A lot about Goldsmith’s life is fairly uncertain. Historians argue on his true birthyear, but the consensus is that it was November 10 of any of the years between 1727 and 1731. The Library of Congress in Kilkenny West, County Westmeath, Ireland claims that he told a biographer that he was born in eiher 1730 or 1731. The son of a clergyman, Goldsmith started his education
at home under the tutelage of relatives before eventually attending the village school beginning at age seven. Due to his shy nature and his
physical deformities as a result of smallpox, Goldsmith was bullied by his peers and even his teachers, who often singled him out in school as an
example of how not to behave. In 1749, after an unimpressive stint at Trinity College in Dublin, Goldsmith graduated without a distinction worthy of pursuing a career in which he was interested. He also went on to pursue degrees
in medicine and law, neither of which he ultimately attained. Undistinguished, poor, and yet to be discovered, he moved to London in 1756 and held
a series of odd jobs.
Goldsmith’s rise to prominence began with his work as a writer for Ralph Griffith’s Monthly Review. He also wrote essays in The Bee and The
Public Ledger. One of his more famous early works, “Chinese Letters,” was originally published in The Public Ledger before being collected as a
separate work entitled The Citizen of the World. Due to his pleasant, readable writing style and the help of several famous friends, including
Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell, Goldsmith expanded his reputation as merely an essayist to that of a poet as well. His poem “The
Traveller,” published in 1764, contained a potent mix of fond recollections of travel through Europe and his guiding political philosophies. This
formula was revisited in 1770’s “The Deserted Village,” in which Goldsmith wrote of the beauty of the countryside while also criticizing society’s
treatment of poor villagers who faced displacement by modern aristocrats.
Goldsmith did not limit himself to essays and poetry, however. The year 1766 saw the release of his novel The Vicar of Wakefield, whose action,
similar to “The Deserted Village,” took place in a small town in the countryside. In 1768, he tried his hand at theater with The Good Natur’d Man.
However, it was his second such effort, 1773’s She Stoops to Conquer, that solidified his play writing credentials. She Stoops to Conquer was a
definite success and remains one of the most popular English-language plays from that era.
Despite his continuing professional success, Goldsmith faced problems in his personal life. His lavish lifestyle, which begun in his college years, left him in considerable debt, and in 1774, he fell ill. He died on April 4, 1774, at the age of 43, and is buried at the Church of Saint Mary in London.
Synopsis of “The Deserted Village”
There are multiple ways to interpret “The Deserted Village”. The less popular idea is that it is a fictionalized account of Goldsmith’s childhood village. He creates the town of Auburn to represent his village, the place where his happiest memories were made. Goldsmith idealizes these memories and shares them with us. By writing about the imaginary village of Auburn, he is reminded of the youthful ignorance he once had. In his mind, life in the country used to consist of simplicity and contentment but is now plagued by materialistic people who are only concerned with worldly endeavors. In Auburn, one man owns the entire village and does not maintain the earth, showing a disregard for the environment. Goldsmith writes, “One only master grasps the whole domain, And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain; No more thy glassy brook reflects the day, But, choaked with sedges, works its weedy way; Along thy glades, a solitary guest, The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest…”
Another way to interpret it is that Goldsmith is lamenting the destruction of this beautfully plain village. He begins by talking about the village’s natural splendor. He writes, “How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm.”
Goldsmith writes that Auburn is now a desolate village, without its luster and devoid of the life it once knew. Nearly all the villagers have left to seek a more lucrative, fulfilling life, an objective Goldsmith rejects in favor of the blissful simplicity the villagers used to enjoy in Auburn. He writes that the villagers used to be happy when “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.” These days, however, Goldsmith notes that “Even now the devastation is begun, And half the business of destruction done; Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand, I see the rural virtues leave the land.” Through his descriptions of the decline of the imaginary Auburn, Goldsmith laments the real-life trend of people deserting the quiet country life in pursuit of more material successes. To him, all that is left of his childhood village and others like it are memories.
A big motif in this poem is that every bit of the it emanates unbreached innocence. Furthermore, the “progressive” usurpers seek to develop the land or take “space… for his lake[and]… space for his horses”.Toward the beginning, Goldsmith writes, “The bashful virgin’s side-long looks of love, The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove.” This is an example of basic, unadulterated every day life. The virgin starts to develop an eye for the men of the village and her mother figure “reproves”. There is not anything special about this moment per se but that is precisely the point.
Help Reading “The Deserted Village”
Sometimes its hard to read a poem because one doesn’t know how it is supposed to sound or flow. Play the video below to listen to the first stanza in order to get an idea for the rhythm in which the poem is read.
