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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IX. Oliver Goldsmith

§ 2. Childhood at Lissoy and schooldays at Elphin

Goldsmith was born on 10 November, 1728; and it is usually held that the place of his nativity was Pallas, or Pallasmore, a village near Ballymahon, in the county of Longford, Ireland. But it has also been plausibly contended, though actual proof is not forthcoming, that his true birthplace was Smith-Hill house, Elphin, Roscommon, the residence of his mother’s father, Oliver Jones, a clergyman and master of the Elphin diocesan school. His own father, Charles Goldsmith, was, likewise, a clergyman of the established church. When Oliver came into the world, Charles Goldsmith was acting as assistant to an uncle whose name was Green, the rector of Kilkenny West, and eking out a scanty subsistence by farming a few fields. In 1730, Green died; and Charles Goldsmith, succeeding to the vacant rectorate, transferred his residence to the hamlet of Lissoy, in Westmeath, a little to the right of the road from Ballymahon to Athlone. At this time, he had five children, two sons and three daughters, Oliver being the fifth child and second son. As already stated, the accounts of his earliest years are contradictory. By some, he was regarded as thick-witted and sullen; to others, he seemed alert and intelligent. That he was an adept at all boyish sports is admitted; and it is also recorded that he scribbled verses early. His first notable instructor was the village schoolmaster, Thomas, or “Paddy,” Byrne, who had been a quartermaster in queen Anne’s wars. Byrne was also a local rimer, and had even composed an Irish version of the Georgics. His endless stories of his continental adventures, and his inexhaustible legends of ghosts and banshees, held his pupils spellbound; and, by Goldsmith’s family, were, later, made responsible for much of “that wandering and unsettled turn which so much appeared in his future life.” When Goldsmith was seven or eight, he was attacked by confluent smallpox, which scarred him terribly and probably added not a little to the “exquisite sensibility of contempt” with which he seems to have been born. With this, at all events, is connected one of the two most-repeated anecdotes of his childhood. A ne’er-do-well relation asked him heartlessly when he meant to grow handsome, to which, after an awkward silence, he replied, “I mean to get better, sir, when you do.” The other story also illustrates an unexpected gift of repartee. At a party in his uncle’s house, during the pause between two country-dances, little Oliver capered out, and executed an extempore hornpipe. His deeply-pitted face and ungainly figure caused much amusement; and the fiddler, a lad named Cumming, called out “Æsop.” To which the dancer promptly answered:

  • Heralds, proclaim aloud! all saying,
  • See Æsop dancing, and his Monkey playing,
  • at once transferring the laugh to his side. Whether improvised or remembered, the retort certainly shows intellectual alacrity.