150+ essays on literary topics
Oliver Goldsmith is remembered for a novel, a play and a poem. It was in the spirit of the age for writers to be proficient in all three. Conversation, as practised in the literary salons of eighteenth century Europe, made four and was what writers did best. Their novels, plays and poems were conversations in prose or verse. Stylish, engaging, witty, anecdotal. Laurence Sterne made digression into an art form. Samuel Johnson was a writer, but why read Rasselas when you’ve got Boswell to tell you what he said? The spirit of the age was social, not personal. Its writers spoke directly to their readers about the age they lived in, whether in rhyming couplets as in The Deserted Village, witty dialogue as in She Stoops to Conquer or entertaining prose as in The Vicar of Wakefield.
The Deserted Village is not the English pastoral that an earlier poet might have written in imitation of Virgil, nor is it in any way a precursor to Tintern Abbey. It is not a fantasy or a lament, but a protest. Until Clause IV was abolished, it could have been an anthem for the Labour Party.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay…
It could still be an anthem for the Occupy Movement.
Goldsmith writes in the character of a man approaching retirement, looking forward to spending his last days in the village where he grew up, only to find that the village has been incorporated into the grounds of a rich man’s country house. The villagers have gone.
All but yon widow’d, solitary thing,
That feebly bends beside the plashy spring…
She only left, of all the harmless train,
The sad historian of the pensive plain.
It was not in fact his own village (he grew up in Ireland) but (probably) Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire, whose destruction by its owner he saw as a symptom of the country’s moral decline and used in his poem as a symbol of that wider ill.
The poem begins, conversationally, with a description of the village as the writer remembers it in his childhood.
Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheer’d the labouring swain…
The lines that follow are easy to dismiss as a rural idyll, an idealised version of village life that bears no relation to the reality. A hundred years later, the medieval utopia imagined by William Morris in News From Nowhere suffered and still suffers from the same cynical response. The central argument of the poem lies not in the anecdote but in the argument, which goes like this:
A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintain’d its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more;
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
The verse is the equal of Goldsmith’s contemporary, Alexander Pope. The argument was made again, to their cost, by William Cobbett and other anti-establishment agitators at the start of the next century and continues to be made. Having stated his case, he goes on anecdotally with his description of village life, making special mention of the village preacher:
Unskilful he to fawn, or seek for power,
By doctrines fashion’d to the varying hour;
Far other aims his heart had learn’d to prize,
More bent to raise the wretched than to rise…
and the schoolmaster:
The village all declared how much he knew;
’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too…
Again, the anecdote has a wider significance, drawing attention as it does to the village as a community, not only of work and play, but also of ideas and beliefs. In this regard, he adds to his list of lost blessings the pub:
Where village statesmen talk’d, with looks profound,
And news much older than their ale went round…
He takes on the cynics, knowing what their response will be.
Yes! let the rich deride, the proud disdain,
These simple blessings of the lowly train;
To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
One native charm, than all the gloss of art…
He challenges them to justify their measure of a nation’s well-being.
‘Tis yours to judge, how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.
Having confined his argument so far to the actions of wealthy men in depriving villagers of their homes for the sake of their own selfish pleasure, he widens it to include the practice of enclosing common land.
If to some common’s fenceless limits stray’d,
He drives his flock to pick the scanty blade,
Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And e’en the bare-worn common is deny’d.
Enclosure began at the time of the Reformation, caused riots during the reign of Edward VI, all brutally suppressed, continued for another three hundred years, until there was no common land left to enclose, and goes on still, not with land, but with water and coal and railways and electricity and other things that were once in public ownership, held in common, part of the common wealth.
He paints a bleak picture of the fate of the dispossessed villagers, following them first to seek employment in the city, then to try their luck as emigrants. When they sail, their loss to England (which after all is glad to see them go, having nothing for them to do) is not them but what they take with them.
E’en now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land.
Contented toil, hospitable care, piety, loyalty and love are among the virtues he lists, the implication being that in embracing wealth – or growth, as we would call it – the country turns its back on everything else.
The poem ends with an invocation to poetry itself to ‘teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain’, to show him ‘that trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay’ and to rely instead on his own ‘self-dependent power’. Or, as Sidney Webb put it in Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’
Did they know, when they voted to abolish Clause IV, that they were voting to abolish poetry? Do they still not know the difference between a splendid and a happy land? Does the metaphor of the deserted village not mean as much today as it did in 1770 when Oliver Goldsmith wrote, of ‘the man of wealth and pride’:
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth,
Has robb’d the neighb’ring fields of half their growth’?
Or is it, as the men of wealth and pride say, just the politics of envy?
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 14 January.
My post on 21 January will be about Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play, The Hairy Ape.