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The Deserted Village | Study Guide

Oliver Goldsmith

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The Deserted Village | Narrative Voice


Written in neoclassical style, "The Deserted Village" is a reflective poem about the social inequities caused by changes in British agricultural policies. Neoclassical writers honored the epic grandeur of ancient Greeks and Romans by employing traditional form and style. Traditional narration influences the poem's narrative voice in both its first part, where the speaker idealizes the fictional town of Auburn with a nostalgic tone, and its latter parts, which describe the town's ruin and the exile of its original inhabitants.

The first-person speaker communicates in traditional heroic couplets, or rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter. The style gives the poem a sense of formality: "Sweet AUburn, LOVEliest VILlage OF the PLAIN / Where HEALTH and PLENty CHEERED the LAboring SWAIN." The use of sentimental images such as a "dancing pair that simply sought renown" and a "bashful virgin's sidelong looks of love" contribute to the nostalgic mood of the poem's opening. Hyperbolic adjectives add to the rosy portrait of Auburn: "the sheltered cot, the cultivated farm, / The never-failing brook, the busy mill."

The speaker's intention is revealed in line 34: "These were thy charms—But all these charms are fled." Now the formal language expresses the injustices of a policy that allows rich landowners to drive out poor farmers. Precise detail and hyperbole make the speaker's point. The rich man, for instance—now taking up the space "that many poor supplied"—uses that space for his lake, park, "horses, equipage and hounds."

Having established the ruin of the town, the speaker turns to the future of its poor farmers. "If to the city sped," the speaker asks, what awaits the former occupants of Auburn? In answer he describes "various terrors" such as "savage men, more murderous still" than tigers. The personification of Auburn as an innocent woman turned to ruin conveys the speaker's sense of personal outrage. He speaks of it as a woman whose "modest looks" once adorned (decorated) a cottage as sweetly as a primrose but who is now a "poor houseless shivering female."

As the town's exiles depart on ships for wildernesses unknown, a "melancholy band," Poetry leaves along with them. The speaker is made as wretched as his characters at the destruction of old ways of life. It is in Poetry that he places his last hope as he urges its "voice, prevailing over time," to "teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain"—that is, to right the wrongs he has described. As a contemporary reviewer wryly pointed out, if Poetry had fled the land, readers "should not have had the pleasure" of reading the poem. However, inserting himself—a fellow exile—into the poem contributes to what scholar Louise Pound has called the "sincere interest and genuine sorrow" that infuses the poem with its "sympathy and grace."

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