Oliver Goldsmith Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2001

Eighteenth century poets viewed themselves primarily in relation to their audience. They acted as intermediaries between the audience and some higher truth: divine providence, the majesty of state, or the ideal world described by art. In his verse, Oliver Goldsmith made two self-appointments: first as arbiter of literature for a society that had largely lost its ability to appreciate poetry and second as commentator on social changes. Arbitrating poetic ideals and offering social commentary were not separate activities, Goldsmith thought, because readers who could not discriminate real feeling in poetry were likewise not likely to observe the world around them accurately. Again, like other eighteenth century poets, Goldsmith expressed his concerns in both comic and serious works. The comic efforts tease readers back from excesses; the serious ones urge them to return to the norm. These trends are clearest in Goldsmith’s best poems, two mock elegies, the didactic The Traveller and the pastoral The Deserted Village.

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Comic elegies

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) had started a fashion in poetry for sentimental reflections on occasions of death. This impulse, although quite natural, found further expression in lamenting the end of persons and things not traditionally the subjects of public mourning. (Gray himself parodied the fashion he had started with an ode on the death of a favorite cat who drowned while trying to snare a goldfish.) Goldsmith attacked this proliferation of laments in the Critical Review in 1759. Citing the corruption of the elegy, Goldsmith judged that his peers thought flattery, bombast, and sorrow sufficient ingredients to compose a moving poem. He also teased the popular mode of elegies with several mock versions; the best of these are “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex: Mrs. Mary Blaize” and “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” No other poems so well illustrate Goldsmith’s comic ability.

Adapted from an older French poem, “An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex: Mrs. Mary Blaize” laments with tongue in cheek the passing of a one-time strumpet turned pawnbroker. The poem’s narrator strives hard to attribute conventional virtues of charity and probity to her, only to admit in the last line of each stanza to some qualification of the lady’s virtue:

She strove the neighbourhood to please,With manners wondrous winning,And never follow’d wicked ways,—Unless when she was sinning.

“An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog,” which first appeared as a song in The Vicar of Wakefield, makes a similar point about the perversion of elegiac conventions by telling of a “kind and gentle” man who befriended a dog “of low degree.” At first they get along well, then the dog, “to gain some private ends,” goes mad and bites the man. The townspeople lament that this good man must die a wretched death, betrayed by the ungrateful cur that he has trusted. In the final stanza, however, the poet twists the reader’s sentimental expectation of a tragic ending: Instead of the man, it is the dog that dies.

The Traveller

Goldsmith had more serious issues to lay before his audience. His first major poem, The Traveller, attempts a philosophic survey of European life, showing, he declared in the dedication, that “there may be equal happiness in states that are governed differently from our own; that every state has a particular principle of happiness, and that this principle in each may be carried to a mischievous excess.”

Condensing observations made on his trip to Europe into one moment, Goldsmith describes himself seated on a mountaintop in the Alps, from which he can look across to the great states of Europe: Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland, and Britain. Each land reveals to the poet’s eye its special blessing—and its liability.

Italy, bountifully supplied by Nature and once the seat of empire, has been exhausted by the pursuit and burden of wealth; now peasant huts arise where once imperial buildings stood. Switzerland, less endowed by Nature, produces a self-reliant and hardy race that has few wants but cannot develop “the gentler morals” that are a hallmark of a refined culture. France, dedicated to the graces of civilized life, has developed the most brilliant society in Europe but one which is prey to ostentation and vanity. Holland, claimed from the sea by an industrious people, devotes its energies to commerce and trade that now accumulates superfluous treasure “that engenders craft and fraud.” England, which Nature has treated neither too richly nor too miserly, is the home of Liberty and Freedom, which allow people to rule themselves; but self-rule in excess becomes party strife and colonial ambition.

Because every human society is imperfect, Goldsmith concludes, people must remember that human happiness is seldom regulated by laws or royal edicts. Since each of us is “to ourselves in every place consigned,” the constant in life must be the “smooth current of domestic joy.”

The Traveller echoes Goldsmith’s favorite poets of the preceding generations and of his own time. Like Joseph Addison’s “A Letter from Italy” (1703), it comments on England’s political state by contrast with that of other European powers. Like Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733-1734), it enunciates a philosophic principle in verse. Like Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), it concludes with the assertion that human happiness is determined by individual, not social experience. As derivative as The Traveller is, however, Goldsmith’s poem is still his own. Less nationalistic than Addison’s, less systematizing than Pope’s, and less tragic than Johnson’s, Goldsmith’s poem possesses the graceful ease of the periodical essay whose tone is conversational and whose form mixes personal observation with public pronouncement. The Traveller is cast as an epistle to the poet’s brother and as an account of the years of wandering that have led the poet to this meditation on human experience. The interest moves easily and naturally from the poet’s wanderings to his social meditations, observations, and finally to philosophic insight. In the dedication to The Traveller, Goldsmith also laments the decay of poetry in a society verging on the “extremes of refinement.” By echoing the themes and forms of earlier poets, Goldsmith offers his readers a return to the poetry of an age that brought the “greatest perfection” of the language. As he observed in An History of England in a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to His Son (1764), modern poets have only added finery to the muse’s dress, not outfitted her anew.

