To descant on the character of Oliver Goldsmith would be the delight of virtue: to particularize the merits of his various compositions would afford scope and exercise to the most exalted genius. As a poet, in which light only we have to consider him on the present occasion, for sweetness of numbers, feeling and delicacy of sentiment, and purity of language, he has hitherto remained without a rival; and in an age when the refinements of poetry have been carried to the highest pitch, in the grand fascinations of his art he stands distinguished and alone.
He was the third son of the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, and was born at Elphin, or as others say at Pallas, in Ireland, in the year 1729. After being duly prepared in classical learning, he was entered of Trinity college, Dublin, in 1744, but gave no indications there of the splendid talents which he afterwards displayed. Being intended for the profession of physic, he left Dublin, after taking a bachelor's degree, and proceeded to Edinburgh, where he remained till 1754. Being imprudently bound, however, for a friend, he was obliged to make a precipitate retreat, but was overtaken by the emissaries of the law at Sunderland, and arrested. The kindness of two fellow-students, whom he found there, produced his enlargement, and he immediately embarked for Rotterdam; and after making the tour of great part of the continent on foot, he obtained the degree of bachelor in physic at Louvain. For some short time, he was employed as a travelling tutor; but this engagement ceasing, he bent his course towards England, and landing at Dover, arrived in London, destitute and friendless.
It was with difficulty he could procure the humblest situation in the line of his profession; but discovering his countryman, and once fellow-student, Dr. Sleigh, he received some pecuniary assistance, which was of essential service at the moment.
After spending some time as the assistant in a respectable school at Peckham, he was introduced to some bookseller, who, sensible of his talents, gave him some literary employment; and having produced the Vicar of Wakefield, he sold it for £60 but the bookseller did not think proper to publish it till The Traveller had appeared, which obtained the highest eulogium from Johnson, and completely established his reputation.
He now appeared in a professional style, but never practiced as a physician. Indeed literature absorbed all his attention; and exclusive of various compositions in history, and natural history, he wrote several plays, which were extremely well received, and with economy might have secured him comfort and independence. But Goldsmith was a stranger to the art of living: he seldom knew what it was to be out of debt.
His Deserted Village, which appeared in 1770, had a rapid and extensive sale; and though it is written with little knowledge of politics, the sentiments irresistibly find their way to the heart, and it will ever remain an honour to English poetry.
But flattered and admired as Goldsmith deservedly was, both for his genius and his goodness, his affairs became so much deranged, as to bring on a kind of habitual despondency, and great indifference for life. He died of a nervous fever, April 4, 1774, in the 45th year of his age, and was buried in the Temple church. A monument has since been erected to his memory in Westminster abbey; but when that crumbles into dust, he will be immortal in his Traveller and Deserted Village.
He was so humane in his disposition, that his last guinea was the general boundary of his munificence. He had two or three poor authors always as pensioners, besides several widows and poor housekeepers; and when he had no money to give the latter, he always sent them away with shirts or old clothes, and sometimes with the whole contents of his breakfast-table, saying, with a smile of satisfaction, after they were gone, "Now let me suppose I have eat a heartier breakfast than usual, and am nothing out of pocket." He was always very ready to do service to his friends; and as he lived latterly much in the great world, and was much respected, he very often succeeded in his efforts, and felt his best reward in the gratification of doing good.