The Deserted Village

Introduction

The Deserted Village is a masterpiece by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774). The poem was first written on May 26, 1770. A heavy infusion of personal feeling indicates that Auburn may have been the Irish village of Lissoy, Goldsmith’s childhood.

Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Desert Village’ depicts simple rustic life and happiness. He is tormented by the loss of this presence. There are signs of decay everywhere. The rich usurp the legitimate land of the poor dispossessing him and forcing him to emigrate. Throughout his life, he cherished the possibility of returning to his native village and spending the last few years of his life in peace and quiet. He had dreamed of dazzling the rustic friends of his youth with his expertise and his experience. His sincere hope was that after life’s vexations had ended, he would return to this home and die in the midst of his much-loved surroundings. But these hopes have now been absolutely shattered. It would have been a joy for him if he could retire from a life of temptation and spend his days in such a place. For that man alone should be grateful that his fellow men do not have to work with the sweetness of their brows and face the hazards of deep mines and stormy seas. Life in retirement is the experience of heavenly bliss; for death comes to such a man with easy grace, and his days are made smooth by resignation to his lot.

Thoughts of retirement revive the memory of the harmony and blessedness of Auburn in the poet’s mind as it used to be in his childhood days. He remembers with enjoyment the mixed sounds that emerged in the village at the dawn of the evening, the singing of the milkmaid, the humming of the cows, the cackling of the geese, the happy shouts of the school children. The barking of guard dogs, and above all the carefree laughter of innocent minds. But the comparison he’s feeling now is disturbing. There is no sound to be heard on the wind of the evening. Just one poor window remains a witness to all that the village had been; now, in her old age, she is forced to collect water-cress for her food and faggots to keep her warm. She alone can tell Auburn’s sad tale in its transition from prosperity to desolation.

Summary Of The Deserted Village

In the famous poem, The Deserted Village, which was published in 1770, Oliver Goldsmith revisits Auburn- a village of which he had fond memories. It marks the depopulation brought about through the emigration of its peasant community and the influx of monopolising capitalists. Goldsmith mourns over the unfortunate and morbid state of society in which “wealth accumulates and men decay.” Using images of the land in the poem, he conveyed the sense of what it was like to live in the country during the phase of burgeoning and modernization and how it had systematically grabbed the land of the native inhabitants. Their industrious efforts to maintain it had gone waste.

During the period when The Deserted Village was written, the labouring classes were in a very unfortunate situation: Changes in land ownership had led to shortages in labour and abject poverty had become the inevitable destiny of the working class. Small farmers were forced out of their possessions in the countryside. The big landowners rolled in riches and lived ostensibly in luxury. They caused bitter heart burning, moral indignation and poverty to the working class. The poet and social reformers were not unaware of this stark reality and thus a larger fraction of poetry made a choice of the suffering labouring class and the excessive growth of luxuries and wealth of the bourgeois as its major themes. Therefore Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village is a critique of luxury, or alternatively an engagement with the reality of miserable life of the labouring class. Oliver Goldsmith dedicated this poem to Sir Joshua Reynolds and conveyed to him his personal reasons for writing it about the depopulation of the English countryside. He was sure that the poetic fraternity would disagree with his depiction of the countryside as a God-forsaken place of misfortune, desolation and adversity:
He justified his motive in the following lines:

“I know you all will object (and indeed several of our best and wisest friends concur in the opinion) that the depopulation it deplores is nowhere to be seen, and the disorders it laments are only to be found in the poet’s own imagination. To this, I can scarcely make any other answer than that I sincerely believe what I have written; that I have taken all possible pains, in my country excursions, for these four or five years past, to be certain of what I allege, and that all my views and enquiries have led me to believe those miseries real, which I here attempt to display.” This assertion underlines Oliver Goldsmith’s attachment and an unfailing sense of belonging to the natives of the countryside. He believes that it is vital that their lives were portrayed truthfully and lucidly, perhaps without the characteristic frills of pastoral poetry. However, in the same letter, he goes on to write, “In regretting the depopulation of the country, I inveigh against the increase of our luxuries……. For twenty or thirty 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.” This second and the more strongly worded argument indicates that Oliver Goldsmith was morally indignant by the sinister spell of the luxury in England. Surprisingly enough James Boswell- the biographer of Dr Johnson- records in his Life of Samuel Johnson that it was Dr Johnson himself who wrote the last four lines of The Deserted Village. “Dr Johnson …… favoured me by marking the lines which he furnished to Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, which are only the last four.” These lines are the following:

That Trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay As ocean sweeps the labour’d mole away,

While self-development power can time defy As rocks resist the billows and the sky.

