The Deserted Village contains numerous indications that this poem is, at least on one level, an autobiographical account of Goldsmith's nostalgia for his childhood home and his grief about the sense of dislocation and financial hardship he experienced after he left (Goldsmith 1966: 277—8). References to the village as "Seats of my youth" (l. 6) and "home" (l. 96) suggest that Auburn stands for Lissoy, while his bleak portrait of the city mirrors his own experience of London: "If to the city sped — What waits him there? / To see profusion that he must not share" (ll. 309—10). From a modern reader's perspective, Goldsmith's first-hand knowledge of the details he describes and his willingness to insert himself into the poem with his repeated use of "I" may provide reassuring grounding for the political argument. For eighteenth-century readers, however, such an approach would have appeared quite novel. Augustan poems with a serious political intent generally followed a different set of conventions from those describing personal experience. In Windsor-Forest, for example, Pope's most famous topographical poem, landscape description leads to a survey of England's history and subsequent social commentary. Though Pope grew up near Windsor and knew the landscape well, the poem focuses far less on his personal emotions than on the landscape as political allegory. In contrast, Goldsmith's poem combines intense personal nostalgia and social polemic. Thus critics have often been divided on the extent to which the poem should be read as personal meditation or as political propaganda. A more useful approach will explore its indebtedness to certain generic conventions and its distinctive place in eighteenth-century literary history.
While Goldsmith's work is clearly embedded in the conventions for Augustan poetry, it also includes some of the self-expressive characteristics that we usually associate with the poetry of Wordsworth or Coleridge (Lonsdale 1978: 7—8). Crabbe viewed Goldsmith's poem as a "pastoral," idealizing the simplicity of rural life, but most critics also see in The Deserted Village elements of the "georgic," a type of topographical poem that similarly honors the values of rural life but incorporates realistic detail in order to provide the occasion for explicit social and political commentary (Storm 1970: 243-5). [See ch. 29, "The Georgic."] When Goldsmith opens the poem with the speaker's memories of Auburn — "How often have I loitered o'er thy green . . . How often have I paused on every charm" (ll. 7, 9) — he adds a new element to this poetic structure, giving his political argument a personal resonance for readers who are invited to identify with the speaker and share his grief. At the same time, however, Goldsmith's personal approach to his subject gives the poem a psychological dimension that, to some critics, compromises his political stance.
For example, at the site of Auburn's ruined landscape, the speaker's memory of how things used to be "Swells at [his] breast, and turns the past to pain" (l. 82). In the next stanza, however, we find that the real source of his grief is located in the loss of his own imagined future:
In all my wanderings round this world of care, In all my griefs — and God has given my share — I still had hopes my latest hours to crown, Amidst these humble bowers to lay me down; To husband out life's taper at the close, And keep the flame from wasting by repose. I still had hopes, for pride attends us still, Amidst the swains to shew my book-learned skill, Around my fire an evening groupe to draw, And tell of all I felt, and all I saw . . .
Here the speaker imagines himself returning home to tell his story and impress an attentive audience. The speaker himself notes the "pride" at the center of this fantasy: his self-awareness gives the whole passage an amiable quality, but one that draws our attention more to the narrator than to the national issues at stake.
Likewise, Goldsmith's diatribe against "luxury" has its own psychological dimension. Critics point to numerous ways in which Goldsmith's imagery reveals his discomfort with change and uncertainty (Barfoot 1987: 117—21). The poem continually associates the consequences of luxury with a woman's loss of innocence (Lonsdale 1978: 24—5). The changes in Auburn's landscape take on a pitifully seductive quality, the kind of seduction that succeeds only as long as no one looks too closely. Like a once innocent, beautiful woman, who now "shines forth sollicitous to bless, / In all the glaring impotence of dress," the land, "by luxury betrayed," sees "its splendours rise" even as it "verg[es] to decline" (ll. 293—7). The consequences of being seduced by such prospects immediately follows, when a woman who leaves Auburn for the city ends up homeless and ruined: "With heavy heart [she] deplores that luckless hour, / When idly first, ambitious of the town, / She left her wheel and robes of country brown" (ll. 334—6). Goldsmith is certainly not alone in associating the desire for material goods with licentious behavior, but the consequences he imagines become extreme when he describes people leaving the village for America only to confront all manner of exotic dangers, from tornadoes to bats and poisonous snakes inhabiting dark forests, "Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey / And savage men more murderous still than they" (ll. 355—6). Taken together, passages like these give critics reason to suggest that, in his political argument against the consequences of England's expanding economy, Goldsmith has projected on to the nation the unhappy result of his own attempt to find a better life outside his native village — his own deeply felt experience of loss and extreme uncertainty.
In the poem's final stanza, this connection between private and public loss becomes explicit, as the narrator re-enters the poem: "Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand, / I see the rural virtues leave the land" (ll. 397—8). Chief among these virtues departing on vessels bound for the new world is Poetry, traditionally portrayed as female, and here given the traits of lover, protector, and nurturer all in one:
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried, My shame in crowds, my solitary pride. Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe, That found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so; Thou guide by which the nobler arts excell, Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well.
