Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Rising Village’’

by Kenneth J. Hughes


     The best available criticism of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Rising Village” is to be found in “The Goldsmiths and Their Villages,” an article of 1951 by Desmond Pacey,1 and in the economical statement by Fred Cogswell in the Literary History of Canada.2 These works of criticism are not without their problems, however, for they fail to perceive both the functional significance of the Flora and Albert section of the poem and the implications of the removal of certain telling first edition passages from the second edition. These omissions and the over-emphasis on the elder Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” as model lead to other difficulties.

     Professor Pacey offers a comparative analysis of “The Rising Village” and its predecessor-model, “The Deserted Village,” by the Canadian poet’s Irish namesake and great-uncle. He notes the similarity of the general structure of each work and observes that the Canadian poem is 132 lines longer (p. 27). This extension he attributes to the addition of the Flora and Albert story to the Canadian poem, for which there is no equivalent in “The Deserted Village.” But that the structures of the two works are similar except for the Flora and Albert story surely suggests that the latter must be of some great since, for the Canadian Goldsmith must have had some compelling reason for departing from his model when he inserted the Flora and Albert story, as indeed he had.

     For Professor Pacey the Canadian poem is decidedly inferior to its Irish ancestor because it lacks the “Wit and passion” (p. 28) of that work. Indeed, he proceeds to say, “The Canadian Goldsmith . . . appears to have felt passionately about nothing: he neither hates nor loves with any of his uncle’s vehemence. The latter’s diatribes against luxury and the tyranny of wealth have . . . no counterpart in The Rising Village” (p. 29). The latter part of this statement is unquestionably true as any examination of the text will quickly verify. It by no means follows, however, that the alleged cause, the supposed lack of wit and passion, is characteristic of Goldsmith the man. Goldsmith undoubtedly knew what every eighteenth-century rhetorician knew, that an approach must generally be in some way acceptable to the audience for which a work is intended, and therefore a literary art object is by no means necessarily a measure of the passion an individual writer actually brings to a particular subject.

     But there is a yet more compelling reason for the difference of emotional intensity between the two works and this is indicated by the titles themselves, “The Rising Village” and “The Deserted Village.” The Canadian work is a success story written from the point of view of the ruling oligarchy in Halifax; the elder Goldsmith’s poem is a story of failure by a member of the Tory class in Britain which is threatened by the rise of industrialism and new social forces. The Canadian looks on with satisfied pleasure (despite some problems), while the Irishman inveighs against the wretched developments in what is for him an increasingly vile world. His passions and invective  — and wit — can be explained readily enough by the socio-economic developments that gave rise to them. Similarly, the Canadian Goldsmith’s position can be explained by the different situation in Nova Scotia. There is no point in bemoaning the absence of qualities in the one work which are present in the other because different conditions gave rise to each. Both works distort empirical facts to give birth to what each writer considered to be the essential truth. For the elder Goldsmith this took the form of an outraged pessimism, for the younger, a satisfied optimism. If the elder Goldsmith prematurely indicted socio-economic developments that led to rural depopulation, he nonetheless anticipated what was going to happen; and if the younger Goldsmith glosses over some of the problems in Nova Scotia (by no means all of them) in his optimistic portrait of the province, it still remains that Nova Scotia was a success story and his account of its rise is essentially correct.

     Another criticism by Professor Pacey of the Canadian poem is that it “falls short of the style of its model . . . in its relative lack of specific detail” (p. 34). Written in accordance with eighteenth-century conventions which emphasized the universal, the tulip rather than the stripes on the tulip, we would not expect an abundance of detail. Moreover, notwithstanding the similarity of structure between “The Rising Village” and “The Deserted Village,” the two works do not properly belong to the same genre.

     A little later Professor Pacey quotes a few lines from the poem:

            As thus the village each successive year
            Presents new prospects, and extends its sphere,
            While all around its smiling charms expand,
            And rural beauties decorate the land.

Of these he remarks: “This last passage has the air of being written by rote: it is a bit of padding which adds nothing to our understanding of the village” (p. 31). There are two main problems here. First, far from being redundant, this passage is thoroughly functional in terms of the development of the poems and it is therefore not padding. The abstract and universal rather than concrete “new prospects,” “extends,” “sphere,” and “expand” constitute essential parts of a sequence of deliberate repetitions (sometimes incremental) to remind us of the constant expansion of Nova Scotia in the process of growth. Second, we are not primarily interested in this poem with any “understanding of the village” as such. The village, like the characters, is typical, and it is intended to represent all the rising villages in the colony, and thus it is intended to represent the whole of Nova Scotia. This is why we move from the first hut at the beginning of the poem to a fully developed Nova Scotia at the end. And it is precisely because the village is all the villages in a rising Nova Scotia that Goldsmith avoids detail and emphasizes universality through appropriate diction.

