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The Deserted Village | Study Guide

Oliver Goldsmith

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The Deserted Village | Themes


Innocence of Rural Life

"The Deserted Village" was written with the express purpose of evoking strong emotions in the readers. Goldsmith wanted his audience to feel a sense of longing for village life and to turn away from the corruption of city life. To accomplish this, Goldsmith describes everything in the village as lovely, peaceful, and innocent. He opens the poem with images of picnickers enjoying a beautiful day in the "loveliest village of the plain." The villagers are virtuous and innocent. They play sports together on the village green; youths flirt chastely, and hardworking farmhands are filled with "humble happiness" as they complete their "light labor." Even the village itself is described as "sweet smiling," because everything in Auburn is idyllic, beautiful, and pure.

The romantic, rosy view of rural life fails to consider the real reasons many chose to leave their agricultural lives behind. It was hard to make a living, even before the Enclosure Acts Goldsmith demonizes came into effect, yet all the villagers Goldsmith describes are happy, healthy, and content. They have enough food to cater village picnics and enough strength left over from their "light labor" to play sports and lounge on the common green. Of course, this was not the reality for most villagers at the time, many of whom worked long hours at backbreaking labor to avoid starvation. Modern readers may note, in fact, as some of Goldsmith's contemporary critics did, that in his idealization of Auburn the poet ignores the ignorance and poverty associated with rural life that might have contributed to the decline of farm towns. Just the same, the poem encourages readers to turn away from luxury and greed, and to embrace simple happiness, or contentment in one's current situation, instead.

Corruption and Greed

The primary source of corruption in "The Deserted Village" is greed, especially that of the rich who covet fertile, rural land for their own moneymaking. Goldsmith also calls out the villagers who move to the city in search of luxury, although he notes that they have been "allured to brighter worlds" by tricksters, the "dark scorpions" and "vengeful snakes" he refers to later in the poem.

Two primary sources of greed corrupt the idyllic village life: first, the landowners who took advantage of the Enclosure Acts. Goldsmith writes of "the man of wealth and pride" who uses his "tyrant's hand" to steal "a space that many poor supplied." In Goldsmith's account the landowners steal the land for their own entertainment. The rich man needs "space for his lake, his park's extended bounds / Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds." With nowhere left to turn, the villagers must leave their humble homes in search of a new life in the big city, where businessmen further seek to exploit their labor. The "sons of pleasure" feel joy "extorted from his fellow-creature's woe." The rich have been so corrupted by greed that they turn a blind eye to their fellow man's suffering.

But they aren't the only ones to blame. Goldsmith also argues that greed corrupts the wholesome villager who seeks a new life. He uses an innocent village woman to symbolize this corruption. While living in the village, the woman was as "sweet as the primrose peeps beneath the thorn," but in the city she becomes a "poor houseless shivering female." She casts aside her modesty and virtues, leaving behind her "wheel and robes of country brown" to beg at "proud men's doors."

Resilience in a Changing World

Goldsmith wrote "The Deserted Village" during the rapid industrialization of Britain. The poet notes in lines 63–64 that "times are altered; trade's unfeeling train / Usurp the land and dispossess the swain." What he means is that times are changing. Commercialization and privatization—moneymaking, in other words—have pushed hardworking young men off their land. Before the Enclosure Acts went into effect, Goldsmith argues, young men like this swain worked "light labor" for just enough to be happy "but no more." The men were wholesome, innocent, and healthy. Now, however, the young swain's contentment has been overtaken by greed, or as Goldsmith calls it, "unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp." Now, the young man has fallen into the grip of "the tyrant's power"; he no longer has "rural mirth and manners." Despite this changing world, Goldsmith reminds audiences that the hardworking poor, the "bold peasantry," are "their country's pride."

Initially, Goldsmith suggests that this culture can never be repaired once commercialism destroys it, yet he offers hope of resilience at the poem's closing. He hopes his words spread his warning against industrialism and that the voice of his "sweet Poetry" will help "redress the rigors of the inclement clime." In the final lines he offers hope that his persuasive truth will "teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain." In short, if society can shun its greed, it "may still be very blest."

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