Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559
As Raymond Williams states in The Country and the City, his classic study of depictions of 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 that are 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 backdrops: 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.
Through an extended metaphor exemplified throughout the poem, Goldsmith has essentially made Auburn a stand-in for all rural villages in England—potentially even beyond. Goldsmith seems to be making a generalized social commentary about the decline of rural life as a whole. This technique could be referred to as synecdoche, or when one part is used to represent the whole. Auburn becomes the microcosm for the decline of rural society as a sprawling lifestyle. Goldsmith seems to be mourning a purity of heart or innocence that, however realistic, no longer exists. In doing so, he points to modernity or increased industrialization as the enemy of simplicity. He calls for keeping things as they are—exemplifying the opposite of progress. In the years leading up to the poem’s publication in 1770, England dealt with its fair share of tough times. Crops were unreliable, unemployment ebbed and flowed, and food became more expensive. So, even though Goldsmith’s rural oasis is no longer, it is quite possible Auburn was struggling before the narrator’s return.
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.