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The Deserted Village | Study Guide

Oliver Goldsmith

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The Deserted Village | Summary



Lines 1–34

The speaker describes Auburn, the village of his childhood. Each scene is constructed nostalgically, highlighting beauty in memory. The weather is always perfect; the people are filled with "humble happiness." The buildings are "never-failing ... busy ... and decent." He describes how everyone works hard and then enjoys their leisure time together on the rolling hills, playing sports or dancing. He also describes a heartwarming scene of young lovers flirting while a scolding matron watches with disapproval. The nostalgic scenes end suddenly with the statement "But all these are charms are fled."

Lines 35–74

Between the cozy houses the speaker sees the effect of the "tyrant" and the "master" on the "smiling plain." In the presence of such evil, everyone has left the now-"desolate" village. The only guests are bittern birds that guard their nests with "hollow-sounding" calls. The once-cozy houses have sunken and molded. The speaker laments that the village—once filled with "bold peasantry" that was the "country's pride"—is now deserted. Everyone has left to chase wealth in the city, which the speaker calls the place where "men decay." This, the speaker claims, is where "England's griefs began." People used to be happy simply when their needs were met, but with the rise of trade people longed for opulence and "unwieldy wealth." They longed to ease "every pang that folly pays to pride." This greed caused the decay of "rural mirth and manners."

Lines 75–136

The speaker describes returning home after years away, taking "solitary rounds" amid the dangled walkways and "ruined grounds." All around him he sees evidence of "the tyrant's power." Seeing how run-down the once-beautiful village has become fills the speaker's heart with emotion. He had long wished to return to Auburn as an old man, but it is his greatest grief to realize this will be impossible. Again, the speaker recounts images of the happy, bustling village where children came singing from school, and even the noisy watchdogs, geese, and nightingales sounded like "sweet confusion." Now, the population has been displaced, leaving behind only a feeble "wretched matron" who forages for food and cries herself to sleep each night.

Lines 137–192

The speaker recalls the village preacher. The place where his "modest mansion" once stood is now overgrown with wildflowers. He ran a "godly race" and was rewarded with a salary of £40 per year. The preacher never sought riches or fame—he only wanted to care for the wretched. He dedicated his life to easing others' pain, whether they were injured soldiers or ruined "spendthrifts." Regardless of the beggars' backgrounds, the preacher pitied and cared for them all: "He watched and wept, he prayed and felt, for all." His sermons were rousing—even fools who came to mock the church stayed to hear him. Everyone, from adults to children, longed to be near him.

Lines 193–250

Near the church was a noisy school where a stern schoolmaster ruled strictly. The speaker knew the schoolmaster well, as did the rest of the village truants. Despite the schoolmaster's stern appearance, he was kind and loved to teach. The children, in rapt attention, used to wonder how much knowledge could be crammed into one man's head. But now no one remembers the schoolmaster's wisdom. The school, once lovingly cared for with "white-washed wall" and a "nicely sanded floor," now sinks into obscurity. It lies unused and forgotten, alongside every other pleasure of the village where the barber told tales, the woodsmen swapped stories, and "coy maids" passed drinks.

Lines 251–286

The speaker knows the rich mock his nostalgia for home, but this cruelty only makes him fonder of the "simple blessings" of his "lowly" beginnings. Everyone else seems to love the "gloss of art," working hard to obtain its expensive beauty. The speaker much prefers the beautiful images of memory that "lightly ... frolic" over his "vacant mind." He goes on to blame the rich for chasing "wanton wealth," claiming their greed hastens "the poor's decay." The rich must decide where to draw the line between a "splendid," or opulent, land and a happy one. The land is rich, and men come from around the world to plunder her spoils. In doing so, the rich expand their boundaries. They push away the poor to make more room for their horses and dogs. The rich rob their neighbors of half the silk in their fields simply to make themselves another robe. The land had enough riches for everyone to enjoy, but the wealthy strip it barren for their own gain.

