Oliver Goldsmith

The Deserted Village


To Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Dear Sir,

I can have no expectations in an address of this kind, either to add to your reputation, or to establish my own. You can gain nothing from my admiration, as I am ignorant of that art in which you are said to excel; and I may lose much by the severity of your judgement, as few have a juster taste in poetry than you. Setting interest therefore aside, to which I never paid much attention, I must be indulged at present in following my affections. The only dedication I ever made was to my brother, because I loved him better than most other men. He is since dead. Permit me to inscribe this Poem to you.

How far you may be pleased with the versification and mere mechanical parts of this attempt, I don't pretend to enquire; but I know you will object (and indeed several of our best and wisest friends concur in the opinion) that the depopulation it deplores is no where to be seen, and the disorders it laments are only to be found in the poet's own imagination. To this I can scarce make any other answer than that I sincerely believe what I have written; that I have taken all possible pains, in my country excursions, for these four or five years past, to be certain of what I allege; and that all my views and enquiries have led me to believe those miseries real, which I here attempt to display. But this is not the place to enter into an enquiry, whether the country be depopulating or not; the discussion would take up much room, and I should prove myself, at best, an indifferent politician, to tire the reader with a long preface, when I want his unfatigued attention to a long poem.

In regretting the depopulation of the country, I inveigh against the increase of our luxuries; and here also I expect the shout of modern politicians against me. For twenty or thirty years past, it has been the fashion to consider luxury as one of the greatest national advantages; and all the wisdom of antiquity in that particular, as erroneous. Still however, I must remain a professed ancient on that head, and continue to think those luxuries prejudicial to states, by which so many vices are introduced, and so many kingdoms have been undone. Indeed so much has been poured out of late on the other side of the question, that, merely for the sake of novelty and variety, one would sometimes wish to be in the right.

