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Oliver Goldsmith

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog

Fiction | Poem | Middle Grade | Published in 1766

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Summary and Study Guide


“An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” was written by the Anglo-Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oliver Goldsmith. The poem was originally published within Goldsmith’s incredibly popular novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). With its humor, surprising twists, and simplistic rhythm, “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” shares more in common with a nursery rhyme or ballad than the kind of serious elegy it satirizes, and the poem’s ironic humor is characteristic of the type of comedy that Goldsmith mastered over the course of his writing career.

As a professional writer, Oliver Goldsmith published works in nearly every literary medium of his day. He wrote two comedies for the London theatre, published a novel, composed a number of poems, and published essays and articles for several different magazines concurrently. Although he often struggled financially, Oliver Goldsmith also had many successes throughout his writing career. His only novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, was quite successful commercially and has only grown in popularity as a classic novel since its initial publication. Goldsmith’s comedic play She Stoops to Conquer (1773) was also a great hit with audiences, but it was his poetic endeavors The Deserted Village (1770) and particularly The Traveller (1764) that earned him his highest critical praise. Goldsmith’s long-time friend, revered writer Dr. Samuel Johnson, proclaimed that The Traveller was the greatest poem since the death of the poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Many years later, a young William Wordsworth would also read and draw inspiration from the very same work.

Poet Biography

Oliver Goldsmith was born the fifth of Charles Goldsmith and Anne Jones’ eight children on November 10, 1728 in the townland of Pallas near Ballymahon in the county of Longford, Ireland. After his family moved when he was only two years old, Goldsmith spent his early childhood in Lissoy, in the county of Westmeath, where his father worked as a rector in the parish. His early education involved the tutorship of family relative Elizabeth Delap and former soldier Thomas Byrne. Oliver next went to school at Elphin, then at Athlone, and then at Edgeworthstown. His fellow students often regarded him as a lively and athletic but unlearned child, a reputation that would follow him into his college days.

In 1744, Goldsmith began his undergraduate degree at Trinity College in Dublin, which he was able to attend by working as a sizar, doing menial tasks for an older student. Here, Goldsmith’s lifelong gambling habits began. Although unhappy and impoverished for much of his time as an undergraduate, Goldsmith did find some joy in composing and performing ballads at five shillings a piece. In 1747, soon after his father died, Goldsmith was involved in a college riot, and, after the school publically admonished him, Goldsmith fled Trinity College. He attempted a journey to America but quickly ran out of funds on the way and returned to Trinity College, where he completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1749.

After college, Goldsmith moved back home near Ballymahon where he lived with his mother, waiting two years until he was old enough to apply for orders within the church. Goldsmith often looked back on these two years with fondness as the best and most content period of his life. In 1751, Goldsmith applied for orders and was rejected by the Bishop of Elphin for reasons not entirely clear but likely to do with Goldsmith’s troubled reputation and spending habits in college. Unable to enter the church, Goldsmith tried tutoring but ultimately bought a horse and attempted to travel to America once more. In less than two months, Goldsmith had to sell his horse and returned home penniless.

In 1752, Goldsmith began law school with money loaned from his uncle. Goldsmith promptly gambled away all his funds and left for Edinburgh to become a medical student. He once again borrowed money from his uncle for his schooling, and during these years of study, he was briefly locked up in prison after being mistaken for a Jacobite revolutionary—and again managed to lose all of his money travelling and gambling. Despite his perpetual money troubles and distractions, Goldsmith was admitted as a member of the medical society of Edinburgh in 1753 and ultimately received his Bachelor of Medicine in 1755.

Upon graduating, Goldsmith travelled through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy on foot, earning money by playing his flute for anyone who would listen. During his travels, he began a rough sketch of what would later become his poem The Traveller. In February 1756, Goldsmith finally moved to London, England, where he was depressed, nearly starving, and living impoverished amongst the city’s beggars. At 27 years old, Goldsmith finally found work doing a number of odd jobs. He worked as a physician in Bankside, Southwark and as a press corrector or proofreader for the printer Samuel Richardson. This job marked his entry into the literary world, where he could finally display his true talents.

While still working as a physician whenever possible, Goldsmith began writing for various magazines and in 1758 translated Memoirs of a Protestant, Condemned to the Galleys of France for His Religion by Jean Marteilhe. Near Christmas of 1758, Goldsmith presented himself for the office of hospital mate at Surgeon’s Hall but for reasons unknown was deemed unqualified. Once again, Goldsmith faced bitter disappointment and rejection and had to turn to writing to support himself and pay his many debts.

In 1759, Goldsmith’s fortune began to improve. He moved to Green Arbour Court, Old Bailey, published “An Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe” to minimal success, and was hired to write for the Critical Review, “Lady’s Magazine,” “The British Magazine,” “The Public Ledger,” and “The Bee,” a periodical of essays and poetry, where Goldsmith first published his satirical poem “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize.” His work in these magazines from 1759-1760 elevated his reputation in the literary world and cemented him as a professional writer for the rest of his life. Goldsmith wrote numerous articles, poems, and pamphlets during this time, and he also published The Citizen of the World (1760), an ironic and at times satirical collection of 98 letters supposedly written by a Chinese tourist in England.

