“The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith

Table of Contents

Introduction

During the course of the last two centuries, the semantic meaning of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village” has been assessed from a variety of different perspectives. Whereas, some literary critics used to suggest that it was namely Goldsmith’s “pastoral idealism”, which served him as an inspiration, while he was working on “The Deserted Village”, the others would go as far as referring to this particular poem as “Communist manifesto of 18th century”, which in its turn, would bring them to the conclusion that “The Deserted Village” actually represents a socio-political statement, although in poetic format. However, it appears that both approaches to analyzing “The Deserted Village” cannot be considered as being fully adequate, because they seem to whether idealize the poetic properties of Goldsmith’s masterpiece or to refer to them as basically non-existent, while subtly implying that Goldsmith was anything but a poet. In this paper, we will adopt an integrated approach towards assessing Goldsmith’s poem’s semantic meaning, while pointing out it as representing both: literary, historical, and philosophical values. As we will show in later parts of this work, “The Deserted Village” actually contains insight on the true causes for the “decline of the West”, as a socio-cultural phenomenon, the practical aspects of which can now be observed in all Western countries.

Main part

Even the reading of few initial lines in “The Deserted Village”, leaves no doubt as to the fact that Goldsmith thought of simplicity of rural living as such that represents a supreme aesthetic value:

“How often have I loiter’d o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endear’d each scene!”

This theme appears to remain ever-present, throughout the poem. At the same time, it would be wrong to refer to this, as simply an indication of the fact that the author tended to idealize bucolic scenery. While reading the poem, it cannot escape our attention that, throughout its entirety, the author’s ideas are being marked with a high degree of logical soundness, which does not allow us to refer to Goldsmith as a hyper-sensitive romanticist, who liked to spend time in the countryside, just to be able to enjoy the freedom of indulging in melancholic philosophizing. In his article “The Politics of Reception: The Case of Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village”, Alfred Lutz makes a perfectly good point when he points out at absolutely rational subtleties of Goldsmith’s promotion of the concept of simple living: “The image of the self-sufficient owner-occupier, content with producing enough to satisfy his own needs within a largely self-contained village economy, becomes visible in the poem as a moment of discontinuity in an economy that was geared toward the production of surplus” (Lutz 181). In other words, Goldsmith’s “pastoral aspirations” are not only a by-product of his existential idealism. While describing the village of Auburn in the past, the author do not simply express his melancholy – he provides us with insight on the very essence of the concept of national integrity, as such that derives out of citizens’ mental and physical health:

“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”

Goldsmith most definitely does not talk of simplicity as being worthy of admiration as a “thing in itself”. For him, existential simplicity is the instrument of preventing people from being affected by spiritual corruption, because only spiritually corrupted individuals can think of the accumulation of material riches (luxury) as such that represents the very purpose of their lives. In his article “Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller and The Deserted Village: Moral Economy of Landscape Representation” Roman Kazmin emphasizes the fact that Goldsmith’s poem contains a clue as to what corresponds to the initial stages of just about any country’s decline: “Goldsmith, on the other hand, views labor as a harmonious relationship between individual and nature — a relationship in which man extracts that which is necessary for modest living but no more. Luxury is then an excessive, unbalanced abuse of nature; nature is depleted and ruined through excessive extraction for the production of luxuries” (Kazmin 666). In its turn, this allows us to suggest that poem’s political thesis is innately interconnected with the thesis of Edward Gibbon, who in his famous book “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” had suggested that it is due to the fact that, in 4th-5th century A.D., Romans were being gradually deprived of their former existential integrity, which turned them into the crowds of degenerates, solely preoccupied with accumulating luxuries and seeking entertainment. When country’s elites begin to indulge in egoistic pursuits (accumulation of luxuries), it becomes only a matter of time, before this country would fall prey to barbarians: “Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendor of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens… The arts of luxury were honored; the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of Rome… The love of spectacles was the taste, or rather passion” (Gibbon 925). In his book, Gibbon implies that the decline of the Roman Empire has begun in 100 A.D. – three centuries before Rome was sacked by barbarians in 476 A.D. Given the fact that today’s Britain no longer “rules the waves”, with London’s streets being ruled by newly arrived hordes of non-White barbarians (Pakistanis, Arabs, Blacks, Chinese), who demand special rights and privileges, upon setting their foot in this country (just as it was the case with barbarians settling within the borders of Roman Empire), without even bothering to learn English, it would be appropriate, on our part, to suggest that in his poem Goldsmith actually provides us with the insight on how it became possible for British Empire, to be reduced to what it is now being commonly referred to as “Northern Pakistan”. Apparently, it was as far back into history as the middle of the 18th century, that the representatives of “chosen people”, who used to indulge in shady commercial activities on a full-scale basis, ever since they settled in Britain, were able to instill British elites with the materialistic spirit of enrichment, which in its turn, prompted British aristocrats to begin treating commoners as “second class citizens”, while “enclosing” the land, and to practice slave trade, as the most lucrative commercial activity in European colonies, throughout the world.