The Augustan Worldview in “The Deserted Village”
Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village” is typical of writings of the Augustan time period. Coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment, the era of Augustan literature paid tribute to the orderly structures and themes found in classical Greek and Roman works. Like their ancient predecessors, Augustan authors believed that the universe was a rational and consistent place, and that human nature was essentially unchanging. They based their beliefs about life and the universe on empirical evidence rather than on emotions or personal feelings. Another common element of Augustan literature was the use of satire: the technique of exaggerating a “problematic” aspect of society for the purpose of fixing the problem. This notion that there was a correct and an incorrect way of doing things is yet more evidence of the Augustans’ belief in the importance of evidence-based, rational thinking and of following in the footsteps of the classical scholars.
In “The Deserted Village,” Goldsmith utilizes several typical qualities of Augustan writing, including an emphasis on empiricism, discussions of human nature, and the use of satire.
The idea of empiricism places an emphasis on attaining knowledge through observation and exploration. Augustans like Oliver goldsmith were particularly interested in the empirical worldview of learning from nature. Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village”, exemplifies this concept of observing nature by using the narrator’s changing opinions of the village of Auburn. At the start of the poem, Goldsmith sets the scene by describing the natural beauty of the land with somewhat vivid details. For example, the narrator describes a spring from this area as a “smiling spring”, making the readers see this as a nice place where people can go to feel good.The narrator goes on to describe several places (supposedly close to the Auburn) in a similar manner, including “The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,The never-failing brook, the busy mill”, and “The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill”. Although there are several places described in the poem that are only described by a single preceding adjective, the one adjective gives the reader a good enough understanding of what it is like to be in these specific places and imagine themselves in the environment. When describing aspects of the land in general, the narrator pairs up parts of the scenery with adjectives that give the reader an idea of how they would feel if they were in the same place. From these sensory details, the reader develops a desire to experience these things firsthand because they give the impression that there is something to be gained by doing so, much like how empiricists believed that there was knowledge to be gained from observing nature.
In addition to giving the reader a sensory feel of the area, Goldsmith’s descriptions of the beauty of this nature setting also give the reader an idea of how the positive feelings brought on by the simplicity and beauty of the village affects the people living it. The narrator describes Auburn as a place “Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain”, explicating that health, happiness and comfort permeated the very environment.
Going on with descriptions of the area, the narrator talks about places like “The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade, For talking age and whispering lovers made” to show how Auburn is not only a place of great beauty, but also a place where good times can be had and memories can be made. By talking about Auburn in such a positive light, the narrator makes the village seem attractive to the reader so that what ends up happening seems even more disappointing.
The moment after the line “These were thy charms—But all these charms are fled”, the narrator performs a reversal by writing about the wretched state of the current Auburn village. The narrator uses the same methods of observation that were used to describe Auburn in the past (combining scenery with brief description, quickly including notes about the people, etc.), but this time the narrator uses negative wording to describe the setting and make Auburn seem repulsive instead of attractive. The narrator goes out of his way to describe “The various terrors of that horrid shore” with more than enough negativity to make it clear to the reader that the once-beautiful nature has deteriorated into something unpleasant. For example, when the narrator refers to “Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray, And fiercely shed intolerable day”, he emphasizes the fact that the sunlight in the area is “blazing” and will “fiercely shed intolerable day” because he wants to show that the natural environment has become so bad that it is actually painful to be around. The writer uses such imagery to make the reader feel like going to Auburn to experience its nature will actually do more harm than good. The new, “intolerable” environment of Auburn contradicts the empiricist belief that one would have something to gain by being around nature. This contradiction with nature is giving the reader empirical evidence that what has happened to the village is bad.
Then, from the observation of the changing nature in the village, the narrator of the poem sees the changing attitudes of the local people. The physical nature of Auburn becomes uglier and harsher as the people trade their morals for greed. For the narrator, Auburn is now a place “Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey”, but, as if that were not bad enough, it is also a place where “savage men” reside who are “more murderous than [the tigers]”, making Auburn bad because of its uncouth citizens as well as its unwelcoming nature. Goldsmith utilizes nature images with negative connotations and then pairs them up with descriptions about the people (just like in the last section)to emphasize the overall failure of the village. Regarding empiricism, it could be sai that the degradation of the natural environment resulted in the deterioration of the people of Auburn. Without any nature to observe or draw knowledge from, the people eventually became degraded in their moral statures and ways of life to the point that they become worse off than animals.
