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Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith

Despite his established reputation, Oliver Goldsmith still relied on publishing to earn money. He developed a taste for luxurious clothes and housing, and his extravagant spending meant he was constantly in debt. He continued successfully publishing, including his first novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, in 1766. In 1768, he produced his first piece for the theater, The Good-Natured Man. He continued producing literature of excellent quality at remarkable speed, publishing his best-known poem, "The Deserted Village", in 1770, and a second successful theatrical work, She Stoops to Conquer, in 1773, the year before his death.3

This comedy's protagonist is a kind but credulous man named Honeywood. He is in love with a wealthy young woman, Miss Richland, and she with him, but he is too afraid to propose to her.

One evening two bailiffs, sent by his uncle to try to teach him a lesson, arrive at his house to imprison him. Worried about what everyone will think, he tries to cover up the situation by passing them off as guests. The two bailiffs are dressed in fine clothes and join in a discussion about French influence on English taste, which Honeywood has to try to interpret for his other guests.

After he is arrested, he is bailed out by Miss Richland. Unaware who paid the bail, he assumes it is his rich and influential friend, Lofty. Feeling indebted to Lofty, he tries to help him marry Miss Richland, who he is interested in for her money and looks alone.

Miss Richland’s guardian, meanwhile, a distant relative named Mrs. Croaker, has every intention of marrying her son, Leontine, to Miss Richland. Her concerns are purely with Miss Richmond’s fortune, and they have no interest in each other. Ultimately, Honeywood learns who bailed him out and marries Miss Richland.

She Stoops to Conquer (1773)

This comedic play is a story of misunderstanding and mistaken identity. A suitor, Marlow, is tricked into believing that the house of his potential lover, Kate Hardcastle, is an inn. He proceeds to treat Kate’s father and mother like innkeepers, rudely ordering food, demanding to see rooms, and telling his servants to drink as much as they can. Marlow is painfully shy around upper-class women, but something of a rake with lower-class ones. After an extremely awkward interview with Kate, she manages to convince him that she’s a barmaid by changing her outfit and voice. His attitude towards her changes entirely, and he tries to forcibly kiss her and carry her off.

In a subplot, Kate’s cousin, Constance, is in love with a man named Hastings. Kate’s mother wants Constance to marry her son from another marriage, Tony, in order to keep her wealth in the family. After an unsuccessful attempt to elope, Tony officially refuses to marry Constance so she and Hastings can be together.

By stooping to the level first of a barmaid and then of a poor relative, Kate manages to elicit professions of love and tenderness from the formerly cold Marlow. In the end, all of the deception is revealed, but everyone forgives each other. Hastings is to marry Constance and Marlow is to marry Kate.

Oliver Goldsmith's Writing Style

Oliver Goldsmith wrote towards the end of the age of Neoclassical or Augustan literature, which was preoccupied with its relation to the classical Greek and Roman literary heritage as well as with the formal rules that should govern writing, down to how vowels and syllables should be arranged.

One example of the high formality of Neoclassical or Augustan literature is the use of the heroic couplet. In a heroic couplet, every line of poetry has ten syllables. The stress pattern of each line is iambic, meaning every other syllable should be stressed unless there is some compelling artistic reason to break the unstressed-stressed pattern. Finally, every pair of lines must have an end-rhyme.

Essentially all of Goldsmith's poetry was written under the demanding formal constraints of the heroic couplet. Take an example from the opening stanza of his most well-known poem, "The Deserted Village." The syllables are divided with a vertical bar, and the stressed syllables are highlighted in red. Note the amazing regularity of the lines:

Sweet | Aub | urn! love | liest | vill | age | of | the | plain,

Where | health | and | plen | ty cheered | the | lab | oring | swain,

Where | smil | ing | spring | its | ear | liest | vis | it | paid,

And | part | ing sum | mer's ling | ering | blooms | de | layed (lines 1-4)

Oliver Goldsmith managed to write within the confines of this style while not sounding pompous or artificial, maintaining a grace and simplicity that belies its difficulty and craftsmanship. Even more remarkable was the volume and pace at which Goldsmith was able to produce this quality of writing. In the words of his close friend and contemporary, Samuel Johnson, he “touched every kind of writing, and touched none that he did not adorn.”3

Oliver Goldsmith Quotes

Oliver Goldsmith produced many memorable turns of phrase in poetry, prose, and conversation.

