Goldsmith lived a thoroughly interesting life, perennially in debt and always fearing the debtors prison. His literary work has been praised and decried. Following his graduation from Trinity College in 1749, he became a kind of wandering minstrel through mainland Europe until he finally settled in London in 1756 where he indulged in a bohemian life of drinking and gambling. His most famous works are The Deserted Village and The Vicar of Wakefield, the work which saved him from debtor’s prison. When his landlady threatened to have him arrested for non-payment, Goldsmith’s friend Samuel Johnson took the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield and sold it to a publishing house on his behalf.
Goldsmith was apparently an extraordinarily vain, jealous man but one whom Horace Walpole described as an “inspired idiot.” His death in 1774 was partly due to his failure to seek proper medical treatment for his failing health.
The following are the opening lines from The Deserted Village, a poem that was beaten into every God-fearing Irish boy in Christian Brothers schools in Ireland!
The Deserted Village (opening lines)
Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,
With blossomed furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,
The village master taught his little school;
A man severe he was, and stern to view;
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day’s disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned;
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.
The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And even the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson owned his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around,
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.