Lines 287–340

The speaker compares the land to a young woman who needs no "adornment" to show off her beauty. As time passes, however, the land needs such adornment to maintain its charm, but it has been betrayed. There's no way of covering up the "impotence" and "decline" of its splendors that transformed the "smiling land" into a "scourged," or tortured, place. It has been transformed from a blooming garden to a blooming grave. The speaker wonders where the poor should live if the rich push them off their native land.

Lines 341–384

The poor must travel through "dreary scenes" with "fainting steps." Eventually, they will arrive at "that horrid shore" that the speaker describes as if he were describing Hell: either some overcrowded city or some wilderness. To him, the city is a place where "birds forget to sing" and "the dark scorpion gathers death around." The speaker carefully contrasts this hellish scene with the "cooling brook" and "grassy vested green" of the village. He imagines what it might have been like for the traveling villagers to look upon their homes for the final time. He paints a heartbreaking scene of a family tearfully saying goodbye to each other.

Lines 385–430

The speaker curses luxury. People want luxury, so they leave their "pleasures" behind to seek its "insidious joy." Even as the speaker stands now, he can see "the rural virtues leave the land." He recalls days of "contented toil" and "hospitable care" when people worked hard and were kind to each other. They were pious, faithful, and loving, but now they are greedy and cruel. The speaker feels a sense of shame at the way the villagers have changed. Finally, he says goodbye to the village of his memory, with the hopes that time might "redress the rigors of the inclement clime" and bring both truth and humility back to the land.


Poetic Elements and Form

"The Deserted Village" is written in heroic couplets, which are pairs of rhyming lines of iambic pentameter. A line of verse written in iambic pentameter contains five feet; each foot comprises an unstressed and stressed syllable. Heroic couplets reached the height of their popularity during the Augustan Age of literature (1700–50). Oliver Goldsmith also used the following poetic elements:

  • Alliteration: repetition of the same consonant sound. In the first few stanzas the reader hears "humble happiness," "succeeding sports," "sweet succession," and "light labor." Later in the poem, Goldsmith writes "sweet confusion sought the shade" and "whitewashed walls."
  • Metaphor: indirect comparison of two objects, usually by describing one object as another. On a large scale, Goldsmith uses the fictional village of Auburn to represent all villages. By the end of the poem, the run-down, decrepit village becomes a metaphor for abandoned rural life and the effects of industrialization on society. On a smaller scale, Goldsmith uses the image of a woman as a metaphor for Auburn. First, the village is described as "some fair female, unadorned and plain." As people begin to leave, the metaphorical woman feels the loss: "Her friends, her virtue, fled." The fleeing "virtues" or "morals" signal the final transition, when that "wholesome" woman has now become a prostitute, leaving her "wheel and robes of country brown" in the place where "courtier[s] glitter in brocade."
  • Melodrama: sensationalism used for the purpose of appealing to an audience's emotions. Akin to sentimentality, melodrama uses over-the-top descriptions to make audiences feel a certain way. The descriptions aren't realistic or balanced but are completely one-sided and exaggerated. The best example of melodrama in "The Deserted Village" can be found in Goldsmith's descriptions of the big city, which he describes as a "bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe" filled with prostitution, crime, and suffering. Every description is harsh, from the glaring torches to clashing, rattling chariots and doorways filled with shivering, weeping peasants. There's no place to find peace or rest. In nine lines, Goldsmith describes the city as filled with "silent bats," "poisonous fields," "dark scorpion[s]," "rattling terrors," "vengeful snakes," "crouching tigers," "savage men," and "mad tornado[s]," and as a "ravaged landscape." Goldsmith immediately contrasts the city with the village, which he describes as having a "cooling brook," "grassy vested green," "breezy covert," "warbling grove," and "harmless love."