It was in the year 1761 that Goldsmith made his most famous connections in the literary world. He moved to Wine Office Court, Fleet Street, where he was neighbors with the influential literary figure Samuel Johnson who introduced him to the painter Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds and Johnson remained two of his closest friends for the rest of his life, and the three formed a literary club in Soho attended by other famous writers of the time, including the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

In 1762, Goldsmith moved to Islington and began composing his novel The Vicar of Wakefield and its contained poem “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” Finances were once again tenuous as Goldsmith lavishly overspent to fit into his new sophisticated literary circle. His financial situation worsened, and Goldsmith was arrested by his landlady for not paying rent just as his first true success, the political poem The Traveller (1764), was published. The first work published under his own name, The Traveller achieved immediate success and received high critical praise. Goldsmith went from a struggling newspaper essayist to an esteemed poet nearly overnight.

Goldsmith next published perhaps his most enduring work, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). Although not an immediate success like The TravellerThe Vicar of Wakefield’s story of the longsuffering Dr. Primrose gradually grew in popularity. The novel includes several poems, including “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” and “The Hermit,” Goldsmith’s personal favorite work. Even now, critics remain divided about how to respond to The Vicar of Wakefield. Some interpret it as a mostly straightforward tale of a Christian whose faith sustains him through a lifetime of suffering, and others interpret the novel as an exaggerated and ironic parody of didactic literature of the period. The novel’s recurring ironic strain also pervades the contained poem “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.”

After publishing numerous essays, poems, and a novel, Goldsmith shifted to the theater. His comedy The Good Natur’d Man (1768) debuted to only moderate success and bitter disappointment from Goldsmith. The money earned from the play was quickly spent on furniture for Goldsmith’s new expensive lodgings in Brick Court and even more extravagant apparel. Financially unstable yet again, Goldsmith was forced to return to writing for hire, composing The History of England and An History of the Earth and Animated Nature for little compensation. It was not until the death of his brother Henry Goldsmith that Oliver was inspired to write the lengthy pastoral poem The Deserted Village (1770), his greatest popular and critical success since The Traveller. However, Goldsmith again depleted all the money earned from the poem, this time on a trip to Paris, and returned home to pay his debts with professional writing once more.

After a period of lesser known writing appointments and magazine work, Goldsmith produced his final larger work, the comedy play She Stoops to Conquer. It was first performed in 1773 and, unlike The Good Natur’d Man, was immensely popular with both audiences and critics. To this day, it remains one of the most studied plays from the 18th-century theater. However, despite the play’s success and Goldsmith’s rising reputation, She Stoops to Conquer would be the last significant work published in his lifetime. His accumulation of debt and previous engagements for different magazines halted any further publications, and in April 1774, Goldsmith died of fever at 46 years old. His poem “Retaliation” was published posthumously that same year.

Poem Text

Good people all, of every sort, 

Give ear unto my song; 

And if you find it wondrous short, 

It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man, 

Of whom the world might say,  

That still a godly race he ran, 

Whenever he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had, 

To comfort friends and foes; 

The naked every day he clad, 

When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found, 

As many dogs there be, 

Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound, 

And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends; 

But when a pique began, 

The dog, to gain some private ends, 

Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighboring streets 

The wondering neighbors ran, 

And swore the dog had lost his wits, 

To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad 

To every Christian eye; 

And while they swore the dog was mad, 

They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light, 

That showed the rogues they lied; 

The man recovered of the bite, 

The dog it was that died.

Goldsmith, Oliver. “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” 1766. The Vicar of Wakefield.


In the first stanza, Goldsmith’s speaker addresses the poem’s intended audience, “good people all” (Line 1), and requests that the audience listen to their “song.” The speaker makes some remarks to lower the audience’s expectations, reminding those who might find his poem too “short” (Line 3) or inconsequential that it at least will not “hold” them “long” (Line 4).

Stanzas 2 and 3 offer the setting of Islington (Line 5) and introduce the central figure of the poem, the “godly” (Line 7) man who meets the mad dog. The speaker describes him as “kind and gentle” (Line 9) and a man of charity to the “naked” (Line 11) or impoverished. However, these two stanzas also feature a couple of ironic statements that hint the man is not as charitable or godly as he seems to the rest of the “world” (Line 6).

Stanza 4 introduces the titular mad dog, described as one of “many dogs” (Line 14) in the town. Goldsmith portrays Islington as the home of many stray dogs of differing breeds and “degree” (Line 16). In stanza 5, the speaker acknowledges the man and the stray dog have a history as “friends” (Line 17), but after a “pique” (Line 18) or provocation between them occurs, the dog bites the man, for reasons unknown to onlookers.

Stanzas 6 and 7 provide the witnesses’ response to the biting incident. The “wondering neighbors” (Line 22) from “all the neighboring streets” (Line 21) conclude that the dog must have “lost his wits” (Line 23) and gone mad to bite “so good a man” (Line 24). These “Christian” (Line 26) neighbors swear the dog is mad and that the man will die of his “sore and sad” (Line 25) wound.

The eighth and final stanza offers the poem’s shocking twist and conclusion. The speaker asserts that the neighbors, now described as “rogues,” had “lied” (Line 30) and were wrong about how the man and dog would fare. The man recovers from his wound, and the dog is the one that ultimately dies from the incident.

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