"The Deserted Village": A Poem by Oliver Goldsmith
Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74) was born and raised in Ireland but spent most of his life in England. He is known for a handful of plays, a novel, and a limited number of poems, of which “The Deserted Village” (1770) is probably his best known. However, he was also a prolific essayist, historian and journalist.
Background to the Poem
The background to “The Deserted Village” is the radical changes to rural life that were occurring during the 18th century, notably as a result of the “Enclosures” that were transforming the old pattern of subsistence farming into a system that would support a growing population, and especially one that was becoming increasingly concentrated in the towns and cities as the Industrial Revolution took hold.
Open fields that were shared by a number of villagers, together with the common land that supported the poorest members of local communities, were being enclosed by hedges and walls and taken over by wealthy landowners who would then lease out individual self-contained farms to their tenants.
With the ability to plan the landscapes of their estates and farms, many landowners embarked on extensive schemes, employing such noted landscape architects as Humphrey Repton and Lancelot “Capability” Brown. In many cases whole villages were moved when their location proved to be inconvenient from the owner’s perspective; sometimes he might have wanted his deer park to go where the village was sited, or it might even have been that he did not want to see the village when he looked from the windows of the big house he had just had built.
Some villages were therefore moved a mile or more, which meant demolishing one village and building another, but it was also the case that some villages were abandoned altogether because the new agriculture demanded fewer workers and the people moved away to find work in the cities. Whatever the reason, there were many cases of villages being deserted.
The “Sweet Auburn” of Goldsmith’s poem seems to have been a combination of his own childhood village in Ireland (Lissoy in County Westmeath) and an English village of which Goldsmith had witnessed the destruction to make room for a landed estate. It has been suggested that this was Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire, which was re-located in the 1760s by Simon Harcourt, the 1st Earl Harcourt. However, the name “Auburn” was a genuine one, as there is a farmstead and lough of that name very close to Lissoy.
"The Deserted Village"
The poem is a long one, consisting of more than 400 lines of iambic pentameter in rhyming couplets. It is divided into what would have to be termed paragraphs rather than stanzas, as they are of uneven length and start and end when the subject matter changes.
The poem expresses nostalgia for past and fear for the future, combined with anger at the causes of the change:
“… The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds”
Goldsmith is also clear in his disapproval of the Enclosures movement:
“Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And e’en the bare-worn common is denied.”
As for nostalgia, Goldsmith lays it on by the spadeful. The poem opens with a long paragraph that concentrates on the innocent activities of the departed villagers in their rural idyll, with the word “sports” occurring four times to the two of “toil”.
The poet seems to have been able to visit “Sweet Auburn” after all the residents had gone and many of the buildings had already been demolished. As he says later in the poem: “E’en now the devastation is begun, / And half the business of destruction done”. He is reminded of the past more by the remaining trees and natural features than by buildings. Thus “a few torn shrubs” disclose where “The village preacher’s modest mansion rose” and the schoolmaster’s “noisy mansion” is beside a “straggling fence … With blossomed furze unprofitably gay”. The use of “unprofitably” is a sly dig at the First Earl.
There are two paragraphs that express regret that the poet will not be able to return to the village to live out his final years, where his chief desire seems to have been to bore everyone rigid with his “book-learned skill”. Here he is clearly thinking about Lissoy rather than Nuneham Courtenay.
Goldsmith’s regret for the changing nature of English agriculture is shown by his nostalgic longing for the time when:
“… every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more:
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.”
This vision was written by a man who never had to survive through good times and bad by scraping a living from the soil. Light labour? And making a virtue out of poverty should surely strike the reader as being over-sentimental and demeaning.
Goldsmith also goes overboard when, later in the poem, he outlines the fates of the people who once lived in the village but who have now been forced to move to the city or emigrate to the colonies. In the city, the chief image is of wealth that is only enjoyed by the few while the poor starve in the streets. For those who emigrate, there are the horrors of “dark scorpion”, “vengeful snake” and “crouching tigers”.
The poem ends with the conviction that the destruction of villages like Auburn is a symptom of “rural virtues leav[ing] the land”. As the villagers go, so too do such things as “kind connubial tenderness”, “steady loyalty” and “faithful love”. Goldsmith sees these losses as being irremediable, and his only hope is that “sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid” will enable him to bear the loss by teaching “erring man to spurn the rage of gain”.
Thus the constant message of “The Deserted Village” is that the noble poverty of the rural past was infinitely superior to the benefits that might be gained by agricultural and industrial progress. It was therefore hardly in Goldsmith’s interest to mention the fact that many such villages were rebuilt and that the villagers were often resettled in new homes not far away that were far superior to the tumble-down shacks that they had just left. This was certainly true of Nuneham Courtenay, where the cottages in question are still being lived in today. Goldsmith’s complaints on behalf of the displaced villagers may very well not have shared by the people involved.
Some Words of Criticism
The main complaint that can be levelled at “The Deserted Village” is its sentimental mawkishness, coupled with just a whiff of hypocrisy; Goldsmith had absolutely no desire to return to Lissoy to die, for example. However, it must also be remembered that this is a generalized view of rural life; the poet describes an ideal past and not one that is specific to any one place, so he feels free to pick and choose the features that support his case and ignore those that do not. However, the constant reminders of the virtues of poverty and the moral benefits of being on the breadline are a little hard to take.
As a poem, “The Deserted Village” is not above criticism. Goldsmith is too fond of repeating words that seem to fit the bill, as in “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey”, where the repetition provides neither balance nor contrast, or his predilection for “train” as in “unfeeling train”, “harmless train”, “vagrant train”, “lowly train”, “gorgeous train” and “loveliest train”, all of which provide convenient rhymes for words such as “swain”, “plain”, “reign” and “pain”.
Goldsmith also lapses into melodrama when he overstates his case. Every elderly peasant is a “good old sire”, his daughter “lovely” and her husband “fond”. The dispossessed woman who makes her way to the city is forced into prostitution, with the implication being that this is the fate of all such, and the descriptions of the horrors awaiting emigrants are absurd. Unfortunately, the banalities of this use of language detract from the overall message of the poem.
One feels that a better poet, such as Wordsworth at his peak, might have made a better fist of the theme tackled by Goldsmith. “The Deserted Village” is an interesting document in terms of being a contemporary reaction to the effects of enclosures and agricultural development, but as a poem it has problems that cannot be ignored.