The Deserted Village

The Deserted Village, 430 lines long, repeats the mixture of personal observation and public utterance. This time the topic is closer to home, the depopulation of the countryside because of a series of Enclosure Acts that turned formerly common village lands into private farms worked only for well-to-do landlords. Goldsmith observes that enclosure drives “a bold peasantry, their country’s pride” into the city or away to the colonies. The poem is at once a lament for a lost way of life and a call to society to awaken to a danger.

The first 114 lines describe the poet’s relationship to Auburn, the “loveliest village of the plain,” an abstract, idealized version of Goldsmith’s boyhood home. The poet recalls Auburn as a place of innocence where his youth was so happy that work and play were scarcely distinguishable. Now, like other villages, Auburn is “to hastening ills a prey”; these ills are trade, the growth of wealth, and the peasantry’s departure from the land. The decline of Auburn darkens not only the poet’s memory and civic pride but his hopes as well. Auburn was to be his place of retirement from life’s cares where he might “die at home at last.”

In the next 140 lines, the narrator surveys the buildings and inhabitants of Auburn: the church and the parsonage where the minister, “unpracticed he to fawn, or seek for power,” kept a refuge to feed a hungry beggar, talk with an old soldier, and comfort the dying; the schoolhouse where the master, “a man severe and stern to view,” shared with his pupils “the love he bore to learning”; and finally, the inn whose neat and trim interior played host to “greybeard mirth and smiling toil.”

An equally long section then describes the present sad condition of Auburn. Imagining the village as a beautiful girl who turns increasingly to fashionable dress and cosmetics as her natural bloom fades, Goldsmith recounts how the “sons of wealth” force the peasantry off the land to build splendid estates with striking vistas. The displaced villagers trek to the cities, where pleasure seduces them from innocence or crime overcomes their honesty, or to the colonies, where a fiercer climate than England’s threatens their lives. The section ends with a poignant description of families uprooted and friends or lovers separated as the people depart the village. With them “rural virtues leave the land.”

The final section of the poem invokes “Sweet Poetry,” which, like the inhabitants of Auburn, is being driven from the land. The poet hopes that poetry will nevertheless continue “to aid truth with [its] persuasive train” and teach humanity the age-old lesson that wealth ultimately destroys the simple virtues that bind people to the land and to one another.

The Deserted Village emphasizes that moral by a striking departure from literary convention. As a pastoral, the poem ought to persuade readers of the countryside’s charms and goodness; as a pastoral it should express the ideals of peaceful virtue, harmony with nature, and productive use of the land that were commonplaces since classical Greek poetry. Goldsmith’s poem presents these familiar ideas, but as a lament and a warning that the pastoral ideal is slipping away. Bound by tradition to use the conventions but unable to disguise the truth, the poet seeks to arouse rather than soothe the reader’s imagination.

One of Goldsmith’s most moving poetic devices in The Deserted Village is the catalog. At four crucial places, the narrative slows to allow leisurely description; these descriptive catalogs are composed of grammatically and metrically similar lines. The device is an elaboration of the neoclassical practice of balancing and paralleling couplets; its effect is to intensify the emotional impact of the passage. The catalog of the inn’s furnishings is the most vivid of these passages and illustrates Goldsmith at his best.

Flawed experiments

Trying his hand at many different styles and pieces, Goldsmith inevitably failed at some. “Threnodia Augustalis,” for example, a poem mourning the death of the princess dowager of Wales, falls victim to the bombast and pomposity that Goldsmith laughed at in other elegiac poems. It shows how increasingly difficult had become the task of making poetic praise of the aristocracy sound convincing in an age when middle- and lower-class life was providing rich materials for the essay and the novel.

Another flawed poem is “Edwin and Angelina,” a ballad of the type becoming more popular as the century progressed. Readers were drawn to this genre of folk poetry for its mysterious happenings in remote and romantic locations. Goldsmith tried to mix these qualities with the didactic strain of The Traveller and The Deserted Village. He tells of young lovers, separated by a cruel parent, who later meet while both are in disguise. The joy of their reunion is delayed while each delivers a long moral dissertation on the necessity of steadfast virtue and trust in Providence.

“The Captivity: An Oratorio” is a more ambitious treatment of the same theme but equally unsuccessful. Goldsmith makes a promising start by using the Israelite bondage in Babylon—a subject hardly ever treated in the literature of the age—as the frame for his moral, but he simply does not have a poetic vocabulary capable of describing spiritual anguish. When, early in the poem, a prophet urges the Israelites to repent and “offer up a tear,” the poem has reached its deepest point of profundity.

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