Oliver Goldsmith uses an array of little details to breathe life into the political purpose of his nostalgic long poem
Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village is both a marvellous descriptive poem and a powerful political essay. Polemic comes alive when it is grounded in detail, and Goldsmith conducts his argument using an expansive array of vivid supporting material – topographies, interiors, and sharp human portraits. The passage chosen for this week's poem is the best-known of those portraits. It provides an affectionate, humorous moment of respite from the surging emotions that carry the poem on its flood-tide of nostalgia, lamentation and invective.
Goldsmith's "Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain" is fictional, or at least a composite. The poet is blending recollections of the Irish village of his boyhood, Lissoy, and the fruits of his more recent travels through the villages of England, which had undergone similar enclosures and depopulation. Goldsmith's political argument is also a moral one, and the "shapeless ruin" he sees in the landscape reflects the decadence produced by the pursuit of luxury. The enclosures are aggravated by what might be called "privatisation by life-style", as "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."
So, in the second line of the extract, we have the telling description of the furze blossom as "unprofitably gay". The school-master is a partly comic figure, but he too values something besides profit: learning. We are invited to see him through the villagers' eyes. The parson probably considers him a windbag. Others naively admire him for unexceptional skills such as the ability "to write, and cipher, too". However, some of those listed qualifications are practical and worth passing on, and there seems no irony in the claim that "Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage." He amounts to more than a pedant.
The next section introduces the village pub, and its details are recounted with much charm. Like the school-house, this building is described as a "mansion" (although now a tottering one), signalling the reverence for communal values. These shared places are the real wealth of the country, not the private estates. Of course, the poem is selective and village life idealised, even if the ideal is attainable compared with that of conventional pastoral. Conversely, emigration is viewed thoroughly negatively as a horrible journey into wilderness. But then, this is a poem of exile – written by an exile. The loss of the connective tissue between a land and its people was also Goldsmith's personal, individual experience. He struggled for survival in England and remained impoverished until the end of his life. The only way home was on that twin-rigged sailing ship of his imagination.
The Deserted Village
Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way, With blossomed furze unprofitably gay, There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule, The village master taught his little school; A man severe he was, and stern to view; I knew him well, and every truant knew; Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace The day's disasters in his morning face; Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee, At all his jokes, for many a joke had he; Full well the busy whisper, circling round, Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned; Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught, The love he bore to learning was in fault. The village all declared how much he knew; 'Twas certain he could write, and cipher too; Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage, And even the story ran that he could gauge. In arguing too, the parson owned his skill, For e'en though vanquished, he could argue still; While words of learned length and thundering sound Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around, And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew That one small head could carry all he knew. But past is all his fame. The very spot Where many a time he triumphed is forgot. Near yonder thorn, that lifts its head on high, Where once the signpost caught the passing eye, Low lies that house where nut-brown draughts inspired, Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retired, Where village statesmen talked with looks profound, And news much older than their ale went round. Imagination fondly stoops to trace The parlour splendours of that festive place: The white-washed wall, the nicely sanded floor, The varnished clock that clicked behind the door; The chest contrived a double debt to pay, – A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day; The pictures placed for ornament and use, The twelve good rules, the royal game of goose; The hearth, except when winter chilled the day, With aspen boughs, and flowers, and fennel gay; While broken teacups, wisely kept for show, Ranged o'er the chimney, glistened in a row. Vain transitory splendours! Could not all Reprieve the tottering mansion from its fall!