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Goldsmith - Chapter 14. The Deserted Village Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1431

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Goldsmith - Chapter 14. The Deserted Village

CHAPTER XIV. The Deserted Village

But it is time to return to the literary performances that gained for this uncouth Irishman so great an amount of consideration from the first men of his time. The engagement with Griffin about the _History of Animated Nature was made at the beginning of 1769. The work was to occupy eight volumes; and Dr. Goldsmith was to receive eight hundred guineas for the complete copyright. Whether the undertaking was originally a suggestion of Griffin's, or of Goldsmith's own, does not appear. If it was the author's, it was probably only the first means that occurred to him of getting another advance; and that advance--L500 on account--he did actually get. But if it was the suggestion of the publisher, Griffin must have been a bold man. A writer whose acquaintance with animated nature was such as to allow him to make the "insidious tiger" a denizen of the backwoods of Canada,(2) was not a very safe authority. But perhaps Griffin had consulted Johnson before making this bargain; and we know that Johnson, though continually remarking on Goldsmith's extraordinary ignorance of facts, was of opinion that the _History of Animated Nature would be "as entertaining as a Persian tale." However, Goldsmith--no doubt after he had spent the five hundred guineas--tackled the work in earnest. When Boswell subsequently went out to call on him at another rural retreat he had taken on the Edgware Road, Boswell and Mickle, the translator of the _Lusiad_, found Goldsmith from home; "but, having a curiosity to see his apartment, we went in and found curious scraps of descriptions of animals scrawled upon the wall with a black-lead pencil." Meanwhile, this _Animated Nature being in hand, the _Roman History was published, and was very well received by the critics and by the public. "Goldsmith's abridgment," Johnson declared, "is better than that of Lucius Florus or Eutropius; and I will venture to say that if you compare him with Vertot, in the same places of the _Roman History_, you will find that he excels Vertot. Sir, he has the art of compiling, and of saying everything he has to say in a pleasing manner."

(Footnote 2: See _Citizen of the World_, Letter XVII.)

So thought the booksellers too; and the success of the _Roman History only involved him in fresh projects of compilation. By an offer of L500 Davies induced him to lay aside for the moment the _Animated Nature and begin "An History of England, from the Birth of the British Empire to the death of George the Second, in four volumes octavo." He also about this time undertook to write a Life of Thomas Parnell. Here, indeed, was plenty of work, and work promising good pay; but the depressing thing is that Goldsmith should have been the man who had to do it. He may have done it better than any one else could have done--indeed, looking over the results of all that drudgery, we recognise now the happy turns of expression which were never long absent from Goldsmith's prose-writing--but the world could well afford to sacrifice all the task-work thus got through for another poem like the _Deserted Village or the _Traveller_. Perhaps Goldsmith considered he was making a fair compromise when, for the sake of his reputation, he devoted a certain portion of his time to his poetical work, and then, to have money for fine clothes and high jinks, gave the rest to the booksellers. One critic, on the appearance of the _Roman History_, referred to the _Traveller_, and remarked that it was a pity that the "author of one of the best poems that has appeared since those of Mr. Pope, should not apply wholly to works of imagination." We may echo that regret now; but Goldsmith would at the time have no doubt replied that, if he had trusted to his poems, he would never have been able to pay L400 for chambers in the Temple. In fact he said as much to Lord Lisburn at one of the Academy dinners: "I cannot afford to court the draggle-tail muses, my Lord; they would let me starve; but by my other labours I can make shift to eat, and drink, and have good clothes." And there is little use in our regretting now that Goldsmith was not cast in a more heroic mould; we have to take him as he is; and be grateful for what he has left us.

