This paper develops the argument that the poem The Deserted Village by 18th century British poet Oliver Goldsmith is neither a political tract nor a socio-political statement that seeks revolutionary changes but a work of art. As a pastoral poem, it is a valuable specimen of 18th century English literature in which the laboring class and the growth of luxury are a recurring theme. The Introduction notes the various interpretations of the poem and the possible reasons for such divergence of views. The next section discusses the setting or environment that may have influenced the writing and modes of the poem, while the section on Theme assesses the inspiration and motives that drove the poet in the process of writing. The fourth section describes the characteristics of the literary output in England during the 18th century, during which the heroic couplet was popular. The concluding remarks are presented in the final section.
During the course of the last two centuries, the semantics of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village has been examined from a variety of perspectives and ascribed different shades of meaning. Some early literary critics suggested that Goldsmith’s “pastoral idealism” inspired the writing of the poem which was considered his masterpiece. Other critics disparaged this poem as the communist manifesto of the 18th century, referring to the work of Karl Marx a century later that questioned the established order and all cherished norms and values. In this view, The Deserted Village is a socio-political statement that sprung from a revolutionary streak in Goldsmith’s character. This paper proposes that in the poem, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) was a poet first and foremost who was only expressing the mode of his time. The 18th century until 1785 was a period of great expansion for Britain, during which it was touted as a nation on which the sun never set. This transformed the British way of thinking about their relationships with nature and with each other as daily life was influenced by new possibilities and modern problems (Norton Anthology, p. 1). One of the changes was the movement from the country to the town, and in cities themselves new sources of interest began to drown traditional values. Thus, Goldsmith was only celebrating the simple life that was being threatened by what appeared to people then as new and strange ideas brought by modernism.
Oliver Goldsmith lived in the middle of 18th century England when the Restoration and Neoclassical literature dominated the scene. There are three periods of British literature – 18th century, Romantic and Victorian literature. From Ireland, Goldsmith settled in London in 1756 when England’s laboring class was in dire straits. Changes in land ownership had led to labor shortages and poverty, with small farmers driven from the countryside to accommodate development and the British were becoming keen on luxuries and material possessions. When Goldsmith wrote The Deserted Village much of the poetry produced at the time in fact used the laboring class and the growth of luxury as key theme. In a dedication to the book he gave to a friend, Goldsmith noted: “For 20 of the 30 years past, it has been the fashion to consider luxury as one of the greatest national advantages… Still however I continue to think those luxuries prejudicial to states, by which so many vices are introduced and so many kingdoms have been undone.”
According to Hughes (p. 2), Goldsmith merely expressed these 18th century ideas in The Deserted Village that demonstrates a mastery of the heroic couplet, a major poetic form during the period. A reading of the first few lines of the poem quickly gives away the poet’s message: that the simplicity of rural life represents a supreme aesthetic value.
How often have I loiter’d o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene.
This theme recurs throughout the poem, indicating that the author indeed idealized the bucolic rural living and greenery while at the same time inveighing against the rush for material wealth and mindless development. Here Goldsmith may have sounded like Karl Marx but the former never preached taking up arms to reverse the trend. He simply wrote about his views in a personal, moving and aphoristic fashion for the poem to become one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language. Literary historian Arturo Lutz in his article The Politics of Reception: The Case of Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village noted: “The image of the self-sufficient owner-occupier, content with producing enough to satisfy his own needs within a largely self-contained village economy, becomes visible in the poem as a moment of discontinuity in an economy that was geared towards the production of surplus (Lutz, p. 181).” The following line speaks for itself:
A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintain’d 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.
Goldsmith most definitely does not talk of simple living as something worthy of admiration but as an instrument for preventing simple folks from being spoiled by corruption and vices often engendered by the accumulation of riches and luxuries. In another critique, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller and The Deserted Village: Moral Economy of Landscape Representation, Roman Kazmin believes that the ideal life for Goldsmith is one in which there is a harmonious balance between man and nature: “Luxury is then an excessive, unbalanced abuse of nature because nature is depleted and ruined through excessive extraction for the production of luxuries (Kazmin, p. 666).” This suggests that Goldsmith’s poem warned against a national decadence similar to the fall of the Roman Empire, which is the thesis put forward by Kazmin. Reference is made on Edward Gibson’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which happened in the 5th century because of the Romans’ obsession with the accumulation of luxuries and pleasures. However, a close reading of The Deserted Village reveals that the author does not predict such a cataclysmic event for the British people. His only concern was how development and modernity made the strong stronger and the weak weaker and the way the nouveau riche flout their wealth.
Along the town, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every want to luxury allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
Therefore we cannot agree with the critics who suggest that Goldsmith’s poem promotes “class struggle” with the same conviction as Karl Marx. The reason is that nowhere in the poem did the author mention a defect in the political system with the same gravity as that in Marx’s time. Again here is Kazmin: “Goldsmith emphasizes the irrationality of the new landowner whose immoderation and irrational spending have ruined the land that produced enough crops to support a small community. But luxury cannot originate in England as it is unnatural to the English landscape, and therefore had to be imported from abroad (Kazmin, p. 666).” Still, Goldsmith was not giving up hope for his believed Auburn as he pleads with his poetic muse towards the end of the poem:
Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
Redress the rigours of th’ inclement clime;
Aid slighted truth, with thy persuasive strain
Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
Teach him that states of native strength possest,
Though very poor, may still be very blest;
That trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the labour’d mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy,
As rocks resist the billows and the sky.
