On a low slab in a quiet spot, just north of the Church of Knight
Templars, in London, are the simple words, "Here lies Oliver Goldsmith."
The author of the "Vicar of Wakefield" needs no grander monument; for he
lives in the hearts of the people.
Oliver Goldsmith was born in Pallas, Ireland, in 1728, the son of a poor
minister, who, by means of tilling some fields and assisting in a parish
outside his own, earned two hundred dollars a year for his wife and
seven children! When about six years old, Oliver nearly died of
smallpox, and his pitted face made him an object of jest among the boys.
At eight he showed great fondness for books, and began to write verses.
His mother pleaded for a college education for him, but there seemed
little prospect of it. One day, when a few were dancing at his uncle's
house, the little boy sprang upon the floor and began to dance. The
fiddler, to make fun of his short figure and homely face, exclaimed,
"AEsop!" The boy, stung to the quick, replied:--
"Heralds, proclaim aloud! all saying,
'See AEsop dancing and his monkey playing;'"
when, of course, the fiddler became much chagrined.
All his school life Oliver was painfully diffident, but a good scholar.
His father finally earned a better salary, and the way seemed open for
college, when, lo! his sister, who had the opportunity of marrying a
rich man, was obliged--so thought the public opinion of the day--to have
a marriage portion of $2,000, and poor Oliver's educational hopes were
blasted. He must now enter Trinity College, Dublin, as a sizar
(servant), wear a coarse black gown without sleeves, a red cap,--the
badge of servitude,--sweep the courts, carry dishes, and be treated with
contempt, which nearly crushed his sensitive nature.
A year and a half later his father died, and his scanty means ceased
from that source. To keep from starving he wrote ballads, selling them
to street musicians at $1.25 apiece, and stole out at night to hear them
sung. Often he shared this pittance with some one more wretched than
himself. One cold night he gave his blankets to a person with five
children, and crawled into the ticking of his bed for warmth. When a
kind friend, who often brought him food, came in the morning, he was
obliged to break in the door, as Goldsmith could not extricate himself
from his bed.
Obtaining a small scholarship, he gave a little party in his room in
honor of the event. A savage tutor appeared in the midst of the
festivities, and knocked him down. So incensed was Goldsmith that he ran
away from college, and with twenty-five cents in his pocket started for
Cork. For three days he lived on eight cents a day, and, by degrees,
parted with nearly all his clothes for food.
Though wholly unfitted for the ministry, Goldsmith was urged by his
relatives to enter the church, because he would then have a living. Too
young to be accepted, he remained at home for two years, assisting his
brother Henry in the village school; and then offering himself as a
candidate, was refused, it was said, because he appeared before the
right reverend in scarlet trousers! After being tutor for a year, his
uncle gave him $250, that he might go to Dublin and study law. On
arriving, he met an old friend, lost all his money in playing cards with
him, and, ashamed and penniless, returned and begged the forgiveness of
A little more money was given him, and with this he studied medicine in
Edinburgh for over a year, earning later some money by teaching.
Afterward he travelled in Italy and France, begging his way by singing
or playing on his flute at the doors of the peasants, returning to
England at twenty-eight years of age without a cent in his pocket.
Living among the beggars in Axe Lane, he asked to spread plasters, or
pound in the mortars of the apothecaries, till, finally, a chemist hired
him out of pity. Through the aid of a fellow-student, he finally opened
a doctor's office, but few came to a stranger, and these usually so
poor as to be unable to pay.
Attending one day upon a workman, he held his hat close to his breast,
so as to cover a big patch in his second-hand clothes, while he felt the
patient's pulse. Half guessing the young doctor's poverty, the sick man
told him about his master, the author of the famous old novel, "Clarissa
Harlowe," and how he had befriended writers. Goldsmith at once applied
for work, and became press corrector in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street.
Later he was employed as a reviewer on a magazine. Being obliged to
submit all his reviews to an illiterate bookseller and his wife, the
engagement soon came to an end. He lived now in a garret, was dunned
even for his milk-bill, wrote a book for a college friend, under whose
name it was published, and began a work of his own, "Polite Learning in
Europe," writing to a wealthy relative for aid to publish, which letter
was never answered, though it was greatly regretted after Goldsmith
With no hope in London, he was promised a position in the East Indies.
Life began to look bright, though his Fleet Street garret, with one
chair, was surrounded by swarms of children and dirt. The promise was
not kept, and he applied for the position of hospital mate. His clothes
being too poor for him to be seen on the streets, he pledged the money
to be received for four articles, bought a new suit, went up to the
court of examiners, and was rejected! Had any of these positions been
obtained, the world, doubtless, would never have known the genius of
He went back to his garret to write, pawned his clothes to pay the
landlady, who was herself to be turned out of the wretched lodgings,
sold his "Life of Voltaire" for twenty dollars, and published his
"Polite Learning in Europe," anonymously. The critics attacked it, and
Goldsmith's day of fame had dawned at last. "The Citizen of the World,"
a good-natured satire on society, next appeared, and was a success. Dr.
Johnson became his friend, and made him a member of his club with
Reynolds, Burke, and other noted men. The "Traveller" was next
published, with an immense sale. Goldsmith now moved into the buildings
which bear his name, near Temple Church, and, for once, had flowers and
green grass to look out upon.
He was still poor, doubtless spending what money he received with little
wisdom. His landlady arrested him for room-rent, upon hearing which, Dr.
Johnson came at once to see him, gave him money, took from his desk the
manuscript of the "Vicar of Wakefield," and sold it to a publisher for
three hundred dollars. This was the fruit of much labor, and the world
received it cordially. Some of his essays were now reprinted sixteen
times. What a change from the Fleet Street garret!
The "Deserted Village" was published five years later, Goldsmith having
spent two whole years in reviewing it after it was written, so careful
was he that every word should be the best that could be chosen. This was
translated at once into German by Goethe, who was also a great admirer
of the "Vicar of Wakefield." He also wrote an English History, a Roman,
a Grecian, several dramas, of which "She Stoops to Conquer" was the most
popular, and eight volumes of the "History of the Earth and Animated
Nature," for which he received five hundred dollars a volume, leaving
Still in debt, overworked, laboring sometimes far into the morning
hours, not leaving his desk for weeks together, even for exercise,
Goldsmith died at forty-five, broken with the struggle of life, but with
undying fame. When he was buried, one April day, 1774, Brick Court and
the stairs of the building were filled with the poor and the forsaken
whom he had befriended. His monument is in the Poets' Corner at
Westminster Abbey, the greatest honor England could offer. True, she let
him nearly starve, but she crowned him at the last. He conquered the
world by hard work, kindness, and a gentleness as beautiful as his
genius was great.