It is a grateful relief to turn from these booksellers' contracts and forced labours to the sweet clear note of singing that one finds in the _Deserted Village_. This poem, after having been repeatedly announced and as often withdrawn for further revision, was at last published on the 26th of May, 1770, when Goldsmith was in his forty-second year. The leading idea of it he had already thrown out in certain lines in the _Traveller_:--

"Have we not seen, round Britain's peopled shore,
Her useful sons exchanged for useless ore?
Seen all her triumphs but destruction haste,
Like flaring tapers brightening as they waste?
Seen opulence, her grandeur to maintain,
Lead stern depopulation in her train,
And over fields where scattered hamlets rose
In barren solitary pomp repose?
Have we not seen at pleasure's lordly call
The smiling long-frequented village fall?
Beheld the duteous son, the sire decayed,
The modest matron, and the blushing maid,
Forced from their homes, a melancholy train,
To traverse climes beyond the western main;
Where wild Oswego spreads her swamps around,
And Niagara stuns with thundering sound?"

--and elsewhere, in recorded conversations of his, we find that he had somehow got it into his head that the accumulation of wealth in a country was the parent of all evils, including depopulation. We need not stay here to discuss Goldsmith's position as a political economist; even although Johnson seems to sanction his theory in the four lines he contributed to the end of the poem. Nor is it worth while returning to that objection of Lord Macaulay's which has already been mentioned in these pages, further than to repeat that the poor Irish village in which Goldsmith was brought up, no doubt looked to him as charming as any Auburn, when he regarded it through the softening and beautifying mist of years. It is enough that the abandonment by a number of poor people of the homes in which they and theirs have lived their lives, is one of the most pathetic facts in our civilisation; and that out of the various circumstances surrounding this forced migration Goldsmith has made one of the most graceful and touching poems in the English language. It is clear bird-singing; but there is a pathetic note in it. That imaginary ramble through the Lissoy that is far away has recalled more than his boyish sports; it has made him look back over his own life--the life of an exile.

"I still had hopes, my latest hours to crown,
Amidst these humble bowers to lay me down;
To husband out life's taper at the close,
And keep the flame from wasting by repose:
I still had hopes, for pride attends us still,
Amidst the swains to show my book-learned skill,
Around my fire an evening group to draw,
And tell of all I felt, and all I saw;
And, as a hare whom hounds and horns pursue
Pants to the place from whence at first he flew,
I still had hopes, my long vexations past,
Here to return--and die at home at last."

Who can doubt that it was of Lissoy he was thinking? Sir Walter Scott, writing a generation ago, said that "the church which tops the neighbouring hill," the mill and the brook were still to be seen in the Irish village; and that even

"The hawthorn bush with seats beneath the shade
For talking age and whispering lovers made,"

had been identified by the indefatigable tourist, and was of course being cut to pieces to make souvenirs. But indeed it is of little consequence whether we say that Auburn is an English village, or insist that it is only Lissoy idealised, as long as the thing is true in itself. And we know that this is true: it is not that one sees the place as a picture, but that one seems to be breathing its very atmosphere, and listening to the various cries that thrill the "hollow silence."

"Sweet was the sound, when oft at evening's close
Up yonder hill the village murmur rose.
There, as I past with careless steps and slow,
The mingling notes came softened from below;
The swain responsive as the milk-maid sung,
The sober herd that lowed to meet their young,
The noisy geese that gabbled o'er the pool,
The playful children just let loose from school,
The watch-dog's voice that bayed the whispering wind,
And the loud laugh that spake the vacant mind."

Nor is it any romantic and impossible peasantry that is gradually brought before us. There are no Norvals in Lissoy. There is the old woman--Catherine Geraghty, they say, was her name--who gathered cresses in the ditches near her cabin. There is the village preacher whom Mrs. Hodson, Goldsmith's sister, took to be a portrait of their father; but whom others have identified as Henry Goldsmith, and even as the uncle Contarine: they may all have contributed. And then comes Paddy Byrne. Amid all the pensive tenderness of the poem this description of the schoolmaster, with its strokes of demure humour, is introduced with delightful effect.

"Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,
With blossom'd furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,
The village master taught his little school.
A man severe he was, and stern to view;
I knew him well, and every truant knew:
Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day's disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laughed with counterfeited glee
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
Full well the busy whisper circling round
Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned.
Yet he was kind, or, if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault;
The village all declared how much he knew:
'Twas certain he could write, and cipher too:
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e'en the story ran that he could gauge:
In arguing, too, the parson owned his skill;
For e'en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew."

All this is so simple and natural that we cannot fail to believe in the reality of Auburn, or Lissoy, or whatever the village may be supposed to be. We visit the clergyman's cheerful fireside; and look in on the noisy school; and sit in the evening in the ale house to listen to the profound politics talked there. But the crisis comes. Auburn _delenda est_. Here, no doubt, occurs the least probable part of the poem. Poverty of soil is a common cause of emigration; land that produces oats (when it can produce oats at all) three-fourths mixed with weeds, and hay chiefly consisting of rushes, naturally discharges its surplus population as families increase; and though the wrench of parting is painful enough, the usual result is a change from starvation to competence. It more rarely happens that a district of peace and plenty, such as Auburn was supposed to see around it, is depopulated to add to a great man's estate.

"The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds:

* * * * *

His seat, where solitary sports are seen,
Indignant spurns the cottage from the green:"

--and so forth. This seldom happens; but it does happen; and it has happened, in our own day, in England. It is within the last twenty years that an English landlord, having faith in his riches, bade a village be removed and cast elsewhere, so that it should no longer be visible from his windows: and it was forthwith removed. But any solitary instance like this is not sufficient to support the theory that wealth and luxury are inimical to the existence of a hardy peasantry; and so we must admit, after all, that it is poetical exigency rather than political economy that has decreed the destruction of the loveliest village of the plain. Where, asks the poet, are the driven poor to find refuge, when even the fenceless commons are seized upon and divided by the rich? In the great cities?--

"To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury and thin mankind."

It is in this description of a life in cities that there occurs an often-quoted passage, which has in it one of the most perfect lines in English poetry:--

"Ah, turn thine eyes
Where the poor houseless shivering female lies.
She once, perhaps, in village plenty blest,
Has wept at tales of innocence distrest;
Her modest looks the cottage might adorn,
Sweet as the primrose peeps beneath the thorn;
Now lost to all; her friends, her virtue fled,
Near her betrayer's door she lays her head.
And, pinch'd with cold, and shrinking from the shower,
With heavy heart deplores that luckless hour,
When idly first, ambitious of the town,
She left her wheel and robes of country brown."

Goldsmith wrote in a pre-Wordsworthian age, when, even in the realms of poetry, a primrose was not much more than a primrose; but it is doubtful whether, either before, during, or since Wordsworth's time the sentiment that the imagination can infuse into the common and familiar things around us ever received more happy expression than in the well-known line,

"_Sweet as the primrose peeps beneath the thorn._"

No one has as yet succeeded in defining accurately and concisely what poetry is; but at all events this line is surcharged with a certain quality which is conspicuously absent in such a production as the _Essay on Man_. Another similar line is to be found further on in the description of the distant scenes to which the proscribed people are driven:

"Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
_Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe._"

Indeed, the pathetic side of emigration has never been so powerfully presented to us as in this poem--

"When the poor exiles, every pleasure past,
Hung round the bowers, and fondly looked their last,
And took a long farewell, and wished in vain
For seats like these beyond the western main,
And shuddering still to face the distant deep,
Returned and wept, and still returned to weep.

* * * * *

Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land.
Down where yon anchoring vessel spreads the sail,
That idly waiting flaps with every gale,
Downward they move a melancholy band,
Pass from the shore, and darken all the strand.
Contented toil, and hospitable care,
And kind connubial tenderness are there;
And piety with wishes placed above,
And steady loyalty, and faithful love."