In the opening stanza of "The Traveler," the poem that made him a literary celebrity, Goldsmith catalogues the difficulties of traveling through remote regions of Europe before remarking that:

Where’er I roam, whatever realms to see,

My heart untraveled fondly turns to thee (lines 7-8)

In Goldsmith's best-known poem, "The Deserted Village," Goldsmith gives a moving portrait of a place abandoned to the ravages of time. The poem is not merely nostalgic or sentimental, however, but a criticism of the colonial exploitation of Ireland and of the growing inequality in English society:

Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay (lines 51-52)

In the opening act of Goldsmith's most famous play, She Stoops to Conquer, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle are having a debate about the relative merits of the country and the city. In favor of the slow pace of country life, Mr. Hardcastle makes the following remark:

I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines. (Act 1)

Although Goldsmith was often mocked as an inarticulate conversationalist, there is quite a bit of evidence that what he said was often simply over the heads of his interlocutors. James Boswell, who spent a good deal of time with Goldsmith, records him making the following remark about his religious belief:

As I take my shoes from the shoemaker, and my coat from the tailor, so I take my religion from the priest.3

Oliver Goldsmith - Key takeaways

  • Born in 1728 in Ireland, Oliver Goldsmith studied medicine before traveling continental Europe and settling down in London as a writer in 1756.
  • Poor but fond of luxuries, Goldsmith earned his living entirely through his writing and so produced a prodigious amount.
  • Much of Goldsmith's best writing, such as his only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, and his best-known poems, "The Traveler" and "The Deserted Village", contain strong autobiographical elements and subtle social criticism.
  • Goldsmith's two plays, The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer, were both enormously popular comedies.
  • Goldsmith's writing is characterized by seeming ease and simplicity under highly demanding formal constraints.

References

1. S. Greenblatt (general editor). The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 1. Norton, 2012.

2. J. Merriman. A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Present. Norton, 2010.

3. N. Clarke. Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. Harvard UP, 2016.

4. W. Irving. Oliver Goldsmith: A Biography. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1864.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish novelist, playwright, and poet in the late 18th century. He was one of the defining figures of the August age of English literature.

Many of Oliver Goldsmith's works are still studied today for the beauty of their language, their wit, and their humor. Goldsmith's work also contains subtle criticism of inequality and colonial exploitation that is still relevant today.

This remark was made by Goldsmith's close friend, the star actor David Garrick (1717-1779). It jokingly points to the discrepancy between Goldsmith's literary brilliance and his poor conversational abilities. 

Oliver Goldsmith was a prolific writer, and published many collections of essays as books. Two of the most well-known of these are his An Enquiry into the State of Polite Learning (1759) and The Citizen of the World (1762).

Oliver Goldsmith died of complications from a fever. Although he was young, he was overworked and exhausted. He also refused to follow medical advice.

Final Oliver Goldsmith Quiz

Question

When was Oliver Goldsmith born?

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1728

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Which of the following best describes Oliver Goldsmith's social background?

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Respectable but poor

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Where was Goldsmith born?

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Ireland

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Which of the following people were NOT in Oliver Goldsmith's circle of friends?

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Alexander Pope

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How did Oliver Goldsmith earn his living?

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Through his writing

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Which word best describes Oliver Goldsmith's financial state throughout his life?

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Precarious

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How did Oliver Goldsmith die?

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Fever

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Which of Goldsmith's works relied heavily on his experience traveling through Europe?

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An Enquiry into the Current State of Polite Learning

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Which of Goldsmith's works is written from the perspective of a newly arrived Chinese immigrant?

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The Citizen of the World

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Which of the following is NOT true about The Vicar of Wakefield?

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It was written in epistolary form

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Which of the following is NOT true about both of Oliver Goldsmith's plays?

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They have tragic elements

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Which best describes the central theme of The Good-Natured Man?

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Marriage and wealth

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Which plot device does She Stoops to Conquer make extensive use of?

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Mistaken identity

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Which formal technique does Goldsmith's poetry make extensive use of?

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Heroic couplets

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Which of the following best characterizes Goldsmith's writing style?

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Grace and ease conceal its complexity.

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When was She Stoops to Conquer first performed?

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1773

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All of the following are members of the Hardcastle family EXCEPT

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Hastings

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Which of the following best characterizes Tony Lumpkin?

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Playful and jocular

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Why does Mrs. Hardcastle want Constance to marry Tony?

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So her jewels will contribute to the family fortune

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Which best characterizes Marlow's behavior towards women?

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It changes depending on their social status.

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How does Tony deceive Marlow and Hastings?

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He makes them think that his house is an inn.

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How does Marlow behave during his first conversation with Kate?

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He bumbles and avoids eye contact.

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What is Kate's first impression of Marlow?

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She likes him, and hopes she can help him express his feelings.

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How does Marlow treat Kate when he thinks she's the barmaid?

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He aggressively tries to seduce her.

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What does the phrase "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no fibs" convey in context?

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Tony is unwilling to explain how he got the jewels from his mother.

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When does Marlow realize he's been deceived?

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When Mr. Hardcastle mentions being a friend of his father.

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Why is the play called She Stoops to Conquer?

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Because Kate stoops to the level of a barmaid to reveal Marlow's true feelings.

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Marlow's belief that Mr. Hardcastle is an inkeeper is an example of which literary technique?

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Dramatic irony

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Which of the following is NOT an important theme addressed in She Stoops to Conquer?

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Mortality

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How was She Stoops to Conquer received in its time?

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It was an instant hit.

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