The Vicar of Wakefield

by Oliver Goldsmith

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"When Lovely Woman Stoops To Folly"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235

Context: A major incident in this novel centers on the seduction of Olivia Primrose by Squire Thornhill, a worthless libertine who traps women into false marriages and soon abandons them. He attempts this deception with Olivia, but the marriage turns out to be perfectly legal, and he is caught in his own trap. The seduction, however, in no way lessens the love that the Primroses feel for their daughter. Shortly after the affair, the family breakfasts in the countryside at the very spot where "Olivia first met her seducer, and every object served to recall her sadness." So moved is Mrs. Primrose that she asks Olivia to sing a brief song which she calls a "melancholy air." Olivia sings so exquisitely that her father is deeply moved. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) in The Waste Land (1922) uses the song's opening line in a passage of his own poem showing a modern girl's casual attitude toward sex: "When lovely woman stoops to folly and/ Paces about her room again, alone,/ She smoothes her hair with automatic hands,/ And puts a record on the gramophone."

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom–is to die.

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