Views of the Poor

Goldsmith may have been wrong about rural depopulation, but the fundamental change in England's economy that he saw driving changes in society was real. As Howard Bell Jr. persuasively argued as early as 1944, "The Deserted Village must . . . be recognized as a document inspired by the amazing development of trade from the Restoration up to Goldsmith's own day, a development which we call the commercial revolution" (p. 749). Goldsmith was hardly alone in responding to this development; indeed, the impact of trade on English life is a central theme of eighteenth-century literature [see ch. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"]. In numerous Tatler and Spectator essays, Pope's Rape of the Lock and Epistle to Burlington. Of the Use of Riches, Leapor's "Crumble-Hall," Hume's "On Luxury," and Smollett's Humphry Clinker, to name only a few, we find writers working to identify the line between the welcome benefits of prosperity and the dangers of excess, between "necessity" and mere "luxury." While most focus on the impact of these excesses on the moral life of the rich themselves, Goldsmith explores the impact of the wealthy's excesses on the poor. He thus asks his readers to consider the interdependence of different classes within the village and, ultimately, within the nation as a whole. After describing comforting scenes that displaced villagers have been forced to leave behind (ll. 363—84), Goldsmith's speaker laments:

O luxury! Thou curst by heaven's decree, How ill exchanged are things like these for thee! How do thy potions with insidious joy, Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy! Kingdoms by thee, to sickly greatness grown,

Boast of a florid vigour not their own.

At every draught more large and large they grow,

A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe;

Till sapped their strength, and every part unsound,

Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

The destruction of Auburn becomes a symbol for the impending destruction of the nation. Like an intoxicating drug, "luxury" leads ultimately to a bloated, sickly, weakened body politic. The inevitable outcome of such misplaced priorities, Goldsmith fears, would be that England, like Rome before it, would fall.

Some readers have attributed to Goldsmith's poem a "radical politics," both in its criticism of the wealthy and in its sympathetic portrayal of the poor. Several eighteenth-century writers — among them William Blake and Thomas Paine — saw a utopian ideal in Goldsmith's portrayal of the Auburn of the past and viewed his depiction of Auburn's devastation as a critique on contemporary economic policy (Lutz 1998: 184—5). More recently, scholars have noted Goldsmith's portrayal of villagers engaged in both work and leisure activities, suggesting that the poor, like the rich, have some say in how they spend their time (Barrell 1980: 65—82). With his references to the Enclosure Acts of the 1750s and 1760s, which eliminated common grazing areas by allowing landowners to fence in their farms, and to England's trading practices, Goldsmith suggests that it is failures of public policy, rather than of personal morality, that have led to Auburn's destruction.

However, it is a mistake to view any political agenda embedded in The Deserted Village as especially progressive. Goldsmith was a Tory; his opposition to the liberal trading practices favored by the Whigs grew out of a conservative agenda in which a stable social hierarchy was essential to the nation's well-being. Indeed, his idealized character sketches of past Auburn villagers reveal an ordered social system in which the teacher's knowledge appears a "wonder" (l. 215) because so few people are educated (ll. 193—217), and the preacher works strictly within the Anglican Church, doling out charity in a paternalistic way (ll. 163—76). As Vincent Newey concludes, "Goldsmith's portraits are informed by the same ideology of fixed relations that is recalled in . . . Pope's Essay on Man' (Newey 1998: 100).

Crabbe, too, combines sympathy for the plight of the poor with fairly conservative assumptions about society's structure. On the one hand, he draws attention to the unhealthy and often degrading conditions facing rural laborers, and thus implicitly indicts those who allow such conditions to persist. His portrayal of the poorhouse, in particular, criticizes a society that, since the reign of Queen Elizabeth, had established laws to ensure that the poor would be cared for, but had failed to act on its promise (Hatch 1976: 20—3):

Such is that room which one rude beam divides, And naked rafters form the sloping sides; Where the vile bands that bind the thatch are seen,

And lath and mud are all that lie between; Save one dull pane, that, coarsely patch'd, gives way To the rude tempest, yet excludes the day: Here, on a matted flock, with dust o'erspread, The drooping wretch reclines his languid head; For him no hand the cordial cup applies, Or wipes the tear that stagnates in his eyes; No friends with soft discourse his pain beguile, Or promise hope till sickness wears a smile.