(ll. 427-430)

Goldsmith had his grand-nephew who also had his Christian name “Oliver”. He wrote a poem by way of response to his grand-uncle- Oliver Goldsmith. The title of his poem reads The Rising Village in which younger ‘Oliver’ elaborates the rise of communities in Acadia (the area covers Nova Scotia and New Bronswick in Canada now) His response is suggestive of newer opportunities in the world. The Rising Village was published in 1825.

The Substance of The Deserted Village

1. The Scenario of Auburn Prior to Modernization

The poet feels rather nostalgic as he falls into reminiscences of early years. He had preoccupied himself with boyish sports in those days and loitered in the verderous and charming countryside. He had noticed ‘the shelter’d cot”, “the cultivated farm”, and “the hawthorn bush” He relished being under the shadowy sprawling trees and idled away his time. There was a church on the top of the “neighbouring” hill overlooking the village. The countryside was a familiar resort for old and young alike. It was a veritable ‘arcadia’ for young lovers’ clandestine rendezvous.

“The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,

For talking age and whispering lovers made!

……….

And all the village train, from labour free Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree!

………

And still, as each repeated pleasure tired Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspired

………

The swain mistrustless* of his smutted face,

While secret laughter litter’d round the place,

The bashful virgin’s side-long looks of love,

The matron’s glance that would look reprove.

These were thy charms, sweet village/ sports like these.”

ll (13-31)

Goldsmith recreates the atmosphere of the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The poet seems to record the bucolic paradisal scenario of the charming countryside before the process of urbanization/ modernization would destroy it. But the “charms” as depicted (in the lines quoted above) fled away:

“These were the charms- but all these charms are fled.

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,

Thy sports are fled, and thy charms wuithdrawn;

But the charms of the rural scenario were evenescent. ‘The tyrant’s hand’ ransacks everything-

Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand* is seen, And Desolation saddens the green:

One only master grasps the whole domain,

And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.”

L 8(37-40)

A change for the worse takes place. Small peasants are the losers of their farms as one big landlord usurps them all. “The tyrant’s hand” is “The spoiler’s hand”

“Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all

And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall

And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand Far, far away thy children leave the land”

( ll 47-50)

The veritable paradise that the countryside was, was ruined. The ‘sweet’ village became desolate as the natives left it for good. Depopulation of peasants thus led to the desolation of the village. It surely doesn’t augur well:

Ill fares the land, to hasting ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. Princes and Lords may flourish, or may fade;

A breath can make them, as a breath has made:

But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,

When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

Goldsmith believes that tampering with tillage and peasantry will incur a permanent national loss. Peasanty, therefore, should not be destroyed or displaced at any cost. The poet regrets that capitalists/ haves who have come into money by trade, buy the land for purpose of pleasure and display by dispossession peasantry.

“But times are altered; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land, and dispossess the swain; Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose, unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;”

The bucolic scenario has undergone a drastic change! The rural spectacle has turned rurarban and would-be urban very soon. The peasants before the process burgeoning began, were very complacent and innocent people. They were ignorant of mercenary motives. They lived apparently calm and quiet lives like the village as described in Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”

Goldsmith describes the peasants of Auburn-

“A time there was,……………………..

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;

And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.”

The villagers of Auburn and those of the countryside as described in Gray’s Elegy are more or less the same. It is not unusual that Gray and Goldsmith as brilliant contemporaries strike similar notes. The English peasantry, apparently, with its ‘calm desires’ and ‘peaceful’ life-style was not ‘demanding’ by nature. It was self-satisfied by ‘rural mirth and manners’. But the change has destroyed all that was happy, innocent and healthy.

“These, far departing, seek a kinder shore, And rural mirth and manners are no more,

Sweet Auburn! parent of the blissful hour

Thy glades forlorn confess the tyrant’s power, ……………..”

When the poet revisited the village, he remembered the place where ‘Once the collage stood, the hawthorn grew-’ and his nostalgic memories “turned the past to pain.”

The earlier rural perspectives of greenery, cottages, hawthorn bushes, humble bowers, were inspiring enough ‘to husband out’ ‘life’s taper’ and ‘keep the flame from wasting, by repose.’ The poet ‘felt like a hare’ whom ‘hounds and horns’ pursued. The very environment seems rather hostile and the poet as visitor experienced a sense of “resignation.”

Sweet sounds ‘at evening’s close,’ “the village murmur,” ‘The swain responsive as the milk-maid sung,’ ‘the noisy geese that gobbled o’er the pool,’ ‘the playful children just let loose from school’; ‘the watch-dog’s voice that bay’d the whispering wind’………….. all this ‘sweet confusion’ has disappeared for ever and for ever. What remains is desolation and ruined hamlet.