I am, Dear Sir, Your sincere friend, and ardent admirer,

       Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
    Where health and plenty cheer'd the labouring swain,
    Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
    And parting summer's lingering blooms delay'd:
5   Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
    Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
    How often have I loiter'd o'er thy green,
    Where humble happiness endear'd each scene!
    How often have I paus'd on every charm,
10   The shelter'd cot, the cultivated farm,
    The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
    The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill,
    The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
    For talking age and whisp'ring lovers made!
15   How often have I blest the coming day,
    When toil remitting lent its turn to play,
    And all the village train, from labour free,
    Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
    While many a pastime circled in the shade,
20   The young contending as the old survey'd;
    And many a gambol frolick'd o'er the ground,
    And sleights of art and feats of strength went round;
    And still, as each repeated pleasure tir'd,
    Succeeding sports the mirthful band inspir'd;
25   The dancing pair that simply sought renown
    By holding out to tire each other down:
    The swain mistrustless of his smutted face,
    While secret laughter titter'd round the place;
    The bashful virgin's sidelong looks of love,
30   The matron's glance that would those looks reprove:
    These were thy charms, sweet village! sports like these
    With sweet succession, taught e'en toil to please:
    These round thy bowers their cheerful influence shed,
    These were thy charms—but all these charms are fled.
35      Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
    Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
    Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen,
    And desolation saddens all thy green:
    One only master grasps the whole domain,
40   And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
    No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
    But, chok'd with sedges, works its weedy way;
    Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
    The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
45   Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
    And tires their echoes with unvaried cries;
    Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
    And the long grass o'ertops the mould'ring wall;
    And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler's hand,
50   Far, far away, thy children leave the land.
       Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
    Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
    Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
    A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
55   But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
    When once destroy'd, can never be supplied.
       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,
60   Just gave what life requir'd, but gave no more:
    His best companions, innocence and health;
    And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
       But times are alter'd; trade's unfeeling train
    Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
65   Along the lawn, where scatter'd hamlets rose,
    Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose,
    And every want to opulence allied,
    And every pang that folly pays to pride.
    Those gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
70   Those calm desires that ask'd but little room,
    Those healthful sports that grac'd the peaceful scene,
    Liv'd in each look, and brighten'd all the green,—
    These, far departing, seek a kinder shore,
    And rural mirth and manners are no more.
75      Sweet Auburn! parent of the blissful hour,
    Thy glades forlorn confess the tyrant's power.
    Here, as I take my solitary rounds,
    Amidst thy tangling walks and ruin'd grounds,
    And, many a year elaps'd, return to view
80   Where once the cottage stood, the hawthorn grew,
    Remembrance wakes with all her busy train,
    Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain.
       In all my wand'rings round this world of care,
    In all my griefs—and God has giv'n my share—
85   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,
90   Amidst the swains to show my booklearn'd 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 she flew,
95   I still had hopes, my long vexations past,
    Here to return, and die at home at last.
       O blest retirement, friend to life's decline,
    Retreats from care, that never must be mine!
    How happy he who crowns in shades like these
100   A youth of labour with an age of ease;
    Who quits a world where strong temptations try,
    And, since 'tis hard to combat, learns to fly!
    For him no wretches, born to work and weep,
    Explore the mine, or tempt the dang'rous deep;
105   No surly porter stands in guilty state,
    To spurn imploring famine from the gate;
    But on he moves to meet his latter end,
    Angels around befriending virtue's friend;
    Bends to the grave with unperceiv'd decay,
110   While resignation gently slopes the way;
    And, all his prospects bright'ning to the last,
    His heav'n commences ere the world be past!
       Sweet was the sound, when oft at evening's close
    Up yonder hill the village murmur rose.
115   There, as I past with careless steps and slow,
    The mingling notes came soften'd from below;
    The swain responsive as the milk-maid sung,
    The sober herd that low'd to meet their young,
    The noisy geese that gabbled o'er the pool,
120   The playful children just let loose from school,
    The watch-dog's voice that bay'd the whisp'ring wind,
    And the loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind,—
    These all in sweet confusion sought the shade,
    And fill'd each pause the nightingale had made.
125   But now the sounds of population fail,
    No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,
    No busy steps the grass-grown foot-way tread,
    For all the bloomy flush of life is fled!
    All but yon widow'd, solitary thing,
130   That feebly bends beside the plashy spring:
    She, wretched matron, forc'd in age for bread,
    To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,
    To pick her wintry faggot from the thorn,
    To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn;
135   She only left of all the harmless train,
    The sad historian of the pensive plain.
       Near yonder copse, where once the garden smil'd,
    And still where many a garden flower grows wild;
    There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,
