The Deserted Village

by Oliver Goldsmith

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Last Updated on November 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

Introduction

“The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith details a once-lovely town by the name of Auburn. At one point, it was the speaker’s nostalgic paradise. Now, though, Auburn has been altered by greed and modernization, causing its residents to desert the hamlet—much to the speaker’s chagrin. Goldsmith’s poem was published in 1770.

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Summary

"The Deserted Village" begins with a description of the once-charming eponymous village's former allure, including characterizations of specific people and their interactions. The town of the speaker’s youth has beautiful weather, complete with a brook and expansive green space. There was a church at the top of the hill. In the trees and bushes, young lovers “whispered.” The narrator emphasizes the “humble” nature of the town that seems to exude contentment. All in all, the Auburn that the speaker remembers is a nostalgic, idealized village of his youth. By line 34, however, it is clear that this is no longer the case.

The speaker then proceeds to describe the village coming into disarray. The culprit appears to be the "man of wealth and pride" who is responsible for the village's desolation. Goldsmith’s narrator chastises him for his enjoyment of the resources "extorted from his fellow-creature's woe." The speaker explains how this man is responsible for forcing the village's inhabitants to go abroad to "distant climes" that are full of horrors in order to survive. He describes the process of their farewell. Now, the village is only inhabited by birds who echo out “hollow” calls. Houses have caved in. Everyone else seems to have left in pursuit of the city. Greed has propelled them forward, forever altering the fate of Auburn. The speaker notes that the peaceful, rural lifestyle has decayed.

The narrator of “The Deserted Village” claims to have been looking forward to retiring in his home of Auburn. He is saddened by the fact that this will not happen given the decrepit state of the village. He bears witness to the reality of the place, turning “past into pain.” The mundane features of the town flood his memory. At one point, children merrily returned home from school. With the squawking of geese or the barking of dogs absent, the “sounds of population fail.” Now, the only inhabitant of the town is an elderly “matron.” She is forced to forage for food and firewood. This woman suffers in the once-great village.

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The speaker recalls the preacher and the schoolmaster. He even begins to see through some of his nostalgia in a bittersweet, comical light. The poem concludes with the speaker expanding into a broader characterization of how the desire for wealth is destroying the good things in the world, as people come to value things that have no true worth and will ultimately decay. If the rich push out the poor, rural communities, where will they have left to go? Will they be left in squalor? The people of Auburn were clearly content at one point according to the narrator. He mourns their departure and the subsequent decline of the town.

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