Goldsmith talks about the people of his village as if they are different than himself. He went off and became a renowned well known writer in London, no where near the precincts of his village or the nature he speaks so highly of. He was described by his contemporaries of being an envious individual and even tried to leave England for America. Its worth thinking about why and how Goldsmith chose to write about the beauty of a place that brought him so much pain. The answer lies in lines 251-264 where Goldsmith states,
“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;
Spontaneous joys, where Nature has its play,
The soul adopts, and owns their first-born sway;
Lightly they frolic o’er the vacant mind,
Unenvied, unmolested, unconfined.
But the long pomp, the midnight masquerade,
With all the freaks of wanton wealth arrayed,
In these, ere triflers half their wish obtain,
The toiling pleasure sickens into pain;
And, even while fashion’s brightest arts decoy,
The heart distrusting asks, if this be joy.”
It’s ironic because Goldsmith was just like all the people who are looking for new opportunities outside the city now because they believe, and he believed that things are better and that there is more opportunities
away from their little village than there are in it. Goldsmith’s point here is that he’s been to the other side and back and knows that there is no place like the beautiful, but dying, village that they are all from. But ironically again he is in no place to ridicule due to his success in the city of London. Goldsmith’s main point here, and a major theme of the poem, is to never forget where you are from and to appreciate where you come from.
Goldsmith brings about the Augustan idea that human nature is universal among all people. The Augustans believed that man had a specific place in the natural world. They also believed that this place never changed over time. There are certain qualities of this universal nature that are present in “The Deserted Village”. One of the universal truths this work seems to highlight is the desire of wealth. In the poem, people become obsessed with the temptations of “vain transitory splendours” and greed.The people of Auburn are introduced to wealth and seem to forget their previous, simple lifestyles. With the shift into a more affluent lifestyle, “No more the farmer’s news, the barber’s tale, No more the woodman’s ballad shall prevail“; all the simple, mundane duties of the country people fade and disappear as they strive for fortune instead. Men from around the world come with desire for riches, and even the poor are affected by the wave of greed that sweeps through the village. This striving for wealth that leads to the discarding of oneself (be they a farmer, a barber, or a woodman) is seen by the narrator of this poem as an undeniable truth about what all human beings are like.
“Vain transitory splendours! Could not all
Reprieve the tottering mansion from its fall!
Obscure it sinks, nor shall it more impart
An hour’s importance to the poor man’s heart;
Thither no more the peasant shall repair
To sweet oblivion of his daily care;
No more the farmer’s news, the barber’s tale,
No more the woodman’s ballad shall prevail;
No more the smith his dusky brow shall clear,
Relax his ponderous strength, and lean to hear;
The host himself no longer shall be found
Careful to see the mantling bliss go round;
Nor the coy maid, half willing to be prest,
Shall kiss the cup to pass it to the rest.” (l.237-250)
Satire was used during the Augustan period to reflect the universal idea of human nature’s flaws and uses a comedic tone to suggest that people can correct themselves. Goldsmith uses sarcasm to stress the misdirection of the people in the village. In the following passage, he satirically remarks on the changed village.
“If to the city sped—What waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know,
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.
Here while the courtier glitters in brocade,
There the pale artist plies the sickly trade;
Here while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.
The dome where Pleasure holds her midnight reign,
Here, richly deckt, admits the gorgeous train;
Tumultuous grandeur crowds the blazing square,
The rattling chariots clash, the torches glare.
Sure scenes like these no troubles e’er annoy!
Sure these denote one universal joy!
Are these thy serious thoughts?” (l.309-325)
With its focus on empiricism, human nature, and satire, “The Deserted Village” can be considered a standard piece of Augustan literature, and Oliver Goldsmith a unique but decidedly-Augustan author.
The Vicar of Wakefield: Goldsmith and the Novel
One of the major literary breakthroughs of the Augustan age was the novel. The novel and not been previously popular and was practically non-existent up until the 18th century. However, Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield made it’s published debut in, approximately, 1761.
The novel was seemingly and supposedly influenced by Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela, and Henry Fielding, author of Joseph Andrews, both of whom are know to be authors of some of the very first novels of literature. Despite the new and different qualities that a novel presented to a world lacking the genre of literary work, it was not an overly popular or praised piece of writing. However, the true significance behind Goldsmith’s authoring of The Vicar of Wakefield is the distinct quality of being an Augustan author that it assigned him. Along with his irony and satire rich poem, “The Deserted Village,” Goldsmith embodies and represents the Augustan, or Neoclassical, Age through his participation in the rise of the novel and his authoring of The Vicar of Wakefield.
One of the most significant characteristics of Goldsmith as a writer is his exemplification of the Augustan age and of being a writer and literary figure of the time frame.
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Image taken from: “Dr Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) by J. H. Plumb.” A Biography of Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774). N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2015. <http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/goldsmth/about.htm>.