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Oliver Goldsmith's reputation as a narrowly pastoral poet is attributable to two factors. One is George Crabbe's use of Goldsmith's "Deserted Village" as a foil for his own poetic project. In "The Village" (1783), Crabbe claims to describe the living conditions of the poor realistically: "I paint the cot, / As truth will paint it, and as Bards will not."(1) He attacks pastoral poets for frivolously disregarding reality, chooses "The Deserted Village" as the representative pastoral poem, and relegates it to insignificance.
The other factor is the rise of the discourse of political economy, which displaced poetry as a genre in which society might be analyzed and critiqued. In the second half of the eighteenth century, political economy replaced morally based economic discourses (apparent, for example, in Pope's Moral Essays) with a view of the economy as a self-regulating, internally coherent system "exterior to human consciousness" and therefore independent of the traditional subject matter of poetry.(2) Especially after the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in 1776, political economy took over "the cognitive functions of poetry with respect to social and economic questions," on which poetry was no longer thought to speak authoritatively.(3) In his influential essay on Goldsmith, first published in 1856, Thomas Babington Macaulay claims that though "discerning judges...admire the beauty of the details" in "The Deserted Village," they "are shocked by one unpardonable fault which pervades the whole. The fault we mean is not that theory about wealth and luxury which has so often been censured by political economists. The theory is indeed false: but the poem, considered merely as a poem, is not necessarily the worse on that account." Goldsmith's "unpardonable fault," it turns out, is not "reasoning ill" about economic matters, for which a "poet may easily be pardoned," but "describing ill.(4) Macaulay expects poetry to be unable to address economics intelligently because it is poetry.
It remains important to an understanding of Goldsmith that we read back through these conventions of reputation to encounter a poetry that had not yet accepted the limitations subsequently placed upon it. Following recent work on Goldsmith, this essay reads him not within the limits Macaulay would place on him but within the context of mid-eighteenth-century economic and political debates and concerns. It demonstrates that Goldsmith, far from simply and unthinkingly replicating pastoral and other conventions, uses them self-consciously for specific political ends.(5)
In "The Deserted Village," suggests Roger Lonsdale, the pastoral and georgic modes are devastated within the poet's own imagination, the traditional celebration of retirement (97-112) is mocked by the ruined village to which the poet has "retired," the only topography worth describing is the landscape of memory, the tyrant's ravages are a hideous parody of the tradition of "country house" poetry still available to Pope, and the whole poem negates the familiar "Whig" panegyric of English commerce and liberty. (27)
I argue that the poem's generic instability expresses the contradiction between the Auburn of old, a pastoral environment governed by the formal requirements of the traditions and conventions Lonsdale mentions, and the deserted village of the present, whose destruction cannot be so contained. While the description of the village before its destruction is largely formulaic,(6) the description of the deserted village insists on its representational quality. "I have taken all possible pains," Goldsmith tells us in the "Dedication,"
"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."(7)
At the same time, however, Goldsmith is aware that he inevitably writes within certain traditions available to a poet in the eighteenth century: "This is not the place to enter into an enquiry, whether the country be depopulating, or . . . to tire the reader with a long preface, when I want his unfatigued attention to a long poem" (Works 4:285).(8) The poem is representational, on the one hand, yet, on the other, it has to situate itself within poetic traditions. The "Dedication" yokes the specificity of a historical moment to ahistorical generic conventions, and the irreconcilability of representational and rhetorical elements engenders the meanings of the poem.
The first two parts of this essay analyze the way in which the uneasy relationship between representation and poetic convention plays itself out in Goldsmith's appropriation of the pastoral and the georgic. "The Deserted Village" interrupts the symbolic order on which mid-eighteenth-century political and economic power rested by thematizing the moral ratio between generic traditions and what they can possibly represent. The third and fourth parts analyze Goldsmith's uses of the sentiment of ruination and the country house poem as critiques of the political elites who benefited from the economic status quo.
The pastoral allows the poet to displace contemporary economic relationships and their implications, since it relies on "idyllic time," an eternal now defined spatially rather than temporally.(9) "The sense of this universal pleasure," states Samuel Johnson in Rambler 36,
has invited "numbers without number" to try their skill in pastoral performances, in which they have generally succeeded after the manner of other imitators, transmitting the same images in the same combination from one to another, till he that reads the title of a poem, may guess at the whole series of the composition; nor will a man, after the perusal of thousands of these performances, find his knowledge enlarged with a single view of nature not produced before, or his imagination amused with any new application of those views to moral purposes.(10)
By the mid-eighteenth century, the pastoral was perceived as purely rhetorical. Even such revisions as Stephen Duck's representations of the working-class poet's own experiences remained within the grasp of rigid poetic conventions whose ahistoricity blunted the experiential dimension.(11) "Determined pastoralism" prevented an investigation of actual social conditions. It was not enough, wrote Thomas Tickell, that the poet
write about the Country; he must give us what is agreeable in that Scene, and hide what is wretched. It is indeed commonly affirmed, that Truth well painted will certainly please the Imagination; but it is sometimes convenient not to discover the whole Truth, but that part only which is delightful. . . . Thus in writing Pastorals, let the Tranquility of that Life appear full and plain, but hide the Meanness of it; represent its Simplicity as clear as you please, but cover its Misery.(12)
Even though Tickell advocated a contemporary English setting for pastorals, the social relations of eighteenth-century England remained hidden behind a convention that demanded their absence. The genre's fundamental paradox was brought out by Fontenelle in his treatise "Discours sur la nature de l'eglogue" (1688):
To please others in ingenious compositions, men ought to be in a condition to free themselves from pressing want, and their minds ought to be refined through a long use of civil society. Now a pastoral life has always wanted one of these two circumstances: the primitive shepherds, of whom we have spoken, lived indeed in plenty enough, but in their times the world had not yet had leisure to grow polite. The following ages might have produced something more refined, but the shepherds of those days were too poor and dejected, so that the country way of living and the poetry of shepherds must needs have been always very …