane grace.
The Club underwrote Joseph Nollekens's monument to Goldsmith in Westminster abbey in 1776, with Johnson's Latin epitaph; in 1864 Henry Foley's statue was erected in front of TCD. Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait is in Woburn Abbey, Beds., with copies in Knole, Kent, and the National Portrait Gallery, London. An etched profile by an unknown artist is prefixed to Retaliation (1774) and copied in Poems and plays (1780); an etching by James Bretherton, after Henry Bunbury's drawing, to The haunch of venison (1776); Thomas Cook's engraving to Poetical and dramatic works (1780), copied by P. Audinet for the Biographical Magazine (1794).
The British Library preserves some contemporaries’ transcripts of minor works, fragments and annotations of Goldsmith's, but few unquestionably autograph MSS survive: The haunch of venison (Berg collection, New York Public Library); the poem, ‘A window patch'd with paper lent a ray’ (BL); the prologue to Joseph Cradock's Zobeide (collection of Lady Eccles); comments on the children's History of England (BL); fragments of Animated nature (BL); two MSS of The captivity (Free Library, Philadelphia; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York); and an epilogue to ‘She stoops to conquer’ (Taylor Collection, Princeton University Library).