Oliver Goldsmith The Deserted Village and George Crabbe

Towards the end of Oliver Goldsmith's career, and at the very start of George Crabbe's, both men launched critiques on the dire effects of England's expanding economy on the rural poor. They shared the view that the economic growth that helped London flourish from the Restoration through the eighteenth century had sapped rural villages of resources and widened the gap between rich and poor. Both writers came from poor families, and both spent their youth in rural areas — Goldsmith in Lissoy, Ireland, and Crabbe in Aldeburgh, Suffolk — before seeking their fortunes in London. Both writers, too, brought conventions of Augustan poetry to bear on their subject, not only heroic couplets but a whole tradition of pastorals, georgics, and anti-pastorals. Yet for all their similarities, any discussion of The Deserted Village (1770) and The Village (1783) inevitably begins with the contrast between the "sentimentalism" of Goldsmith's poem and the "realism" of Crabbe's. For even though both poems describe current rural life in bleak detail, Goldsmith opens with an idyllic account of the village before its destruction by modern forces, whereas Crabbe objects to such sentimentalizing and focuses squarely on the hard life of labor the poor must inevitably endure.

Goldsmith begins The Deserted Village with his speaker's fond memories of the "Sweet Auburn" of his youth:

How often have I paused on every charm,

The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,

The never failing brook, the busy mill,

The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill,

The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,

For talking age and whispering lovers made.

Nature and cultivation, work and respite, youth and age — all come together here to create a harmonious life characterized by balance and order, providing structure, shelter, and contentment. For Goldsmith, Auburn represents an idealized time in both his own life and the life of the village. He uses some form of the word "charm" four times in the 34-line opening description to heighten Auburn's lyrical, magical quality — a mood abruptly broken by the harsh monosyllabic turn at the end of the section: "These were thy charms — But all these charms are fled" (l. 34). The village's decline becomes at once a personal and a public loss.

What has doomed rural life, Goldsmith contends, is the rise of trade that has brought unprecedented wealth to some few at the expense of the many:

Proud swells the tide with loads of freighted ore,

And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;

Hoards, even beyond the miser's wish abound,

And rich men flock from all the world around.

Yet count our gains. This wealth is but a name

That leaves our useful products still the same.

Not so the loss. 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;

The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth,

Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth;

His seat, where solitary sports are seen,

Indignant spurns the cottage from the green;

Around the world each needful product flies,

For all the luxuries the world supplies.

While thus the land adorned for pleasure all

In barren splendour feebly waits the fall.

Trade leads to the accumulation of luxury goods and, more dangerous still, to the acquisition of land. Rich men, bent on building lavish residences, force out local residents and uncaringly destroy rural communities. The result, Goldsmith contends, is a mighty "fall" — a village deserted by its people, its values, and, in the end, by Poetry itself.

George Crabbe shares Goldsmith's view that commerce has done nothing for the poor, but he refuses to take refuge in nostalgia. In what appears to be a direct response to Goldsmith, who identifies "the sheltered cot" as one of Auburn's charms, Crabbe proclaims, "I paint the cot, / As truth will paint it, and as bards will not" (i. 53—4). Rosy pictures of rural life are based on fantasy, not reality. If the Muses "sing of happy swains," they do so only "Because the Muses never knew their pains" (i. 22) And such fantasy, Crabbe suggests, demonstrates a lack of respect for the people described in the poem: "O'ercome by labour and bow'd down by time, / Feel you the barren flattery of a rhyme?" (i. 57—8).

For Crabbe, the "truth" about rural life for the poor is that it is hard and dominated by labor. From the start, then, he sets out a different course:

The village life, and every care that reigns O'er youthful peasants and declining swains; What labour yields, and what, that labour past, Age, in its hour of languor, finds at last; What forms the real picture of the poor, Demands a song — the Muse can give no more.

With this opening salvo, Crabbe begins the dialogue that continues to frame the contrast between these two poems. The "real picture of the poor" is not an easy one to paint or view, he contends, but it demands his attention with the force of a moral imperative:

I grant indeed that fields and flocks have charms, For him that gazes or for him that farms; But when amid such pleasing scenes I trace The poor laborious natives of the place, And see the mid-day sun, with fervid ray, On their bare heads and dewy temples play; While some, with feebler hands and fainter hearts, Deplore their fortune, yet sustain their parts, Then shall I dare these real ills to hide, In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?

These lines can be read as a gloss on Stephen Duck's The Thresher's Labour (1736), a poem that depicted in graphic detail the demanding work of planting, harvesting, and threshing grain year after year on his uncaring employer's farm. '{H]onest Duck' (i. 27) is the only poet Crabbe credits with offering a realistic portrayal of rural life. {See ch. 15, "Stephen Duck, The Thresher's Labour, and Mary Collier, The WOMAN'S Labour."] If Goldsmith portrayed the rich displacing the poor, Crabbe, like Duck, goes farther to characterize their relationship as one of master to slave. To landowning readers who might argue that hard outdoor work leads to sturdy good health, Crabbe counters that the rural laborers' constant exposure to the vicissitudes of heat and rain shortens their lifespan: "Then own that labour may as fatal be / To these thy slaves, as thine excess to thee" (i. 152-3).

In contrast to Goldsmith's envy of the aging laborer who "crowns . . . [a] youth of labour with an age of ease" (ll. 99-100), Crabbe laments the universal taunts that will greet him when he is too enfeebled to work any longer. Whereas Goldsmith's elderly poor meet their end with dignified independence, Crabbe's aged laborer ends up in the poorhouse, "left alone to die" (i. 259). To Crabbe, these bleak details represent "the real Picture of the Poor" far better than any idealized portrait of "Sweet Auburn."

From the time of its publication, Crabbe's poem was praised as a convincing critique of Goldsmith's sentimentalized portrayal of village life (Lutz 1998: 184).

Goldsmith's case was not helped by the fact that his views of depopulation were found to be inaccurate, for it turned out that while enclosure lessened the number of farms, it increased the quantity of food that was produced and so led to an increase in population (Barfoot 1982: 213). One might think, then, that Crabbe's The Village would have displaced Goldsmith's The Deserted Village in the canon; but that is not the case. On the contrary, Goldsmith's poem is anthologized more often and is the subject of far more modern criticism than Crabbe's. The Deserted Village continues to be read because it remains a powerful representation of one man's response to change — both social and literary. It is Goldsmith's personal response to change, not the accuracy of his view of village demographics, that continues to evoke interest. At the same time, Crabbe's bold claims to social veracity have themselves been subjected to close scrutiny. Any initial contrast between the "sentimental" quality of Goldsmith's poem and the "realism" of Crabbe's must give way to a more complex analysis of the views embedded in each poet's account and the poetic conventions that shape their expression.

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Responses

  • danait
    What are the charms of the poets village auburn?
    1 year ago
  • Joseph
    How does walt whiteman praise the charms of village life?
    10 months ago
  • martti
    How does walt whitman praise the charms of village life?
    10 months ago
  • Conner
    How does the poet in "the deserted village" personally emphasize the loss of the village?
    6 months ago

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