The poem's pervasive sense of dislocation culminates here in the loss of what the narrator suggests is the source of his own identity: his writing (Newey 1998: 114). Indeed, by the end of the poem Goldsmith disappears altogether, for it is Samuel Johnson who writes the last two couplets offering the poem's final lesson, assuring readers that nature will outlast every empire, "As rocks resist the billows and the sky" (l. 430). And yet at stake here is not only Goldsmith's own ability to write, but a more generalized "Poetry" as Goldsmith understood it — a poetry both reflecting and upholding the Augustan values and stable social hierarchy epitomized in his original portrayal of Sweet Auburn (Lonsdale 1978: 27—8). Goldsmith's farewell to Poetry not only marks the end of a stage in his own life, but points to the changing conventions in society and in writing that this poet could only begin to imagine.
Crabbe, too, struggles to negotiate between a personal response to his own experience and what he sees as general truths about the common experience of the rural poor. His declared commitment to the "real picture of the poor" suggests clear-eyed objectivity. Yet autobiographical elements shape The Village from the outset: Crabbe, "cast by Fortune on a frowning coast, / Which neither groves nor happy vallies boast" (i. 49—50), writes from the experience of a childhood in the impoverished coastal village of Aldeburgh — very different from Goldsmith's warmly hospitable Auburn.
Lo! Where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er, Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor; From thence a length of burning sand appears, Where the thin harvest waves its wither'd ears; Rank weeds, that every art and care defy, Reign o'er the land and rob the blighted rye; There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar, And to the ragged infant threaten war; There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil, There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
With mingled tints the rocky coasts abound, And a sad splendor vainly shines around.
The botanical details serve to establish what some have defined as Crabbe's "scientific" approach (McGann 1981: 563). By building his portrait of rural life one observation at a time, Crabbe works like a scientist inductively setting forth an argument based on empirical evidence, which shows that nature is a source of danger rather than of comfort. Rather than encouraging productive labor, its sterile conditions "defy" and even "mock" any hope of farming. This setting, Crabbe implies, stunts the growth not only of its vegetation, but of its inhabitants (Hatch 1976: 14—15):
Here joyless roam a wild amphibious race, With sullen woe display'd on every face; Who, far from civil arts and social fly, And scowl at strangers with suspicious eye.
Once again, Crabbe's tone is detached and scientific. The villagers of his youth are an "amphibious" species of animal: he notes their facial expressions and behavior in response to their surroundings. With few options for creating a livelihood, the young men turn to the dangerous pursuit of smuggling to survive — "Beneath yon cliff they stand, / To show the freighted pinnace where to land" (i. 101—2). The only way to avoid that fate himself, Crabbe concludes, is to leave: "So waited I the favouring hour, and fled" (i. 122).
These passages create a compelling portrait of the hard life facing the Aldeburgh villagers. Yet the conditions of life in this coastal village are hardly typical of England as a whole, and so this portrait, by itself, cannot serve as the basis for a more general "picture of the poor" (Edwards 1990: 42). Indeed, Crabbe contrasts this landscape "where Nature's niggard hand / Gave a spare portion to the famish'd land" with "other scenes more fair in view, / Where Plenty smiles" - but then concludes: "alas! she smiles for few" (i. 131-2, 135-6). From this point on, Crabbe's observations about the gap between rich and poor echo Goldsmith's: "those who taste not, yet behold [Plenty's] store, / Are as the slaves that dig the golden ore, / The wealth around them makes them doubly poor" (i. 137-9). Moreover, his approach incorporates numerous conventions of Augustan poetry. Like Gay in The Shepherd's Week, or Swift in "A Description of the Morning," Crabbe writes in the tradition of "anti-pastorals," contrasting realistic, often unseemly detail with idealized images of rustic bliss. Yet unlike these poems, Crabbe's tone throughout remains earnest, if sometimes sardonic: it is the very seriousness with which Crabbe approaches his subject that makes The Village noteworthy.
The laborer whose life Crabbe chronicles in Part I of The Village is presented as a generalized representative of all village laborers, identified not by name but by phrases connecting him with others at the same stage of life: "the youth," "the old, " "the sick," "the wretch," and, finally, "the man of many sorrows [who] sighs no more" (i. 156, 226, 240, 225, 320). At the same time, however, the force of this extended portrait derives from the attention Crabbe gives to features of this man's individual humanity. He contrasts the man's pleasure at recalling his past accomplishments as "chief' among the field hands - "Full many a prize he won, and still is proud / To find the triumphs of his youth allow'd" (i. 190-1) - with the dejection he experiences once he is unable to work:
"Why do I live, when I desire to be
"At once from life and life's long labour free?
"A lonely, wretched man, in pain I go, "None need my help and none relieve my woe; "Then let my bones beneath the turf be laid, "And men forget the wretch they would not aid."
