GOLDSMITH, OLIVER, author and civil servant; b. 6 July 1794 in St Andrews, N.B., son of Henry Goldsmith and Mary Mason, and grandnephew of Oliver Goldsmith, the Anglo-Irish poet; d. unmarried 23 June 1861 in Liverpool, England.
As a youngster Oliver Goldsmith tried his hand at a number of professions and trades. He worked at the Halifax Naval Hospital but was nauseated by current medical practices; he was apprenticed to an ironmonger who discharged him for idleness; he then worked for a bookseller, and subsequently in a lawyer’s office. Finally, through the influence of his father, who was first assistant commissary general in Halifax and who took charge of the commissariat in New Brunswick in 1810, Oliver began work as a civilian volunteer in the British army’s commissariat at Halifax in 1810; his appointment was confirmed in December 1814.
Goldsmith was to hold various positions during a long career in the commissariat. It was interrupted in its early stage by visits to Liverpool, London, and Plymouth for much of 1817, and a circuitous return to Nova Scotia via New York, Boston, and Maine, where he was shipwrecked on Hat Island early in 1818. After his return he was posted first to Halifax, then transferred to New Brunswick in 1833, and, rising steadily in rank and responsibility, found himself ordered to Hong Kong in 1844. He served there until March 1848 and in October of that year was appointed to Newfoundland where he led, by his account, a socially full and an intellectually satisfying life, helping to organize a masonic lodge and a mechanics’ institute. He attained the rank of deputy commissary general in 1853. Retiring in June of that year on half pay, he sailed for England where he spent his time in leisurely travel including an extended visit to Ireland. In 1854 Goldsmith was pressed into service once again, and was posted to Corfu until ill health forced his return to England in 1855 and his retirement on half pay. He lived in Liverpool with his sister until his death.
Goldsmith’s career as a writer seems to have followed a whimsical and sporadic course. He later noted that in 1822 he had dabbled in amateur theatre in Halifax, and that he had written some verse. The rising village, a narrative poem of 528 lines in pentameter couplet, was first published in 1825 in London. Goldsmith later wrote: “In my humble poem, I . . . endeavoured to describe the sufferings they [the loyalists] experienced in a new and uncultivated Country, the Difficulties they surmounted, the Rise and progress of a Village, and the prospects which promised Happiness to its future possessors.” It has become recognized as an important example of early Canadian verse as well as a valuable commentary on contemporary life and conditions in the Maritimes and an expression of the aspirations of a pioneer society.
Comparisons have always been made between this poem and the famed work of Goldsmith’s great-uncle, The deserted village. Goldsmith himself felt such comparisons were unfair, although he seems to have been making a response, certainly in spirit, to the earlier poem. Contemporary commentators were on the whole generous, including a reviewer in the Canadian Review and Magazine in February 1826, who found the author “indeed worthy of the relationship he bears to that great genius.” Goldsmith claimed, however, that adverse criticism squelched his creativity, and that he “abandoned the Muses”; but a reworked text of his poem together with a number of shorter poems published in Saint John, N.B., in 1834 is evidence to the contrary. The other verse included in this edition was of an occasional and social nature, intended as entertainment and diversion rather than as a serious literary statement.
Goldsmith’s Autobiography remained undiscovered until Reverend W. E. Myatt found it in the family papers and published it with valuable annotations in 1943. Only 24 pages in type, it seems to be a telescoped, and, in places, incorrectly remembered version of some events in Goldsmith’s busy and long life. It nevertheless provides interesting information on the life of a man who is widely regarded as Canada’s first native-born poet to write in English.
Oliver Goldsmith’s The rising village, a poem (London, 1825) was republished with additional poetry as “The rising village,” with other poems (Saint John, N.B., 1834); it was also republished as “The rising village” of Oliver Goldsmith . . . , ed. Michael Gnarowski (Montreal, 1968). See also: [Oliver Goldsmith], The autobiography of Oliver Goldsmith, published for the first time from the original manuscript of the author of “The rising village,” ed. W. E. Myatt (Toronto, 1943), and The manuscript book of Oliver Goldsmith, author of “The rising village,” ed. E. C. Kyte (Toronto, 1950). Desmond Pacey, “The Goldsmiths and their villages,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XXI (1951–52), 27–38.