In the first eight lines here, Crabbe observes the building's flimsy construction, which only barely separates the "drooping wretch" from the tempest outside, leaving the man as "naked" as the rafters that surround him. With the last four lines, in contrast, he evokes an imaginary scene of what should be there but isn't: care and attention in his dying days, if not from his "friends," then at least from the institutions charged with his care. Nowhere in this passage does Crabbe explicitly call for change; instead, throughout Part I of The Village, he relies on unsparing detail to evoke sympathy, if not outrage.

In Part II of The Village, however, Crabbe changes his emphasis. He opens with a view of village life on the Sabbath day, "Heaven's gift to weary men oppress't" (ii. 27). Yet after fewer than twenty lines describing "gleams of transient mirth and hours of sweet repose," Crabbe devotes the next fifty lines to a litany of "village vices" that drive any joy away: drunkenness, wife-beating, slander, promiscuity (ii. 33—85). Crabbe argues that he relates "these humble crimes" in order "To show the great, those mightier sons of pride, / How near in vice the lowest are allied . . . So shall the man of power and pleasure see / In his own slaves as vile a wretch as he" (ii. 87, 89—94). Rich and poor are equal not only in death, but in their capacity for vice. Yet critics such as John Barrell have argued that Crabbe's focus on only two areas of the laboring life — either work or criminal dissipation — compromise his claim to objective description. The poem advances "a prescription: the poor must be shown at work, not only because that is what they do, but because that is what they ought to do" (Barrell 1980: 77).

If Part I of The Village shows a sympathy for the laboring poor unprecedented in Augustan literature, Part II shares the same dark view of flawed humanity as those canonical Augustan works, Pope's Dunciad and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Problems in society originate in the corrupt actions of individuals, not from systemic inequities; thus the remedy is to be found in moral improvement rather than in public policy. Just as Pope's Of the Characters of Women and Epistle to Burlington open with a series of negative portraits countered by one concluding model of a righteous individual worthy of emulation, so Crabbe ends The Village with his ninety-line elegy to Robert Manners, son of his patron, the Duke of Rutland, who died in a naval battle in 1782 (Hatch 1976: 32—3): "Like Manners walk, who walk'd in honour's way" (ii. 148). This conclusion has struck many readers as inadequate (Chamberlain 1965: 34—5).

Crabbe may well describe the poor with a level of realistic detail until then rarely seen in poetry, but his poem is hardly designed to help readers imagine a change in the social order. At best, The Village acknowledges the plight of the poor in order to persuade those in authority to take their responsibilities more seriously (Hatch 1976: 10-33).

Thus, despite the sympathy both Goldsmith and Crabbe evoke for the poor, neither The Deserted Village nor The Village suggests a new way of thinking, let alone a course of action that would give poor people more power in their society. Indeed, the sympathy of both writers remains framed within Augustan assumptions of a fixed social order. At the same time, however, both of these poems reflect changes in the economy that made the possibility of social change more palpable. Indeed, both Goldsmith and Crabbe participated in these developments: they each wrote about rural life after living in London, center not only of trade but of a burgeoning print culture that provided an arena for both men's work - Goldsmith through his friendship with Samuel Johnson, and Crabbe through the patronage of Edmund Burke. Goldsmith may portray an idealized view of "Sweet Auburn," but he never returned to its model, Lissoy in Ireland, once he had left, despite difficulties earning a living as a writer in London. Crabbe expresses no such ambivalence about leaving Aldeburgh, Suffolk; on the contrary, he "Fled from these shores where guilt and famine reign, / And cry'd, Ah! hapless they who still remain" (i. 123-4). After The Village was published he returned to Aldeburgh briefly as an ordained curate, but soon was hired as chaplain to a noble family in the vale of Belvoir and went to live in their castle. Precisely because these writers so movingly describe a way of life that each of them left behind, these poems call on us to explore the relationship between these writers and their work.

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