Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,And parting summer's lingering blooms delayed,Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease . . .
The poem opens with an idealized depiction of an unspecified and fictitious rural village, representative of small English towns depopulating in the late eighteenth century. From the start, Goldsmith establishes the dichotomy between the innocence and purity of the country poor and the corruption of the greedy landlords driving them out.
The man of wealth and prideTakes up a space that many poor supplied;Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth,Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth . . .
Goldsmith, in the above quote, attacks enclosure, which was becoming increasingly common in the late eighteenth century. In enclosure, as the name implies, wealthy landowners put walls or fences around what had been common lands. This open territory had once provided the rural poor with wood for fuel, wild plants, grazing ground for livestock, and other forms of sustenance integral to their survival. Without the extra resources these commons provided, many rural poor were driven off the land or starved, as Goldsmith describes below.
While, scourged by famine from the smiling land,The mournful peasant leads his humble band;And while he sinks, without one arm to save,The country blooms—a garden, and a grave.
Goldsmith notes above that the garden playgrounds of the rich have become the graves of the starving poor, who cannot survive without access to this land.
I see the rural virtues leave the land:Down where yon anchoring vessel spreads the sail,That idly waiting flaps with every gale,Downward they move, a melancholy band,Pass from the shore, and darken all the strand.
At the end of the poem, Goldsmith mourns the exodus of the rural poor, forced to emigrate to various English colonies overseas. The loss of the rural poor in turn represents the loss of such English virtues as loyalty, piety, love, patient toil, and simple hospitality. A deserted village cannot be easily replaced.