The Deserted Village Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,358 words.)