Ironically, this character comes to life most fully through the speech that records his response to being ignored. By giving his character voice in this first-person lament, Crabbe forces his readers to confront the man's feelings of abandonment, and to do so from his own point of view.
Precisely because this character's pain comes across so forcefully in Part I of The Village, the conclusion to Part II disappoints. For if Crabbe's aim in offering his elegy to Robert Manners is to provide a model for readers to emulate, then his laborer certainly met that challenge — but dies neglected nonetheless. As a commentary on the conditions facing the rural poor, Part I of The Village is more successful by itself, while Part II reveals the limitations Crabbe faces when he falls back on the conventions of Augustan poetry. In later poems like The Borough (1810), Tales (1812), and Tales of the Hall (1819) Crabbe develops the special strengths of The Village — its focus on the details of specific scenes and characters — to create compelling, complex portraits of individual lives.
In the end, the contrast between the "sentimentalism" of Goldsmith's The Deserted Village and the "realism" of Crabbe's The Village is an important starting place for a discussion of these poems, but only a starting place. For the contrast between these writers' approaches to their task is embedded in a shared respect for the conventions and assumptions governing Augustan poetry, and a shared attempt to expand those boundaries sufficiently to fully address the subject that compels them both to write: the widening gap between rich and poor and its impact on rural villages. Goldsmith grounds his social commentary in sentiment arising from personal experience, while Crabbe focuses attention on empirical details not often portrayed in poetry. Both poems thus exhibit powerful new approaches to their task. To the extent that these poems falter, they reveal their authors' limitations in fully creating a new vision. Perhaps more importantly, they reveal the fault lines that separate one set of conventions from another, as Augustan poetry gives way to new forms of expression.
See also chs. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"; 9, "Poetry, Sentiment, and Sensibility"; 10, "John Gay, The Shepherd's Week"; 15, "Stephen Duck, The Thresher's Labour, and Mary Collier, The Woman's Labour"; 40, "Rural Poetry and the Self-Taught Tradition."
References and Further Reading
Barfoot, C. C. (1982). "The Deserted Village: Goldsmith's Moral Body." Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 12: 3, 213—35.
Barfoot, C. C. (1987). "The Deserted Village: Goldsmith's Broken Circle." In Harold Bloom (ed.), Modern Critical Views: Oliver Goldsmith, 109—21. New York: Chelsea House.
Barrell, John (1980). The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730—1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bell, Howard J., Jr. (1944). "The Deserted Village and Goldsmith's Social Doctrines." PMLA 59, 747-72.
Chamberlain, Robert (1965). George Crabbe. New York: Twayne.
Crabbe, George (1988). The Complete Poetical Works, vol. 1, ed. Norma Dalrymple-Champneys and Arthur Pollard. Oxford: Clarendon.
Dingley, Robert (1997). "Sensitive Material: Feeling and Argument in The Deserted Village." AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 87, 1-12.
Edwards, Gavin (1990). George Crabbe's Poetry on Border Land. Studies in British Literature, vol. 7. Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen.
Goldsmith, Oliver (1966). Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, vol. 4, ed. Arthur Friedman. Oxford: Clarendon.
Hatch, Ronald B. (1976). Crabbe's Arabesque: Social
Drama in the Poetry of George Crabbe. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press. Jaarsma, Richard J. (1971). "Ethics in the Wasteland: Image and Structure in Goldsmith's The
Deserted Village." Texas Studies in Language and
Literature 13, 447—59. Lonsdale, Roger (1978). " 'A garden, and a grave': The Poetry of Oliver Goldsmith." In Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams (eds.), Essays on a Problem in Criticism, 3—30. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Love, H. W. (1987). "Goldsmith's Deserted Village: Or Paradise Mislaid". AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 67, 43—59. Lutz, Alfred (1994). "The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre." Modern Language Quarterly
55: 2, 149—68. Lutz, Alfred (1998). "The Politics of Reception: The Case of Goldsmith's The Deserted Village." Studies in Philology 95: 2, 174—96. McGann, Jerome J. (1981). "The Anachronism of
George Crabbe". ELH 48: 3, 555—72. Newey, Vincent (1998). "Goldsmith's 'Pensive
Plain': Re-Viewing The Deserted Village." In Thomas Woodman (ed. and intr.), Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth, 93—116. Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's.
Quintana, Ricardo (1967). Oliver Goldsmith: A Georgian Study. New York: Macmillan.
Sigworth, Oliver F. (1965). Nature's Sternest Painter: Five Essays on the Poetry of George Crabbe. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Storm, Leo F. (1970). "Literary Convention in Goldsmith's Deserted Village." Huntington Library Quarterly 33, 243—56.
Swarbrick, Andrew, ed. (1984). The Art of Oliver Goldsmith. London: Vision; Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble.
Whitehead, Frank (1989). "Crabbe, 'Realism,' and Poetic Truth." Essays in Criticism 39: 1, 29—46.
Whitehead, Frank (1995). George Crabbe: A Reappraisal. London: Associated University Presses.
Woodman, Thomas, ed. (1998). Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth. Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's.
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