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Oliver Goldsmith

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

his relative.

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

became famous.

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

Oliver Goldsmith.

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

this unfinished.

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.