And worst of all, in this imaginative departure, we find that Poetry herself is leaving our shores. She is now to try her voice

"On Torno's cliffs or Pambamarca's side;"

and the poet, in the closing lines of the poem, bids her a passionate and tender farewell:--

"And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excel,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!
Farewell, and O! where'er thy voice be tried,
On Torno's cliffs, or Pambamarca's side,
Whether where equinoctial fervours glow,
Or winter wraps the polar world in snow,
Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
Redress the rigours of the inclement clime;
Aid slighted truth with thy persuasive strain;
Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain:
Teach him, that states of native strength possest,
Though very poor, may still be very blest;
That trade's proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the laboured mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy,
As rocks resist the billows and the sky."

So ends this graceful, melodious, tender poem, the position of which in English literature, and in the estimation of all who love English literature, has not been disturbed by any fluctuations of literary fashion. We may give more attention at the moment to the new experiments of the poetic method; but we return only with renewed gratitude to the old familiar strain, not the least merit of which is that it has nothing about it of foreign tricks or graces. In English literature there is nothing more thoroughly English than these writings produced by an Irishman. And whether or not it was Paddy Byrne, and Catherine Geraghty, and the Lissoy ale-house that Goldsmith had in his mind when he was writing the poem, is not of much consequence: the manner and language and feeling are all essentially English; so that we never think of calling Goldsmith anything but an English poet.

The poem met with great and immediate success. Of course everything that Dr. Goldsmith now wrote was read by the public; he had not to wait for the recommendation of the reviews; but, in this case, even the reviews had scarcely anything but praise in the welcome of his new book. It was dedicated, in graceful and ingenious terms, to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who returned the compliment by painting a picture and placing on the engraving of it this inscription: "This attempt to express a character in the _Deserted Village is dedicated to Dr. Goldsmith by his sincere friend and admirer, Sir Joshua Reynolds." What Goldsmith got from Griffin for the poem is not accurately known; and this is a misfortune, for the knowledge would have enabled us to judge whether at that time it was possible for a poet to court the draggle-tail muses without risk of starvation. But if fame were his chief object in the composition of the poem, he was sufficiently rewarded; and it is to be surmised that by this time the people in Ireland--no longer implored to get subscribers--had heard of the proud position won by the vagrant youth who had "taken the world for his pillow" some eighteen years before.

That his own thoughts had sometimes wandered back to the scenes and friends of his youth during this labour of love, we know from his letters. In January of this year, while as yet the _Deserted Village was not quite through the press, he wrote to his brother Maurice; and expressed himself as most anxious to hear all about the relatives from whom he had been so long parted. He has something to say about himself too; wishes it to be known that the King has lately been pleased to make him Professor of Ancient History "in a Royal Academy of Painting which he has just established;" but gives no very flourishing account of his circumstances. "Honours to one in my situation are something like ruffles to a man that wants a shirt." However, there is some small legacy of fourteen or fifteen pounds left him by his uncle Contarine, which he understands to be in the keeping of his cousin Lawder; and to this wealth he is desirous of foregoing all claim: his relations must settle how it may be best expended. But there is not a reference to his literary achievements, or the position won by them; not the slightest yielding to even a pardonable vanity; it is a modest, affectionate letter. The only hint that Maurice Goldsmith receives of the esteem in which his brother is held in London, is contained in a brief mention of Johnson, Burke, and others as his friends. "I have sent my cousin Jenny a miniature picture of myself, as I believe it is the most acceptable present I can offer. I have ordered it to be left for her at George Faulkenor's, folded in a letter. The face, you well know, is ugly enough; but it is finely painted. I will shortly also send my friends over the Shannon some mezzotinto prints of myself, and some more of my friends here, such as Burke, Johnson, Reynolds, and Colman. I believe I have written an hundred letters to different friends in your country, and never received an answer from any of them. I do not know how to account for this, or why they are unwilling to keep up for me those regards which I must ever retain for them." The letter winds up with an appeal for news, news, news.

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