140   The village preacher's modest mansion rose.
    A man he was to all the country dear,
    And passing rich with forty pounds a year;
    Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
    Nor e'er had changed, nor wish'd to change, his place;
145   Unpractis'd he to fawn, or seek for power,
    By doctrines fashion'd to the varying hour;
    Far other aims his heart had learn'd to prize,
    More skill'd to raise the wretched than to rise.
    His house was known to all the vagrant train;
150   He chid their wand'rings but reliev'd their pain;
    The long remember'd beggar was his guest,
    Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;
    The ruin'd spendthrift, now no longer proud,
    Claim'd kindred there, and had his claims allow'd;
155   The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,
    Sat by his fire, and talk'd the night away,
    Wept o'er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,
    Shoulder'd his crutch and show'd how fields were won.
    Pleas'd with his guests, the good man learn'd to glow,
160   And quite forgot their vices in their woe;
    Careless their merits or their faults to scan,
    His pity gave ere charity began.
       Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,
    And e'en his failings lean'd to virtue's side;
165   But in his duty prompt at every call,
    He watch'd and wept, he pray'd and felt for all;
    And, as a bird each fond endearment tries
    To tempt its new-fledg'd offspring to the skies,
    He tried each art, reprov'd each dull delay,
170   Allur'd to brighter worlds, and led the way.
       Beside the bed where parting life was laid,
    And sorrow, guilt, and pain, by turns dismay'd
    The rev'rend champion stood. At his control
    Despair and anguish fled the struggling soul;
175   Comfort came down the trembling wretch to raise,
    And his last falt'ring accents whisper'd praise.
       At church, with meek and unaffected grace,
    His looks adorn'd the venerable place;
    Truth from his lips prevail'd with double sway,
180   And fools who came to scoff remain'd to pray.
    The service past, around the pious man,
    With steady zeal, each honest rustic ran;
    E'en children follow'd with endearing wile,
    And pluck'd his gown to share the good man's smile.
185   His ready smile a parent's warmth exprest:
    Their welfare pleas'd him, and their cares distrest:
    To them his heart, his love, his griefs were given,
    But all his serious thoughts had rest in heaven.
    As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form,
190   Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
    Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread,
    Eternal sunshine settles on its head.
       Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,
    With blossom'd furze unprofitably gay,
195   There, in his noisy mansion, skill'd 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 learn'd to trace
200   The day's disasters in his morning face;
    Full well they laugh'd with counterfeited glee
    At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
    Full well the busy whisper circling round
    Convey'd the dismal tidings when he frown'd.
205   Yet he was kind, or, if severe in aught,
    The love he bore to learning was in fault;
    The village all declar'd how much he knew;
    'Twas certain he could write, and cypher too:
    Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
210   And ev'n the story ran that he could gauge.
    In arguing, too, the parson own'd his skill,
    For, ev'n though vanquish'd, he could argue still;
    While words of learned length and thundering sound
    Amazed the gazing rustics rang'd around;
215   And still they gaz'd, and still the wonder grew,
    That one small head could carry all he knew.
       But past is all his fame. The very spot
    Where many a time he triumph'd is forgot.
    Near yonder thorn, that lifts its head on high,
220   Where once the sign-post caught the passing eye,
    Low lies that house where nut-brown draughts inspir'd,
    Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retir'd,
    Where village statesmen talk'd with looks profound,
    And news much older than their ale went round.
225   Imagination fondly stoops to trace
    The parlour splendours of that festive place;
    The white-wash'd wall, the nicely-sanded floor,
    The varnish'd clock that click'd behind the door;
    The chest contriv'd a double debt to pay,
230   A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day;
    The pictures plac'd for ornament and use,
    The Twelve Good Rules, the Royal Game of Goose;
    The hearth, except when winter chill'd the day,
    With aspen boughs, and flowers, and fennel gay;
235   While broken tea-cups, wisely kept for show,
    Rang'd o'er the chimney, glisten'd in a row.
       Vain transitory splendours! could not all
    Reprieve the tottering mansion from its fall?
    Obscure it sinks, nor shall it more impart
240   An hour's importance to the poor man's heart.
    Thither no more the peasant shall repair
    To sweet oblivion of his daily care;
    No more the farmer's news, the barber's tale,
    No more the woodman's ballad shall prevail;
245   No more the smith his dusky brow shall clear,
    Relax his pond'rous strength, and lean to hear;
    The host himself no longer shall be found
    Careful to see the mantling bliss go round;
    Nor the coy maid, half willing to be prest,
250   Shall kiss the cup to pass it to the rest.
       Yes! let the rich deride, the proud disdain,
    These simple blessings of the lowly train;
    To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
    One native charm, than all the gloss of art;
255   Spontaneous joys, where nature has its play,
    The soul adopts, and owns their firstborn sway;
    Lightly they frolic o'er the vacant mind,
    Unenvied, unmolested, unconfin'd.
    But the long pomp, the midnight masquerade,
260   With all the freaks of wanton wealth array'd—
    In these, ere triflers half their wish obtain,
    The toiling pleasure sickens into pain;
    And, e'en while fashion's brightest arts decoy,
    The heart distrusting asks if this be joy.
265      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,
270   And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
    Hoards e'en 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.
275   Not so the loss. 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:
    The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
280   Has robb'd the neighb'ring fields of half their growth:
    His seat, where solitary sports are seen,
    Indignant spurns the cottage from the green:
    Around the world each needful product flies,
    For all the luxuries the world supplies;
