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Our biographical notices of distinguished Novelists must be in some degree proportioned to the space which their labours occupy in the present collection. On that principle, the present subject, so interesting in every other point of view, cannot be permitted long to detain us. The circumstances also of Dr Goldsmith's life, his early struggles with poverty and distress, the success of his brief and brilliant career after he had become distinguished as an author, are so well known, and have been so well told, that a short outline is all that ought here to be attempted.
Oliver Goldsmith was born on the 29th November 1728, at Pallas, (or rather Palice) in the parish of Farney and county of Longford, in Ireland, where his father, the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, a minister of the Church of England, at that time resided. This worthy clergyman, whose virtues his celebrated son afterwards rendered immortal, in the character of the Village Preacher, had a family of seven children, for whom he was enabled to provide but very indifferently. He obtained ultimately a benefice in the county of Roscommon, but died early ; for the careful researches of the Rev. John Graham of Lifford have found his widow nigra veste senescens, residing with her son Oliver in Ballymahon, so early as 1740. Among the shop accounts of a petty grocer of the place, Mrs Goldsmith's name occurs frequently as a customer for trifling articles ; on which occasions Master Noll appears to have been his mother's usual emissary. He was recollected, however, in the neighbourhood, by more poetical employments, as that of playing on the flute, and wandering in solitude on the shores, or among the islands of the river Inny, which is remarkably beautiful at Ballymahon.
Oliver early distinguished himself by the display of lively talents, and of that uncertainty of humour which is so often attached to genius, as the slave in the chariot of the Roman triumph. An uncle by affinity, the Rev. Thomas Contarine, undertook the expence of affording to so promising a youth the advantages of a scholastic education. He was put to school at Edgeworths-town, and, in June 1744, was sent to Dublin College as a sizer ; a situation which subjected him to much discouragement and ill usage, especially as he had the misfortune to fall under the charge of a brutal tutor.
On 15th June, 1747, Goldsmith obtained his only academical laurel, being an Exhibition on the foundation of Erasmus Smythe, Esq. Some indiscreet frolic induced him soon afterwards to quit the University for a period; and he appears thus early to have commenced that sort of idle strolling life, which has often great charms for youths of genius, because it frees them from every species of subjection, and leaves them full masters of their own time, and their own thoughts; a liberty which they do not feel too dearly bought, at the expence of fatigue, of hunger, and of all the other inconvenencies incidental to those who travel without money. Those who can recollect journies of this kind, with all the shifts, necessities, and petty adventures, which attend them, will not wonder at the attractions which they had for such a youth as Goldsmith. Notwithstanding these erratic expeditions, he was admitted Bachelor of Arts in 1749.
Goldsmith's persevering friend, Mr Contarine, seems to have recommended the direction of his nephew's studies to medicine, and in the year 1752 he was settled at Edinburgh to pursue that science. Of his residence in Scotland, Goldsmith retained no favourable recollections. He was thoughtless, and he was cheated; he was poor, and he was nearly starved. Yet, in a very lively letter from Edinburgh, addressed to Robert Brianton of Ballymahon, he closes a sarcastic description of the country and its inhabitants, with the good-humoured candour which made so distinguished a part of his character. “ An ugly and a poor man is society only for himself, and such society the world lets me enjoy in great abundance. Fortune has given you circumstances, and Nature a power to look charming in the eyes of the fair. Nor do I envy my dear Bob such blessings, while I may sit down and laugh at the world and at myself, the most ridiculous object in it."
From Edinburgh our student passed to Leyden, but not without the diversities of an arrest for debt, a captivity of seven days at Newcastle, from having been found in company with some Scotchmen in the French service, and the no less unpleasing variety of a storm. At Leyden, Goldsmith was peculiarly exposed to a temptation which he never at any period of his life could easily resist. The opportunities of gambling were frequent,
-he seldom declined them, and was at length stripped of every shilling.
