When Oliver Goldsmith wrote his 431-line poem in rhyming couplets The Deserted Village (1770), he exhibited the talent for shrewd observation and scene for which he had gained a reputation. He also imbued this idealization of English rural life with the simplicity and unforced grace critics later found his most appealing attributes. He mingles his idealized scenes with memories of his own careless youth in Ireland. While the tone remained light, Goldsmith had a serious concern, that of the effects of the agricultural revolution, which resulted in the enclosure of arable land, often to form private parks or gardens. The Enclosure Acts caused small farmers whose families had earned their living from the land for generations to lose everything. Goldsmith’s sad vision of that displacement incorporates hyperbole, as he exaggerates the resultant migration of yeoman farmers to British cities and to America, as well as the heartless characters of the wealthy. However, his opposition to “luxury” and support of “rural virtue” remained sincere, and his nostalgic tone results in a strong sense of longing for a lifestyle already doomed.
Goldsmith begins in a voice of praise, writing, “Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain,” then praises in his second and third lines the abundance of village life, not only because it produces material results, but because it is a place “Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain, / Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid.” He adopts the figurative language of personification to demonstrate that nature proved kind to Auburn, heavily suggesting that kindness as a result of right living. The speaker notes that summer, slow to part, leaves behind many flowers that offer “lovely bowers of innocence and ease” and informs readers this was where he spent his youth. That adds an authority to the description of a place “Where humble happiness endeared each scene,” Goldsmith’s use of alliteration calling attention to the fact that the inhabitants were marked by humility. His selection of adjectives, as in “sheltered cot,” “never-failing brook,” and “decent church,” all suggest the sterling character of those who reside at Auburn, as well as of nature, which supports it. Readers will later notice a marked contrast between the “laboring swain” and the aggressive, greedy individuals whom, despite laws permitting their actions, Goldsmith envisions as no better than poachers raping the land and destroying its abundance. Many of the early details support this method, suggesting contrast with the descriptions that will occur later in the poem. He concludes the first part of his poem with “These were thy charms—But all these charms are fl ed” in order to signal transition.
In line 36, Goldsmith adds details, which abruptly convert the positive tone to negative, balancing the opening portion. Readers learn that “sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn,” that “the tyrant’s hand” has invaded the bower and “desolation saddens” the green of the village. A new “master grasps the whole domain” (39), while a half-tilled field “stints” the plain. The adjectives turn dark, that rhetorical change echoing the change to Auburn. The brook is “choked”; the bittern, a local bird, is “hollowsounding”; and even the ruin done to the land is “shapeless.” Conditions become so bad that “trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand, / Far, far away thy children leave the land.” The personal possessive pronoun, thy, connotes days past and represents a reverent attitude toward that past. The accumulating wealth of the present leads to human decay. The speaker’s attitude toward the encroachers is one of disdain, then warning, as he notes:
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. (53–56)
The speaker then calls on history to remember a time when “every rood of ground” could support a worker, requiring only “light labor” to spread the earth’s bounty. Goldsmith uses repetition to good effect when he writes of the losses resulting from the arrival of “Unwieldy wealth, and cumbrous pomp”:
These gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that asked but little room,
Those healthful sports that graced the peaceful scene. (69–71)
They have all disappeared along with “rural mirth and manners.”
The speaker next mourns the loss of a peaceful retirement, as his late life stage fills him with concerns. He cannot celebrate the wonderful sounds he used to love, as he recalls at evening’s close,
The swain responsive as the milkmaid sung,
The sober herd that lowed to meet their young,
The noisy geese that gabbled o’er the pool,
The playful children just let loose from school. (117–120)
Now “No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale” and the earth yields a fraction of the bounty it once did. The speaker feels an especial loss when he remembers the village preacher who never sought power, but rather spent his time with vagrants and beggars, considering it an honor as he “relieved their pain.” He extols the virtue of this forgotten individual, remembering the great service he supplied, filling almost an additional 50 lines. This allows Goldsmith not merely to praise the preacher with gushing hyperbole, but to make his case that no such individual exists among the grasping group that displaced the preacher and those to whom he ministered. He does the same for the “village master,” who “taught his little school,” praising the teacher’s good humor and love of learning. A strong example of Goldsmith’s exaggeration may be found in lines 213–216:
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.
The speaker next recalls “transitory splendors,” including physical details about not only the village’s inhabitants but also their homes, with “whitewashed wall” and “nicely sanded floor,” as well as furnishings and a hearth decorated with “aspen boughs, and flowers, and fennel gay” when not being used to protect against the chill. The nostalgic tone proves touching as well as moving, causing the reader to remember his own home. Goldsmith again attacks the intruders, then calls on “Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen,” who witness the change to judge which is superior, the “splendid” and “happy land” or an area to which “rich men flock from all the world around,” purporting to have a wealth that
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds;
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighboring fields of half their growth. (276–280)
Not only have the intruders ruined the property, they have driven the rightful inhabitants away, moving the speaker to ask, “Where then, ah where, shall Poverty reside, / To ‘scape the pressure of contiguous Pride?” He answers his own grim question with an equally grim reply. Some move to the city, where they find only work at a trade that cannot support them, and they suffer mightily. Others leave the country, traveling to a place inhabited only by terrors, including “blazing suns that dart a downward ray,” “Matted woods where birds forget to sing / But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;” and “the dark scorpion gathers death around.” He notes the destruction to local lands but does not ask readers to interfere. Rather, he bids the scene farewell, asking that it continue to remind humans of its existence:
Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
Redress the rigors of the inclement clime;
And slighted truth, with thy persuasive strain
Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain. (421–424)
Goldsmith’s hope made clear in his last few lines is that nature itself can teach man the folly of his ways. His speaker hopes man will eventually learn that “states of native strength,” although “very poor, may still be very blest” and remain far preferable to the devastation caused by the base desires of an arrogant few. Goldsmith’s close friend and confidant Samuel Johnson composed the final four lines:
That Trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the labored mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy
As rocks resist the billows and the sky.
While Goldsmith’s “Auburn” was based on his childhood home of Athlone, Ireland, Auburn was another name for Lissoy Parsonage, where he lived. The Deserted Village inspired the name Auburn for towns the world over.