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.

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“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.”

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

The Deserted Village: Sum and Substance and Questions and Answers

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