Jun 172003

The relative reputations of Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe have long troubled me; I worry about such things.

Goldsmith is best-known for The Deserted Village (1780), which still appears in many standard English literature textbooks, like the one I had in high school. Crabbe is scarcely known at all. Goldsmith slaughters him in a Googlefight by a three to one margin, although to be fair Goldsmith, unlike Crabbe, has some fame outside of his poetry for his plays and his one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, which are better than the poetry, and for being a butt of Samuel Johnson’s jokes, which are excellent.

The Deserted Village mourns the death of the English village, somewhat prematurely, in a manner befitting someone who spent most of his adult life in London coffeehouses:

And all the village train, from labour free,
Led up their sports beneath the spreading tree;
While many a pastime circled in the shade,
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;
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,
The matron’s glance that would those looks reprove…

Etcetry etcetry. You notice nothing because there is nothing to notice. Another dozen lines of this and we are informed that “all these charms have fled,” along with the villagers themselves. It does not occur to Goldsmith that the villagers may have fled because they thought that they would find a better, or at least less miserable, life in the city, which the mortality rates of the time bear out. Instead the usual villains, trade and wealth, are called to account:

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
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,
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.

This poem irked Crabbe to no end, though not because of its foolish economics: why people left the village for the city concerns Crabbe not at all. What concerns him is Goldsmith’s sentimental picture of English rural life, which Crabbe, who grew up in the country and spent considerable time as a village parson, knew very well. In his reply, The Village (1783), he paints a rather different picture:

Where are the swains, who, daily labour done,
With rural games play’d down the setting sun;
Who struck with matchless force the bounding ball,
Or made the pond’rous quoit obliquely fall;…
Where now are these? Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighten pinnace where to land,
To load the ready steed with guilty haste,
To fly in terror o’er the pathless waste,
Or, when detected, in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land.

It is obvious whom to believe, but more than that, Crabbe’s verse is superior in every detail. His couplets are firm where Goldsmith’s are flabby. He eschews, except to mock, the clichés of the period, where Goldsmith indulges in them. “Swains” and “gambols” and “shades” that were already tired by the time Milton used them in Lycidas a century and a half before. There is nothing else especially rural about Goldsmith’s details; he seems to be viewing his subject from an immense distance, as, in fact, he is.

The Deserted Village lives, briefly, when he forgets that he is supposed to be apotheosizing the villagers and begins to satirize them instead. Thirty dull lines on the virtues of the minister, and then this:

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 own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.

I know bloggers like that. I may even be one. Goldsmith’s characterization of the “parlour splendours” of the “village statesmen” is also very sharp:

While broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Rang’d o’er the chimney, glisten’d in a row.

These are the best lines in The Deserted Village. It is a poor harvest from a 400-line poem that has been in the canon for more than two centuries.

Crabbe’s village minister, on the other hand, is unforgettable:

And doth not he, the pious man, appear,
He, “passing rich with forty pounds a year?” [the quote is from Goldsmith]
Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday’s task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skill’d the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide,
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skill’d at whist, devotes the night to play.

His village doctor is better still, or worse:

Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat,
All pride and business, bustle and conceit;
With looks unaltered by these scenes of wo,
With speed that, entering, speaks his haste to go,
He bids the gazing throng around him fly,
And carries fate and physic in his eye:
A potent quack, long versed in human ills,
Who first insults the victim whom he kills;
Whose murd’rous hand a drowsy Bench protect,
And whose most tender mercy is neglect.

Crabbe is at his best in natural description. He was a sort of amateur botanist, who annoyed his wife by bringing home mosses and lichens and spreading them around the bedroom. Goldsmith’s description is all “mossy” this and “shady” that; here is Crabbe’s:

From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither’d ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o’er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf,
O’er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

“Sickly” in particular, with its double meaning, is a master-stroke. You will not find more accurate nature poetry than this in any English poet save Hardy — not in Wordsworth, who interested himself in nature only as a prop for his jejune philosophy, and certainly not in Goldsmith.

Crabbe also provides a clue to Goldsmith’s continuing popularity, and to his own neglect:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task;
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. So I won’t try.

(Update: Several solecisms corrected. I was drunk when I wrote this.)

  7 Responses to “Village People”

  1. "The Lady of the Hall" (from, I think, "The Parish Register", though I’ve never read all of it) is one of the pieces by Crabbe which most struck me. The mixture of caustic social satire and vivid description (especially of the lady’s burial – she is said to be so mean she even denies the worms their food with her lead coffin) has a grim power which is unforgettable.

  2. Cindy: Grim indeed. Crabbe’s virtues are so unlike what people have been taught to look for in poetry that I doubt he will ever be fashionable.

  3. I agree with your assessment of Goldsmith. I’ve never understood the anthologizing, except this … he was (arguably, I suppose) the vanguard of the romantics. He foreshadowed much of what would follow, especially, I think, Wordsworth and to some extent Shelley. But his poems have no resonance.

  4. Howard: That’s a pregnant remark. It helps an artist’s reputation a great deal to play on the winning team. Self-dramatization wins out over self-effacement: Donne over Greville, or in our own time, Ginsburg and O’Hara over anyone who’s actually any good. Poets who write unsentimentally about rural life suffer especially from the myth of the noble savage — Crabbe of course, and Hardy even more so.

  5. "The Deserted Village" may still be anthologized, but with a certain irony, as the only suitable representative of what was once considered a most impressive oeuvre. Goldsmith’s ticket to immortality was as a comic foil in Boswell’s pages. He would probably be as obscure now as Crabbe, I suspect, if he hadn’t been part of the Johnsonian circle.

  6. Crabbe is the subject of a great Italian sonnet by Robinson, who wrote savagely about rural life. Of course, few read Robinson anymore either, and he’s a far greater poet than Crabbe.

  7. Belated thanks for this set of contrasting quotes. I haven’t thought about Goldsmith since I was a schoolboy. Now I know why I disliked him.

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