In this hopeless condition Goldsmith commenced his travels, with one shirt in his pocket, and a devout reliance on providence. It is understood, that in the narrative of George, eldest son of the Vicar of Wakefield, the author gave a sketch of the resources which enabled him, on foot and without money, to make the tour of Europe. Through Germany and Flanders he had recourse to his violin, in which he was tolerably skilled; and a lively tune usually procured him a lodging in some peasant's cottage for the evening. In Italy, where his music or skill was held in less esteem, he found hospitality by disputing at the monasteries, in the character of a travelling scholar, upon certain philosophical theses, which the learned inhabitants were obliged, by their foundation, to uphold against all impugners. Thus, he obtained sometimes money, sometimes lodgings. He must have had other resources to procure both, which he has not thought proper to intimate. The foreign Universities afford similar facilities to poor scholars, with those presented by the Monasteries. Goldsmith resided at Padua for several months, and is said to have taken a degree at Louvain. Thus far is certain, that an account of the tour made by so good a judge of human nature, in circumstances so singular, would have made one of the most entertaining books in the world, and it is both wonder and pity, that Goldsmith did not hit upon a publication of his travels amongst the other literary resources in which his mind was fertile. He was not ignorant of the advantages which his mode of travelling had opened to him. “ Countries,” he says, in his Essay on Polite Literature in Europe, “ wear very different appearances to travellers of different circumstances. A man who is whirled through Europe in his post-chaise, and the pilgrim who walks the great tour on foot, will form very different conclusions. Haud inexpertus loquor.” Perhaps he grew ashamed of the last admission, which he afterwards omitted. Goldsmith spent about twelve months in these wanderings, and landed in England in the year 1746, after having perambulated France, Italy, and part of Germany.
Poverty was now before our author in all its bitterness. His Irish friends had long renounced or forgotten him ; and the wretched post of usher to an academy, of which he has drawn so piteous a picture in George's account of himself, was his refuge from actual starving. Unquestionably, his description was founded on personal recollections, where he
says, “ I was up early and late; I was brow-beat by the master ; hated for my ugly face by the mistress ; worried by the boys within; and never permitted to stir out, to seek civility abroad.” This state of slavery he underwent at Peckham Academy, and had such bitter recollection thereof, as to be offended at the slightest allusion to it. An acquaintance happening to use the proverbial phrase, “ Oh, that is all a holiday at Peckham," Goldsmith reddened, and asked if he meant to affront him. From this miserable condition he escaped with difficulty, to that of journeyman, or rather shop-porter, to a chemist in Fish-street-hill, in whose service he was recognized by Dr Sleigh, his countryman and fellow-student at Edinburgh, who, to his eternal honour, relieved Oliver Goldsmith from this state of slavish degradation.
Under the auspices of his friend and countryman, Goldsmith commenced practice as a physician about the Bankside, and afterwards near the Temple ; and although unsuccessful in procuring fees, had soon plenty of patients. It was now that he first thought of having recourse to that pen, which afterwards afforded the public so much delight. He wrote, he laboured, he compiled; he is described by one contemporary as wearing a rusty full-trimmed black suit, the very livery of the muses, with his pockets stuffed with papers, and his head with projects ; gradually he forced himself and his talents into notice, and was at last enabled to write, in one letter to a friend, that he was too poor to be gazed at, but too rich to need assistance; and to boast in another,t of the refined conversation which he was sometimes admitted to partake in.
He now circulated proposals for publishing, by subscription, his Essay on Polite Literature in Europe, the profits of which he destined to equipping himself for India, having obtained from the Company the appointment of physician to one of their factories on the coast of Coromandel. But to rise in literature was more his desire than to increase his fortune. “I eagerly long," he said, “ to embrace every opportunity to separate myself from the vulgar, as much in my circumstances as I am already in my sentiments. I find I want constitu- · tion and a strong steady disposition, which alone makes men great. I will, however, correct my faults, since I am conscious of them.”
Goldsmith's versatile talents and ready pen soon engaged him in the service of the booksellers ; and doubtless the touches of his spirit and humour were used to enliven the dull pages of many a sorry miscellany and review; a mode of living which, joined to his own improvidence, rendered his income as fluctuating as his occupation. He wrote many Essays for various periodical publications, and afterwards collected them into one volume, finding that they were unceremoniously appropriated by his contemporaries. In the preface, he compares himself to the fat man in a famine, who, when his fellow sufferers proposed to feast on the superfluous part of his person, in
Letter to Daniel Hodson, Esq. See Life of Goldsmith, prefixed to his Works, in four volumes, 1801. Vol. I. p. 12.
+ P. 48.