In effect, Goldsmith was saying that the “erring man” can mend his ways if taught to “spurn the rage of gain.” He also believes that the “very poor may still be blessed” and although trade may hasten the decay of a “proud empire” and the ocean “sweeps the labored mole away,” the rocks will “resist the billows and the sky.” In the same manner, Goldsmith castigates the politicians who seemed to have looked the other way while the rich used the poor but there are gains to be counted and the useful products are “still the same”:
Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey
The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay,
‘Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.
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.
The apparent progressiveness of political ideas contained in “The Deserted Village” had prompted many critics to refer to Goldsmith’s poem as a purveyor of the spirit of republicanism. Says Lutz: “Many elements of republican discourse, such as its concern with corruption, with the rise of party differences, and with the pernicious influence of luxury are reflected in the Deserted Village (Lutz, p. 191).” However, Goldsmith’s poem is anything but egalitarian or rationally positivist since the author does not criticize the principles of social hierarchy and only exposes many of those “natural-born rulers” who do not deserve the right to exercise political authority due to their existential decadence and their hypertrophied sense of greed:
Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divides,
And even the bare-worn common is denied.
In his other article, The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre, Lutz refers to Goldsmith as a monarchist. ‘”Goldsmith is often regarded as a Tory and a staunch supporter of the royal prerogative. Certainly, he could not imagine any functional form of government but a monarchy. He was afraid of the aristocratic interest – the great on one hand and the rabble or popular freedom on the other (Lutz, 184). Thus, given Goldsmith’s idealization of country living (“blood and soil”) and the fact that The Deserted Village contains both republican and monarchist leanings, the poet could be one of the ideological precursors of national-socialism even though he was unaware of how people’s racial affiliation affects their behavior. As with Gibbon’s theory on the fall of the Roman Empire, The Deserted Village promotes the idea that “fish begins to rot from its head.” Nonetheless, Goldsmith shows signs that he expects better days ahead:
And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
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 excel,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well
Farewell, and oh! where’er thy voice be tried,
On Torno’s cliffs, or Pambamarca’s side,
Whether where equinoctial fervours glow,
Or winter wraps the polar world in snow,
Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
Redress the rigours of th’ inclement clime;
Aid slighted truth, with thy persuasive strain
18th Century Poetry
British literature in the 18th century was in transition, coming after the great works of William Shakespeare and John Milton and before the English romantics typified by Wordsworth. This period is notable for satiric poetry in heroic couplets (Norton Anthology, 2). So is it possible that Oliver Goldsmith intended his The Deserted Village as a poetic satire? From his biography, it was shown that education gave Goldsmith a taste for fineries and playing cards, the very excesses that he denounces in the poem. Had he truly sensed that Britain was on the road to self-destruction, he would not have chosen to settle in London in 1756 where he lived until his death in 1774. It would then be inappropriate to compare his poem with the book of Gibson as a work of hate against the triumph of barbarism and religion. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published as a six-book volume between 1776 and 1788 and was promptly banned in England and several other countries because of its tirades against religion. There was no such hatred in Goldsmith’s poem, whose only criticism is its pessimistic outlook. This was rectified by a grandnephew a full century later with the poem The Rising Village. The poem by the younger Oliver Goldsmith was published in London in 1825 and reissued in Canada in 1834 where the poet has resettled. While The Deserted Village is a commentary on the vile world created by socio-economic development, The Rising Village looks at this development with pleasure (Hughes, 1). Both poems were written in heroic couplets except that the poem of the younger Goldsmith is 132 lines longer and adds two ill-starred lovers.
From the above discussion, we come to the conclusion that Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village is not a revolutionary tract as some critics would lead us to believe. Since it does not contain a strong political statement it has offended no one in the same manner as Gibson’s work or that of Karl Marx. The literary merit of Goldsmith’s poem is such that it has become one of the most read and most quoted poems from the 18th century. It is simply a celebration of the simplicity of rural life which characterizes most of the English literature written during that period, and a commentary on the inroads of economic growth that turns plains and greeneries into cement and steel. Inwardly, the poet hopes that everything will turn alright.
- Goldsmith, Oliver. “The Deserted Village.” Webpage design. 2008.
- Gibbon, Edward. “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” London: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- Hughes, Kenneth J. “Oliver Goldsmith’s The Rising Village.” Webpage design. 2009.
- Kazmin, Roman. “Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller and The Deserted Village: Moral
- Economy of Landscape Representation.” English Studies (87) 6, 2006: 653-668.
- Lutz, Alfred. “The Politics of Reception: The Case of Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village.” Studies in Philosophy (95) 2, 1998a: 96-174.
- Lutz, Alfred. “The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre.” Modern Language Quarterly (55) 2, 1998b: 149-200.
- Norton Anthology of English Literature. “The Restoration and the 18th Century:
- Topics.” Webpage design. 2009.
Goldsmith was an Anglo-Irish poet who wrote the pastoral poem in memory of a brother and the village of Auburn. After he resettled in London, he held various jobs and became addicted to gambling but he rose to become one of the most famous literary figures in 18th century England.
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was an English historian and member of parliament whose 6-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire brought him in collision with Church authorities.
Kenneth Hughes, Roman Kazmin and Alfred Lutz are literary critics who write regularly about ancient and modern literature to various literary journals.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an educational website specializing in English literature.