285   While thus the land adorn'd for pleasure all,
    In barren splendour feebly waits the fall.
       As some fair female unadorn'd and plain,
    Secure to please while youth confirms her reign,
    Slights every borrow'd charm that dress supplies,
290   Nor shares with art the triumph of her eyes;
    But when those charms are past, for charms are frail,
    When time advances, and when lovers fail,
    She then shines forth, solicitous to bless,
    In all the glaring impotence of dress.
295   Thus fares the land by luxury betray'd:
    In nature's simplest charms at first array'd,
    But verging to decline, its splendours rise,
    Its vistas strike, its palaces surprise;
    While, scourg'd by famine from the smiling land,
300   The mournful peasant leads his humble band,
    And while he sinks, without one arm to save,
    The country blooms—a garden and a grave.
       Where then, ah! where, shall poverty reside,
    To 'scape the pressure of contiguous pride?
305   If to some common's fenceless limits stray'd
    He drives his flock to pick the scanty blade,
    Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
    And ev'n the bare-worn common is denied.
       If to the city sped—what waits him there?
310   To see profusion that he must not share;
    To see ten thousand baneful arts combin'd
    To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
    To see those joys the sons of pleasure know
    Extorted from his fellow-creature's woe.
315   Here while the courtier glitters in brocade,
    There the pale artist plies the sickly trade;
    Here while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
    There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.
    The dome where pleasure holds her midnight reign
320   Here, richly deck'd, admits the gorgeous train:
    Tumultuous grandeur crowds the blazing square,
    The rattling chariots clash, the torches glare.
    Sure scenes like these no troubles e'er annoy!
    Sure these denote one universal joy!
325   Are these thy serious thoughts.?—Ah, turn thine eyes
    Where the poor houseless shiv'ring female lies.
    She once, perhaps, in village plenty blest,
    Has wept at tales of innocence distrest;
    Her modest looks the cottage might adorn
330   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,
335   When idly first, ambitious of the town,
    She left her wheel and robes of country brown.
       Do thine, sweet Auburn, thine, the loveliest train,—
    Do thy fair tribes participate her pain?
    Ev'n now, perhaps, by cold and hunger led,
340   At proud men's doors they ask a little bread!
       Ah, no! To distant climes, a dreary scene,
    Where half the convex world intrudes between,
    Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
    Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
345   Far different there from all that charm'd before,
    The various terrors of that horrid shore:
    Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
    And fiercely shed intolerable day;
    Those matted woods, where birds forget to sing,
350   But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
    Those pois'nous fields with rank luxuriance crown'd,
    Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
    Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
    The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
355   Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
    And savage men more murd'rous still than they;
    While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
    Mingling the ravag'd landscape with the skies.
    Far different these from every former scene,
360   The cooling brook, the grassy-vested green,
    The breezy covert of the warbling grove,
    That only shelter'd thefts of harmless love.
       Good Heaven! what sorrows gloom'd that parting day,
    That call'd them from their native walks away;
365   When the poor exiles, every pleasure past,
    Hung round their bowers, and fondly look'd their last,
    And took a long farewell, and wish'd in vain
    For seats like these beyond the western main,
    And shudd'ring still to face the distant deep,
370   Return'd and wept, and still return'd to weep!
    The good old sire the first prepar'd to go
    To new found worlds, and wept for others' woe;
    But for himself, in conscious virtue brave,
    He only wish'd for worlds beyond the grave.
375   His lovely daughter, lovelier in her tears,
    The fond companion of his helpless years,
    Silent went next, neglectful of her charms,
    And left a lover's for a father's arms.
    With louder plaints the mother spoke her woes,
380   And bless'd the cot where every pleasure rose,
    And kiss'd her thoughtless babes with many a tear,
    And clasp'd them close, in sorrow doubly dear,
    Whilst her fond husband strove to lend relief
    In all the silent manliness of grief.
385      O luxury! thou curst by Heaven's decree,
    How ill exchang'd are things like these for thee!
    How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
    Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
    Kingdoms by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
390   Boast of a florid vigour not their own.
    At every draught more large and large they grow,
    A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe;
    Till sapp'd their strength, and every part unsound,
    Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.
395      Ev'n now the devastation is begun,
    And half the business of destruction done;
    Ev'n now, methinks, as pond'ring here I stand,
    I see the rural virtues leave the land.
    Down where yon anchoring vessel spreads the sail,
400   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;
405   And piety, with wishes placed above,
    And steady loyalty, and faithful love.
    And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
    Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
    Unfit in these degenerate times of shame
410   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;
415   Thou guide by which the nobler arts excel,
    Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!
    Farewell, and oh! where'er thy voice be tried,
    On Torno's cliffs, or Pambamarca's side,
    Whether where equinoctial fervours glow,
420   Or winter wraps the polar world in snow,
    Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
    Redress the rigours of th' inclement clime;
    Aid slighted truth, with thy persuasive strain
    Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
425   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 labour'd mole away;
    While self-dependent power can time defy,
430   As rocks resist the billows and the sky.

First published 1770

Robert Clark

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