The close reading of “The Deserted Village”, reveals that the author does not oppose wealth as something inheritably evil – he simply recognizes its potentially negative effects on those who have been deprived of their will-power to resist the animalistic urge of enrichment, at the expense of destroying their fellow citizens’ well-being. Gold makes strong even stronger and weak weaker. And it is only those who have fallen under the spell of gold, as the result of being born existentially weak individuals, which tend to openly display their riches with utter distastefulness:

“Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every wants to luxury allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride”

Therefore, we cannot agree with those critics who suggest that Goldsmith’s poem contains motifs of “class struggle”, as it is very doubtful whether the author knew what the concept of “class” stands for. He observed the counter-productive social effects of people’s obsession with the accumulation of wealth and expressed his contempt with such practice in his poem while implying that it is not the social affiliation, which defines citizens’ anti-social behavior, but the extent of their spiritual corruption. Moreover, as it appears from the poem’s context, the author did not even think of a luxurious lifestyle as such truly suits the British rich landowners. In the article, from which we have already quoted, Roman Kazmin says: “Goldsmith emphasizes the irrationality of the new landowner whose immoderation and irrational spending have ruined the land that produced enough crops to support a small community. But luxury cannot originate in England, as it is unnatural to the English landscape, and therefore had to be imported from abroad” (Kazmin 666). Again and again, throughout the poem, the author comes up with statements that refer to luxury as such that cannot provide rich people with the sense of happiness, despite their naive conviction that it can:

“0 Luxury, thou cursed by Heaven’s decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!”

It is not simply by an accident that, at the time when Goldsmith was working on his poem, the “eastern exotics” became especially fashionable among the decadent representatives of Europe’s elite, just as it was the case with Roman patricians, in time of Rome’s decline, who used to convert to Christianity, simply because this religious doctrine sounded “exotic” enough – just about anything can be done out of bellyful idleness! Apparently, the era of “multiculturalism” in Britain had begun in the middle of 18th and not in the sixties of the twentieth century, as it is being commonly believed now, because, as it appears from “The Deserted Village”, it is namely during the course of 18th century, that shameless pursuit of material riches (the existential trait of Orientals) became a socially acceptable practice, in the eyes of British aristocrats, They would indulge in a variety of utterly decadent practices, such as swallowing small amounts of poison to add paleness to their skin, for example, while thinking that this was making them particularly “progressive” and “sophisticated”, without being able to understand that by doing it, they were exposing themselves as being deprived of spiritual qualities, which allowed their ancestors to build and to maintain civilization in Britain proper and in its colonies. Of course, in 18th century, British Empire was still the most powerful nation on the planet. The Royal Fleet was allowing Britain to enjoy an undisputed geopolitical dominance in the whole world, just as it was the case with Rome’s legions in 1st-2nd centuries A.D., the mere mentioning of which would strike fear into the hearts of barbarians. However, it is in 18th century that the seeds of future Britain’s decline were planted. In his poem, Goldsmith provides us with an understanding of the technicalities of this process:

“Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey
The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay,
‘Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.
Proud swells the tide with loads of freighted ore,
And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
Hoards, even beyond the miser’s wish, abound,
And rich men flock from all the world around.
Yet count our gains. This wealth is but a name
That leaves our useful products still the same.
Not so the loss. The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied”

The apparent progressiveness of political ideas, contained in “The Deserted Village”, had prompted many critics to refer to Goldsmith’s poem as emanating the spirit of republicanism. In his previously mentioned article, Alfred Lutz states: “Many elements of republican discourse, such as its concern with corruption, with the decline of liberty, with the rise of party differences, and with the pernicious influence of luxury are reflected in “The Deserted Village” (Lutz 191). The irony lays in the fact that Goldsmith’s poem can be thought of as anything but egalitarian or rationally positivist. In it, the author does not criticize the principle of social hierarchy, but exposes many of those “natural born rulers” as such who simply do not deserve the right to exercise political authority, due to their existential decadence and their hypertrophied sense of greed:

“Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And even the bare-worn common is denied”
In his other article “The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre”.