“But now the sounds of population fail.

No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,

No busy steps the grass-grown footway tread

But all the bloomy flush of life is fled-

All but yon widow’d, solitary thing,

That feebly bends beside the plashy spring,

She, wretched matron,- forced, in age, for bread,

To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,

To pick her wintry faggot from the thorn,

To seek her nightly shed, weep till morn,-

She only left of all the harmless train,

The sad historian of the pensive plain.”

ll. 125-136

It is a pathetic scene of desolation, ruin and depopulation. It is no exaggeration to state that it is in such lines that Goldsmith’s pen acquires the quality of the brush. The poet becomes the painter of human suffering caused by penury. Picturesqueness is an invevitable characteristic of Goldsmith’s poetry. It has been amply illustrated in The Deserted Village.

2. The Pen-Portrait of The Village

The poet introduces the village preacher. Geoffrey Chaucer introduced the Parson in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. He follows Chaucer’s method of character portraiture in the following lines:

Near Yonder copse, where once the garden smiled,

And still where many garden-flower grows wild,

There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,

The village preacher’s modest mansion rose

A man he was to all the country dear,

And passing rich with forty pounds a year.

Remote from towns he ran his goldy race,

Nor e’er had changed, nor wished to change, his place;

Unskilful he to fawn, or seek for power By doctrines fashion’d to the varying hour,

For other aims his heart had learn’d to Prize.

More bent to raise the wretched than to rise,

His house was known to all the vagrant train;

He chid their wanderings, but relieved their pain;

The long-remember’d beggar was his guest,

Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;

The ruin’d spendthrift, now no longer proud

Claimed kindred there, and had his claims allow’d.

ll. (137-154)

This passage is reminiscent of Chaucer’s pen-portrait of the Parson in The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Let me quote the relevant lines of Parson’s description from Chaucer’s Prologue.

A good man was ther of religioun,

And was poure Persoun of a toun;

But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk;

He was also a learned man, a clerk,

That Cristes gopel trewely wolde preche;

His parishens devoutly wolde he teche;

Benygne he was, and wonder dilight.

And in adversitee ful pacient;

…………….

He coude in litel thyng have suffiaunce:

……………

This noble ensample to his sheepe he yaf. That firste he wroghte and afterward he taughte,

Out of the gospel he tho wordes caughte.

And this figure he added eek therto, That if gold ruste what shal iren doo ?

…………..

But dwelte at hoom and kepte wel his folde

So that the wolf ne made it not myscarie,

He was a shepherde, and nought a mercenarie,

And though he hooly were and virtuous.

………….

But in his techyng discreet and benygne.

………….

A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys:

He waited after no pomp and reverence,

Ne maked him a spiced conscience,

But Cristes loore, and his Apostles twelve, He taughte, but first he folwed it hym-selve.

ll. (478-529)

The village preacher in The Deserted Village is portrayed in the manner of Chaucer’s art of characterization and personal portraiture. It is really very surprising how perfectly Goldsmith imitates Chaucer. The village preacher not only had ‘the milk of human kindness’ but he was the very cow. He shared the qualities of Chaucer’s Parson:

The broken soldier, kindly bid to stay,

Sat by his fire, and talk’d the night away;

Wept o’er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,

Shoulder’d his crutch, and show’d how fields were won.

Pleased with his guests, the good man learn’d to glow,

And quite forgot their vices in their woe;

Careless their merits or their faults to scan,

His pity gave are charity began,

Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,

And even his failings lean’d to virtue’s side;

But is his duty prompt at every call,

………as a bird each fond endearment tries

To tempt its new-fledged offspring to the skies,………..

ll. (155-168)

The village preacher of The Deserted Village is a true Christian. He has compassion, mercy, the sentiment of selfless service. His heart goes out for the wretched, invalid and unfortunate people. What Jesus Christ was to lepers, the village preacher was to the suffering natives of the place. He went out of the way to console and comfort them and enlightened them as a paragon of virtues- his personality was ideally compatible with his religious and spiritual preoccupations. The welfare of the suffering wretches pleased him beyond measure. The poet, in his mind’s eye, saw an aura of divinity about the preacher though he was nearly always surrounded by suffering and unfortunate villagers.

“But all his serious thoughts had rest in heaven.

As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form.

Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread, The eternal sunshine settles on its head.”
ll 182-192

3. The Portrayal of the Village Master

The portrayal of the village master follows immediately after that of the village preacher. This teacher looked apparently very strict. Every truant knew his tough exterior and could trace the day’s disasters in his morning face. Even if the students did not understand his jokes, they giggled with artificial joy. At times he frowned but he was kind at heart.

A man severe he was, and stern to view;

I knew him well, and every truant knew:

Well had the boding tremblers learn’d to trace

The days disasters in his morning face;

Full well they laugh’d with counterfieted glee,

At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;

Full well the busy whisper, circling round,

Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frown’d.

Yet he was kind,……………

ll. (196-205)

The natives of the village wondered at his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge and skill. He could make predictions about “terms and tides,” 24 he could measure ‘lands’, he could even ‘gauge’ 25 and he could argue very well. The rustics were amazed with his thundering elocution and learned words. They wondered how his small head had such a vast fund of knowledge:

“…….For even though vanquish’d he counld 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.”

ll.212-216

The poet further describes that ‘past is all fame’ The very spot where he ‘triumphed’ is forgotten. The poet describes nostalgically how the place gives a desolate and deserted look. The ‘parlour splendours’ of the ‘festive place’ are gone for good. Goldsmith with his camera-eye narrates the ‘transitory splendours’ of Auburn:

Near yonder thorn, that lifts its head on high.

Where once the sign-post caught the passing eye.

Now lies that house where nut-brown draughts inspired,

Where gray-beard mirth and smiling toil retired,

Where village statesmen talked with looks profound,

And news much older than their ale went around.

……………..

The white wash’d wall, the nicely sanded floor,

The varnish’d clock that click’d behind the door,

The chest,………….

A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day,

The pictures placed for ornament and use,

The twelve good rules, royal game of goose,

The hearth, except when winter chill’d the day,

With aspens boughs, and flowers, and fennels gay;

ll. (219-234)

The poet regards that the tottering mansion of the master might crumble down to debris any time. This was the place when the villagers flocked to ease their tensions and dissensions of their humdrum existence. They felt relieved of their ‘daily care’. This was the place where ‘the farmer’s news’, ‘the barber’s tale,’ ‘the woodman’s ballad’ refreshed them. The coy maid passed on to them a cup of foaming ale. This rural environment was very congenial, salutary, charming, artless, and spontaneous. There was no affectation or undue sophistication. There was a mirthful and frolicsome lifestyle- unenvied, unmolested, and unconfined.

Important Questions

Q. What does Goldsmith records in the Deserted Village?
Ans. The Deserted Village records Oliver Goldsmith’s deep grievance against aggressive burgeoning and undesirable urbanization. He regards how the capitalists have requisitioned and usurped the land of small peasants.

Q. What is a locale in poem called?

Ans. The locale is a village called ‘Auburn’.

Q. To whom is the poem dedicated?

Ans. The poet is dedicated the poem to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Q. Who was Sir Joshua Reynold?

Ans. Sir Joshua Reynolds was a distinguished member of Dr Samuel Johnson’s circle of learned friends and associates.

Q. What does Goldsmith regrets?

Ans. Goldsmith regrets the phase of depopulation of the peasants and dispossession of their lands. It caused object misery and poverty.

Q. Who wrote the last four lines of The Deserted Village?

Ans. The last four lines of The Deserted Village were written by Dr Samuel Johnson.
There is Boswell’s evidence available about it.

Q. Why is countryside depicted as Paradise?

Ans. The countryside as depicted by the poet is very much like Paradise as it was a tranquil happy, beautiful, unpolluted place before modernization took place.

Q. What are capitalists visualised as?

Ans. The capitalists are visualised as tyrants ransacking the charming countryside for commercial gain.

Q. Which characters are realistically drawn and can be compared to whom?

Ans. The character sketches of the village preacher and the village master are realistically worked out. The method, as resorted to by Goldsmith, reminds us of Chaucer’s style of characterization in The Prologue to Canterbury Tales.

Q. Explain how the poet was in his true self?

Ans. The feelings of the poet are genuine. His heart goes out for the peasantry of the countryside.

Q. What does the poet disapprove?

Ans. The poet disapproves of luxury and pomp and show of the capitalist class.

Q. What is the usefulness of Goldsmith’s Deserted Village in present India?

Ans. Thematically, The Deserted Village has relevance in the present phase of development in India. In the private sector, the capitalists are requisitioning rather usurping the agricultural lands of small peasants to build industrial or residential complexes in the rural pockets.

Q. Who appreciated Oliver Goldsmith as a genius?

Ans. Dr Samuel Johnson appreciated Oliver Goldsmith as a genius.

The Deserted Village: Sum and Substance and Questions and Answers

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