Goldsmith's father was a clergyman at Pallas, in Ireland, where the poet was born. He was educated at Dublin College, and afterwards studied the medical profession at the University of Edinburgh. His departure from this place was hastened on account of a debt contracted by becoming security for an acquaintance. He studied a year at Leyden, and then set out on foot to make the tour of Europe. After a variety of adventures, he returned to England in 1758, and for some years supported himself, though, in comparative obscurity, by his prose writings. In 1765, the publication of The Traveller obtained for him a high poetical celebrity, with a circle of distinguished men of genius for his acquaintance and friends. From this period till his death, his personal history is that of his writings, which are numerous and well known. The Deserted Village was published in 1769, and the Vicar of Wakefield in 1767; his first comedy, The Good-natured Man, in 1768, and his second, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773. He died in his forty-sixth year.
His life and character are eccentric, but interesting. Generosity, carelessness, and imprudence, are the reigning features in his disposition. "There must have been something, however," says Campbell, (who has written an extremely beautiful sketch of his life and criticism of his poetry,) "with all his peculiarities, still endearing in his personal character. Burke was known to recall his memory with tears of affection in his eyes. It cannot he believed that the better genius of his writings was always absent from his conversation. One may conceive graces of his spirit to have been drawn forth by Burke or Reynolds, which neither Johnson nor Garrick had the sensibility to appreciate."
Both the poetry and prose of Goldsmith are read with a more constant, steady, heartfelt, and quiet pleasure, than any other perhaps in the English language. In the former, he captivates the feelings with a power which is mild and gentle, but not less lasting and sure, than if he had been far more sublime in his design, and more magnificent and various in invention. Sweetness of fancy and tenderness of feeling are the peculiar features of his genius, and his pensive delicacy of thought is visible even in his humorous effusions. "His descriptions and sentiments all have the pure zest of nature." His expression is natural and idiomatic, yet in the highest degree select and refined. His manner is beautifully tender and playful, possessing likewise the easy, graceful union of unaffected simplicity with dignity and elegance.
He is chaste in his ornaments, and inimitably soft and sweet in the colouring of his language. His serene and contemplative sensibility, and his quiet enthusiasm for the joys of retired, rural, and domestic life, are mingled with philosophical reflection, and made to harmonize with dignified and manly sentiment. He delights the fancy and at the same time softens the heart and diffuses a purity over the moral feelings. His familiar pictures of the village life, enchant the imagination, and make us dwell fondly even on his most minute and simple re collections.
His delineations of character are original and exquisite. The Parish Schoolmaster and the Village Clergyman are portraits that have no rivals; and his humorous poem of Retaliation contains many delightful and characteristic touches. The national sketches in the Traveller are all admirable and exhibit great power of observation in seizing on most expressive features, and conveying the general likeness in a few easy, and gracefully concise, lines. The illustrations in this poem are eminently beautiful. It would scarcely be possible to point out a simile more sweet and appropriate than that of the child at the close of his character of the Swiss. His ballad of the Hermit is written in a style pensive and gentle pathos, which is singularly touching; while the short description of the cheerful little fireside in the hermitage, around which the cricket chirrups, and the kitten tries its tricks, is artless and captivating. His versification has all the polished elegance without the monotony of Pope, and it flows with a spontaneous, unstudied ease, such as no other poet has ever exhibited. There are no couplets which betrays art, and are at the same time more perfect, than those of Goldsmith. He never wrote a bad line, and yet never sacrificed sense or feeling to the harmony of sound. He has so much nature that his very rhymes might almost be said to find an answer in the heart.