The Deserted Village Questions and Answers
by Oliver Goldsmith

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What is the meaning of the line "shame in crowd but solitary pride" in The Deserted Village?

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Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village (1770), which he defended as an accurate description of the "the disorders" faced by the rural population of England resulting from the enclosure acts, is both an idealistic view of rural, agricultural life that characterized England throughout most of the eighteenth century and an astute analysis of the detrimental effects of the enclosure acts that came with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In a sense, the poem is an elegy for an ideal pastoral way of life that has passed away, a victim of the forces that are creating a modern, industrialized society. Enclosure Acts took away farm and pasture land used in common by people in rural areas, and the Industrial Revolution drew the dispossessed rural population to cities for employment in new industries.

The line to which you refer comes at the end of the poem and, with other lines, speaks to Goldsmith's lament that poetry, like rural agricultural life, no longer has a role in this new world:

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. (ll. 407-410)

In Goldsmith's view, the enclosure acts destroy the small farmer and encourage large landowners, often absentees, to take once productive land from the entire community and use it for pleasurable pursuits like hunting. With the loss of agricultural life comes a new focus on private pleasure—that is, pleasure experienced by the wealthy on land that once provided pleasure and sustenance to a whole community. The new lifestyle, characterized as "sensual joys," pushes poetry, here personified as a "maid," out of the culture. We are no longer, "in these degenerate times," able to reflect the lives and culture of the common people who once populated the land.

Goldsmith, however, has a realistic view of the benefits and detriments of poetry when he observes that

Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,/My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;/Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,/Thou found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so. (ll. 411-414)

Poetry, which has gone out of fashion in this new world, embarrasses him to acknowledge publicly to a world that does not value it. But at the same time, Goldsmith acknowledges that although poetry has imposed poverty on him, it is the "source of all my bliss." In other words, he is hesitant to admit in public his love of poetry, but it is his private joy. And he understands that his pursuit of poetry has kept him poor, a state that he seems comfortable with.

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