     Professor Pacey’s comparison of character types and his preference for the English schoolmaster in “The Deserted Village,” rather than the type in “The Rising Village,” is difficult to understand. He writes: “Both schoolmasters are types, but the English schoolmaster is much more of a recognizable person than his Canadian counterpart” (p. 34). The Canadian schoolmaster emerges, in fact, as a type generally in keeping with McCulloch’s schoolmaster in Stepsure Letters.3 Moreover, the Canadian Goldsmith has set himself a much more difficult task than his ancestor as he attempts to outline his Canadian schoolmaster, for not only does he deliberately echo the elder Goldsmith as he creates the antithesis of the English schoolmaster, but he proceeds to offer us a Canadian type as well.

     The point of these comments is not to set the scene for a claim that the Canadian Goldsmith is better than his ancestor. To do that would be to go to the other extreme of Professor Pacey’s position (as it was, that is, twenty years ago). The object is rather to suggest that the comparative approach is satisfactory up to a point, but beyond that point it prevents us from understanding the Canadian work in its own right. For while the Canadian Goldsmith consciously works in the tradition of his ancestors, he transforms that tradition in the light of Canadian needs. “The Rising Village” will not replace Paradise Lost in the aesthetic pecking order, but it still be further up the line than Professor Pacey was inclined to believe in 1951.

     Professor Cogswell makes three points about “The Rising Village” that  need to be questioned and modified. First, he states that “When The Rising Village: A Poem appeared in London in 1825, Goldsmith became so disappointed by the invidious comparisons that English critics made with his great-uncle’s work that he lost all further interest in poetic composition. He did, however, re-issue the poem, along with a few occasional pieces, in a volume entitled The Rising Village, with Other Poems, published in Saint John, in 1834” (p. 120). In fact a good deal more than personal disappointment at the reception of his poem in London was involved. His poetical disappointment was matched by and concurrent with political disappointment, and this led to a shift in political consciousness so that from an ardent proponent of the mercantile imperial system Goldsmith became aware of, and probably a party to, an incipient Nova Scotia nationalism;4 evidence for these views can be found in an examination of the major differences between the 1825 and 1834 editions.

      Professor Cogswell’s second point is that the poem falls basically into three parts, and “Sandwiched between and bearing little organic relation to either part is the pathetic story of Flora and Albert” (p. 120). The argument here will be twofold: that an understanding of the function of the story of Flora and Albert is central to an understanding of “The Rising Village” and that the story is an integral part of the whole work. In certain respects it is like the story of Leonora in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, but instead of offering a parallel story within a main plot to enforce his moral as Fielding does, Goldsmith moves to allegory because he is dealing with politically dangerous material.

     Professor Cogswell’s third point is in reference to poetic technique: “In his skilful use of balance and antithesis, Goldsmith demonstrates how carefully he had studied his great-uncle’s work. Unfortunately, he borrowed tamely every conceivable trite phrase and hackneyed rhyme that had found its way into the eighteenth-century British couplet.” As a result, his otherwise respectable lines are studded with clichés” (p. 120). These judgements can only be modified by reference to poetry and politics, or rather what may be called the politics of poetry. In the absence of serious studies of the social basis in Britain for the relationship between the orderly couplet poetic form (why it was dominant and admired) and he generalized desire for order characteristic of the period, together with the prevalence of the admired and ubiquitous presence of antithesis, the answer to Professor Cogswell’s criticism can only be sketchy. Yet it can surely be no accident that the eighteenth century was the period which saw the consolidation in Britain for the first time of opposing political parties to create a union of opposites within the parliamentary framework. Nor can it be an accident that these parties were the expression in politics of a union of opposites in the economic sphere between a Tory landed class and Whig mercantile capitalists. If there was strict order and tension in the poetry, there was also strict order and tension in the daily political and economic life of the country.