Alfred Lutz refers to Oliver Goldsmith as monarchist: “Goldsmith is often regarded as a Tory and a staunch supporter of the royal prerogative. Certainly, he could not imagine any functional form of government but a monarchy. He was afraid of the aristocratic interest, the “great”, on the one hand, and popular freedom, the “rabble”, on the other” (Lutz 194). Thus, given Goldsmith’s leaning towards the idealization of country living (“blood and soil”) and the fact that “The Deserted Village” contains both: pro-republican and pro-monarchist motifs, it would not be an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that the poet was actually one of the ideological precursors of National-Socialism, even though he was unaware of how people’s racial affiliation affects their behavior. Just as Gibbon’s theory of decline and fall of the Roman Empire, “The Deserted Village” promotes the idea that “fish begins to rot from its head” – it is always the decline of an elite that precedes the decline of a country, ruled by it. The reason why many Western countries are now being gradually turned into Third World slums (“celebration of diversity”), is because the politicians, in charge of designing socio-political policies in these countries, are now only being concerned about assuring their personal well-being, as opposed to assuring the well-being of the citizens they supposedly serve. The prospects of their personal enrichment is very much all these people can think about, even though they try to conceal it by constantly indulging in politically correct rhetoric. Therefore, we can say that the reading of Goldsmith’s poem might come in handy for those people who strive to gain a clue as to why, in today’s Western countries, the gap between poor and rich continues to widen rapidly or as to why the world’s economy now experiences an acute crisis. There is only one universal explanation to all of this – the political and financial elites’ sense of greed had assumed pathological subtleties. In its turn, this undermines the legitimacy of representatives of these elites being in positions of power. In the same article, Alfred Lutz states: “He (Goldsmith) does suggest that the nouveaux riches have stepped into the vacuum of legitimate power, in the village as well as in the nation, solely to increase their own profits at the expense of both” (Lutz 166). Had Goldsmith been alive today, he could have been easily accused of “inciting hate”, because, in his poem, he points out to the fact that the socio-political problems, within a particular society, are the by-product of this society rulers’ existential inadequateness. Nowadays, such an idea represents a “taboo”, as people are being made to believe that it is a “social environment”, out of which the world’s evils originate. Moreover, in the eyes of hawks of political correctness, it is named such people’s inadequateness, which corresponds to their “uniqueness”.

Conclusion

Today’s neo-Liberal politicians, who think that it is solely up to them to define the moral standards in society, have managed to instill many citizens’ with the idea that their pursuit of instant gratification, is not only appropriate but necessary, simply because people are preoccupied with enriching themselves, tend to be less politically active and therefore – more “tolerant”. This is the reason why Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is now being banned from many public libraries in London as “racist”, and this is why we can say that this is only a matter of time before the same is going to happen to Goldsmith’s literary legacy – both: the book and the poem contain an answer as to why Western societies are being rapidly deprived of their structural integrity, as time goes by. People’s inappropriate social behavior derives out of their mental depravity, which in its turn, is nothing but an indication of a genetic corruption, on their part. This is the reason why the social, political, and economic situation in every particular country can only be improved, for as long as citizens’ biological makeup is being improved, at the same time. The representatives of political elites, in the position of power, must necessarily be idealists, because only then they would be able to benefit their people – this is the foremost political message, which can be read between the lines in Goldsmith’s poem. Given the particularities of today’s political developments in the world, the validity of this Goldsmith’s idea appears as being self-evident for just about anyone, capable of utilizing its sense of logic.

Bibliography

  1. Goldsmith, Oliver “The Deserted Village”. 1770. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
  2. Gibbon, Edward “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. London: Penguin Classics, [1776].
  3. Kazmin, Roman “Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller and The Deserted Village: Moral Economy of Landscape Representation”. English Studies. (87) 6. (2006): 653 – 668.
  4. Lutz, Alfred “The Politics of Reception: The Case of Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village.” Studies in Philology. (95)2. (1998): 174–96.
  5. Lutz, Alfred “The Deserted Village and the Politics of Genre”. Modern Language Quarterly. (55) 2. (1998): 149–200.

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