Analysis

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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

As Raymond Williams states in The Country and the City, his classic study of depictions of the rural life in English literature, Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village" has

a Romantic structure of feeling... We can catch its echoes, exactly, in Blake, in Wordsworth, and in Shelley.

While it is...

(The entire section contains 1358 words.)

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As Raymond Williams states in The Country and the City, his classic study of depictions of the rural life in English literature, Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village" has

a Romantic structure of feeling... We can catch its echoes, exactly, in Blake, in Wordsworth, and in Shelley.

While it is commonplace in our day to think of rural people in terms of purity, nobility of character, and virtues built through hard work, religious piety, and simple living, this was not always the case. Before the Romantic period, the rural poor were usually depicted in poetry and drama as either static backdrops to the wealthy, with no more individuality than sheep, or even as "clowns." Even a humane playwright like Shakespeare often uses rustic characters for comic relief, emphasizing their buffoonery. We see this, for example, in the rustic artisans in A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the other hand, in poems such as Ben Jonson's To Penshurst, the rural laborers are a mere backdrop in an Edenic universe in which willing fish jump out of streams and fruit falls off the vine.

Although considered a precursor to the Romantics rather than a true Romantic poet, Goldsmith, in his poems of sentiment (meaning they were written primarily to evoke strong feelings) sets the stage for what the Romantic poets will make central to their credo. A poem like "The Deserted Village" has many Romantic themes: it exalts the common person and depicts him or her as praiseworthy and virtuous, it attacks the wealthy for their vices, and it depicts nature and the rural life as superior to the corrupting forces of civilization and the city.

The rural swains in "The Deserted Village" are not clowns, nor are they scenic backdrop: they are central to the poem. Their virtues—uncomplaining hard work, loyalty, love and faithfulness—are integral to making England what it is. Their loss—whether due to emigration, migration to cities, or death—is a blow to the character of England itself. The self-centeredness of the landowners who enclose common spaces to gratify their egos with lakes and parks are undermining the very virtues embodied in the poor that make England great.

Goldsmith is part of a new turn in literature that locates greatness not in military leaders, kings, or aristocrats, but rather in the common people.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

The Deserted Village is a long poem, its 430 lines distributed among twenty-five verse paragraphs of varying length. All the lines are given in heroic couplets. It is clear that Oliver Goldsmith as poet is the persona of the poem. The first-person narration is used to express a lamentation, as it were, for the passing of a way of life.

The meaning of the title is readily evident; it not only lists the poem’s subject, but suggests its theme as well. Roughly, the poem can be divided into three main sections: a description of the village as it used to be at the time of the poet’s youth; a description of the village “today,” in the poet’s maturity; and the concluding section that somewhat details life in America, where the occupants of Auburn have gone.

“Sweet Auburn” has been identified as Lissoy, Ireland, the poet’s hometown. In the first paragraphs of the poem, Auburn is, strangely enough, described as if it were an English town—a fact that makes for what often has been called the only genuine weakness of the work. The details and images of life in this rustic village are consistently English: Indeed, the poet directly refers to England at the beginning of the fourth paragraph. He creates a picture of rustic life in England when times were simpler; land was owned and used commonly by farmers; the people were good and united by common purpose, integrity, and society; and all lived in accord with nature.

All of this is gone now. The poet explains that he had intended to retire in Auburn, where he had fantasized that nightly around a fire on the village common he would tell tales and share with villagers his book-learning and other experiences. He has returned to find the village deserted, in a state of disuse and decay. As he surveys the empty village, images and memories abound; in particular, he recalls the village preacher, a goodly sort who had fed beggars and earned the respect of the villagers: “Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway/ And fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray.” Similarly, the village schoolmaster, though a tyrant in the classroom, was given a special place of honor in the community because of his singular knowledge. Goldsmith’s intention to return to the home of his youth and be held in similar regard has been thwarted.

The village is deserted because its occupants have been forced to leave. The government had put an end to the common land that gave rise to the social order and livelihood of the villagers, who were left either to move to a city or migrate to America. Goldsmith recognizes in this the passing of a way of life, which he truly laments. The poet describes America as overrun with fierce and hideous animals as well as “savage men,” and he paints a stark contrast between their idyllic life here and the murderous savagery there. The poem ends with an expression that the poor may be “blest” and that those who have caused these social and economic changes would see the error of their ways.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

The Deserted Village is written in heroic verse. As such, it contains many elements of both lyrical and pastoral poetry in terms of its subject matter and expression. Goldsmith’s superbly written lines at times have lyrical qualities; his depiction of rustic characters and life—particularly repeated references to the swain (a somewhat mildly disguised allusion to his own childhood) and milkmaid—loosely qualify the poem as a pastoral in terms of its subject. Nevertheless, the poem is heroic because of its rhyme scheme and meter as well as other poetic conventions of the form.

The couplets display near-perfect end rhyme in most cases (an exception occurs in lines 205 and 206 wherein “aught” is rhymed with “fault”). Many lines contain alliteration, such as in the phrases “The whitewashed wall,” the “clock that clicked,” and “double debt.” The poet frequently employs assonance (“Amazed the gazing rustics” and “importance to the poor man’s heart”). The poem is written in iambic pentameter.

Perhaps Goldsmith’s second most important poetic device is his use of metaphor. Central to an understanding of the poem itself is the realization that “Auburn” is representative of all such small villages of the time of which the poet writes. That the town is idyllically and fictionally described in the first section (England) while realistically and autobiographically, though romantically, described in the second (Ireland) is of no genuine significance to the poem’s overall theme. The town itself is a metaphor for a departed way of life.

Similarly, the town is given a metaphorical embodiment as a woman starting in line 287 and continuing for several paragraphs. Auburn is likened to “some fair female, unadorned and plain,” one who is “In nature’s simplest charms at first arrayed.” This woman, so pure and rustic in her roots and previous life, is now poverty stricken, demoralized, and gone. The poet records that “her friends, her virtue, fled.” Auburn has metaphorically been forced into prostitution, then to flee her spinning “wheel, and robes of country brown.”

America exists imagistically and metaphorically in the poem. It is called a “horrid shore,” a place full of wild animals and savage men given to murder. “Rural virtues” have left the land to be not so much relocated as dislocated in a land where barbarity abounds because of the absence of civilization. America is seen as a place filled with hardship and immorality.

The poet makes his own role metaphorical by comparing his function to that of a solitary bird singing its way through this present existence. When the poet returns to survey the village and study the meanings of its deserted state, he becomes like this bird; The Deserted Village becomes his song.

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Characters