Exaltation of Agrarian Economy

Goldsmith's primary purpose in writing "The Deserted Village" is to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for village life. He demonizes life in the city, suggesting that entire populations of villagers, or "poor exiles," as he calls them, are being lost to the "bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe": the city. To achieve this goal, Goldsmith uses idealized descriptions of people, buildings, and the village itself to evoke nostalgia. He models Auburn in part after his own childhood village of Lissoy, although some critics thought he conflated Irish and English culture in his portrayal of the fictional town. He even includes characters based on real-life members of his old hometown. Goldsmith's brother, Rev. Henry Goldsmith, is the inspiration for the poem's nurturing, riveting preacher. Thomas "Paddy" Byrne, Goldsmith's first-grade teacher, is the poem's stern but kind schoolmaster, and Catherine Giraghty, a suffering widow in Lissoy, is the poem's "wretched matron" hunting for watercress (an edible aquatic plant) for survival.

In order to give the poem a nostalgic feel for all readers, Goldsmith uses type characters, which readers can easily recognize and identify with. He uses the swain, for example, as a symbol of a healthy, hardworking youth. He describes the "bashful virgin" in the same way—she isn't a specific young woman, but a young woman with the virtues any reader can recognize and respect. In this way, the author creates a sense of nostalgia in all his readers, not just those who can immediately identify with a country childhood. He describes the buildings in the same way, as filled with charm: "The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm ... the busy mill, / The decent church." No matter where readers grew up, they can recognize and feel nostalgia for the "smiling village" of Auburn and its inhabitants. When readers feel nostalgia, they also feel sorrow and indignation at the destruction Goldsmith describes.

Social Criticism

Goldsmith is not just idealizing a golden age of the past; he is issuing a warning that the nation of England is facing a crisis. By regularly juxtaposing nostalgic reminiscences with stark depictions of the present, Goldsmith effectively evokes both readers' sympathy for the displaced poor and the dark prospects of a future of unchecked commercialism.

Goldsmith isn't concerned the displaced farmers will end up in cities only: he fears they will be blown to the far corners of the earth. In line 344 he mentions "Altama," also called Altamaha, a river in the state of Georgia. In Goldsmith's day, Georgia was used by England as a penal colony. Thus, Goldsmith hints at his fear that the displaced peasants may end up committing crimes in the city for which they will be "transported," or sent to America. Then in line 418 he mentions "Torno," the Torne River in northern Sweden, juxtaposing this with Pambamarca, one of the summits of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. By mentioning these two places, Goldsmith gathers arctic and equatorial extremes, implying that displaced farmers could end up just about anywhere—and very likely in a climate more hostile than England's.

In 1761 Goldsmith himself witnessed the displacement of villagers; he includes this experience in "The Deserted Village." All of these villagers must move not merely because of industrialization or because their farms are no longer lucrative, but because a rich man (the tyrant of the poem) has bought up all their land. Goldsmith calls him a tyrant, but he has accumulated all his land legally. Laws enacted by Parliament, including the Enclosure Acts, allowed the government to sell to the highest bidder what had previously been communal land. Wealthy people grabbed up land quickly, using their new property as the entertainment grounds Goldsmith points out in the poem: "Space for his lake, his parks' extended bounds, / Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds." The spreading luxury appears to signal an economic boom for society, but Goldsmith reminds readers that, as "splendors rise," peasants are "scourged by famine" from the land. He reminds readers again and again that "the rich man's joys increase, the poor's decay," and "the man of wealth and pride / Takes up a space that many poor supplied."

Toward the end of the poem Goldsmith invokes Poetry, capitalized to accentuate its personification. It too has been evicted from traditional village life. "Farewell," Goldsmith bids Poetry; "still let thy voice ... aid slighted truth with thy persuasive strain." Unlike the farmers, Goldsmith did not grow up poor. He was raised in a wealthy family and attended an elite university, and he lived a relatively luxurious life as an adult. Yet by including Poetry as a loss to greed, he allows himself to be cast alongside the impoverished. As the speaker of the poem, he is rendered just as wretched by the destruction of old values and ways of life.

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