This is the second of four parts revisiting Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village which, with commentary from our Poetry Editor Ira Maine give insight on our social condition.
Both the parson and the school teacher in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Deserted Village’ are described as ‘sentimental’ characters by modern scholars, as if this were a fault. It very well might be, had not Goldsmith deliberately intended to create easily recognizable, sympathetic stereotypes to set against the monstrous reality of the day. Goldsmith, in the manner of Shakespeare, uses a wholly recognizable conceit to win his audience over. Do these same critics regard it as ‘sentimental’ when Prince Hal, in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry 1V’ (Part Two) rejects Falstaff and Ancient Pistol (who symbolize Hal’s youthful dissipation) in favour of the crown which will make him Henry V?
Elizabeth the First didn’t think so. The Virgin Queen and her court loved the down to earth reality of Falstaff so much that, when Shakespeare wrote off Falstaff and his cronies as unsuitable companions for a King (they are almost wholly absent from Henry V) Elizabeth demanded of Shakespeare that he write entirely new plays which had to include all of the discarded old favourites, like Moll Tearsheet, Mistress Quickly, (both ladies of somewhat forward reputation) Justice Shallow, Ancient Pistol and Falstaff himself. The Merry Wives of Windsor was the first of these.
You might have gathered by now that I am averse to critics. I am not. I am however, averse to bad ones.
But back to the plot.
Here is the parson from Goldsmith’s village, his sins set out like diamonds.
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,
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 ere had changed, nor wished to change his place;
Unskilful he to fawn, or seek for power,
By doctrines fashioned to the varying hour;
Far other aims his heart had learned to prize,
More bent to raise the wretched than to rise.
His house was known to all the vagrant train,
He chid their wanderings, but relieved their pain;
The long remembered beggar was his guest,
Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;
The ruined spendthrift, now no longer proud,
Claimed kindred there, and had his claims allowed;
The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,
Sate by his fire, and talked the night away;
Wept o’er his wounds, or tales of sorrow done,
Shouldered his crutch, and showed how fields were won.
Pleased with his guests, the good man learned to glow,
And quite forgot their vices in their woe;
Careless their merits, or their faults to scan,
His pity gave ere charity began.
[here we skip a few lines, stay with the parson and find him about his sacred duties;]
Beside the bed, where parting life was layed,
And sorrow, guilt, and pain, by turns dismayed,
The reverend champion stood.At his control,
Despair and anguish fled the struggling soul;
Comfort came down the trembling wretch to raise,
And his last faltering accents whispered praise.
At church, with meek and unaffected grace,
His looks adorned the venerable place;
Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway,
And fools who came to scoff, remained to pray.
The service past, around the pious man,
With ready zeal each honest rustic ran;
Even children followed with endearing wile,
And plucked his gown, to share the good man’s smile.
His ready smile a parent’s warmth exprest,
Their welfare pleased him and their woes distrest;
To them his heart, his love, his griefs were given,
But all his serious thoughts had rest in Heaven.
As with the school teacher, Goldsmith’s parson, a selfless man, is an essential member of village society. This village society, down to it’s last man, woman and child, believes absolutely in God. God’s representative in the village is the parson. It is important to be aware how strongly people believed both in God and the afterlife in the 18th century, especially when it came to dying. You were born into the village, christened, baptised and taken to regular church services as a child, long before you were aware of what was happening. You believed in God before you even knew what God might be. You grew up in the village, raised a good, christian family in the village, and died in the village with the parson in attendance because,
………………………At his control,
Despair and anguish fled the struggling soul;
Comfort came down the trembling wretch to raise…
People were terrified of death, the unknown, of being whisked away by the Devil, and derived great comfort from their absolute belief that the parson had God’s power vested in him when he administered the Last Rites.
The parson baptised and buried babies, comforted the sick and dying, gave succour to vagrants, tramps, and crippled soldiers, and every Sunday welcomed his flock into his church, where they might all rejoice together.
There were, of course, the usual suspects who inevitably arrive at any gathering to mock the proceedings. At least, (according to Goldsmith) they arrived with this attitude. But they soon discovered that they’d reckoned without the parson and his persuasive oratorical command;
Truth from his lips prevailed, with double sway
And fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray…
How glorious to come across an oft quoted familiar line like this, but have it take you by surprise! The pleasure is in the unexpected… there is another stoutly quotable line in the poem describing the Parson’s character which again must not pass by unremarked;
‘…More bent to raise the wretched than to rise…’
The parson saw it as his duty to help the wretched, the halt, the sick and the lame, rather than pursue advancement for himself. He neither wanted to ‘..change his place…’ [move to another, more influential town] or indeed ‘…to seek for power…by doctrines fashioned to the varying hour…’ To take to philosophical doctrines, ‘fashionable’ doctrines, which, though he might not believe in any of them, might get him noticed.
Oh dear. My enthusiasm may very well have outstripped your patience. It would appear I have expended much too much time on the parson.
Next week another entertaining episode!
Ira Maine, Poetry Editor.