     When Goldsmith wrote, this socio-economic and political balance had been destroyed in Britain by the rise of laissez-faire industrial capitalism, and in this process the hegemony of the couplet had been upset in poetry. But this had not yet happened in Canada. The society which Goldsmith describes is one in which the eighteenth-century British situation still obtains, for Nova Scotia was still controlled by landed and mercantile interests. It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Goldsmith uses the couplet form because, with its balance and antithesis, it constitutes a poetical form appropriate to a society in which political power consists of a union of opposites in the alliance between landed Tory and mercantile Whig interests. That is to say, since order and tension were characteristic of his audience’s daily experience, the same qualities in the literature would lead his audience to accept works in the couplet form as reflections of what was real. If Goldsmith learned the technique of balance and antithesis in the couplet form from his great-uncle, it was because he found it a congenial form in the first place. If he found it to be congenial, it was because it was appropriate both to the structure of the Nova Scotia society about which he wrote (i.e., what his audience expected) and to the structure of his own mind. We might go further and suggest that if Goldsmith had been able to write his work in blank verse, he would have been unable to communicate with his Nova Scotian brethren. In other words, although there would have been a first edition in London, there would not have been a second Canadian edition.

     In the light of the somewhat sketchy considerations it seems reasonable to say that while Goldsmith learned from his great-uncle’s work — and that of others — he was not simply a slavish imitator; rather he was working in a tradition which was accepted and expected by the audience of his time in Nova Scotia. That his work was not a success in England in the first edition of 1825 can be explained by the socio-economic industrial revolution which had destroyed the eighteenth-century conditions which in turn had given rise to the heroic couplet.

     Professor Cogswell alleges that Goldsmith borrowed phrases from the eighteenth-century British couplet. To begin to put this allegation in its proper perspective we must refer to the doctrines of poetic diction and poetic kinds, although it must be observed that, in the absence of a fully annotated edition of “The Rising Village,” the case for extensive borrowing has not yet been proved. While there was no Academy along the lines of the French Academy in England in the eighteenth century, the rules for the writing of poetry were as well known as if there had been. Tillotson observes that the heroic couplet “became the most precise metre ever used in English verse”5  and “the ‘kinds’ of poetry were still seen as distinct, and as requiring the use of different kinds of diction” (p. 24). Berger argues that such academic rules “schematize and inhibit the artist’s imagination before he even begins to work.”6 Thus, eighteenth-century British poetic theory constitutes an a priori concept of poetry for Goldsmith; he knows in general what he will do before he does it. We can therefore expect a similarity between his diction  and eighteenth-century British poetic diction. How many phrases are merely similar and how many literally borrowed we cannot know at the present time. But we do know that Goldsmith was limited in his choice of diction by the rules governing the kind of poetry he wrote. Tillotson remarks that, “When writing satire the eighteenth-century poet chose his words as freely as any poet.” The art, passion, and invective of the elder Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” seems to belong here. However, “when writing an epic pastoral, and georgic the eighteenth-century poet was not so free” (p. 28). “The Rising Village” seems to belong here. Goldsmith could not freely choose his diction because he was not writing satire; he was writing according to the rules.  He was writing according to the rules because his subject (and audience) was a society with the same political and economic power structure and the same poetic expectations as obtained in Britain in the eighteenth century, out of which the poetic rules had sprung (or been adapted from the French). Goldsmith’s acceptance of the rules implies an acceptance of the political power structure, although his attitude is by no means unquestioning.

     The critics find “The Rising Village” to be beset with problems and these problems are said to be the cause of the work’s failure. However, if we approach the poem from a different angle, we shall be able to see that “The Rising Village,” in fact, is a coherent poetic structure in which the Flora and Albert story has a functional part. Moreover, we shall also be able to account for the major textual changes7 between the 1825 and 1834 editions, changes about which the critics are silent. The text employed here will be that of 1834 for the simple reason that it is the most Canadian of the two and the one most employed by critics.


     “The Rising Village”8 seems to be a very simple poem at first glance. It starts with conventional invocations and moves on to a brief description of the mother country, England. From this point it offers an account of the history of the settlement of Nova Scotia and of the growth of the village of the title. We start with savage Indians, see nature gradually tamed and crops grow. We watch the appearance of the tavern, church, general store, and schoolhouse, together with the pedlar who turns merchant, the half-bred doctor, and the teacher. We are told of country sports and of the sad (and, as some think, silly and digressive) story of Flora and perfidious Albert which takes up about one fifth of the work. Albert, “noble, kind, and free,” meets “Flora on the green” in summer and offers “vows of love.” Winter having arrived, “the bridal dress was made” and all is set for the wedding. At this point Albert sends a letter saying that he cannot marry her and that he has gone away. With “her reason fled,” Flora dashes out into the setting sun and the cold snow where she collapses to be saved next morning by a poor “peasant” whose wife nurses Flora back to health. The poem closes with the now viable community that is Nova Scotia presented as a good child of mother Britain. The general effect of this superficial reading is that of a concatenation of vignettes that moves us across time.

     The poem opens with an address to the poet’s brother, Henry, the person to whom the dedicatory letter of the 1825 edition was also addressed: