The Rising Village Again
by W.J. Keith
Readers of Oliver Goldsmiths The Rising Village will be grateful to Kenneth J. Hughes for his pioneering article that appeared in the first issue of Canadian Poetry.1 His reading of the poem offers a healthy challenge to Desmond Paceys earlier but now largely outdated article, The Goldsmiths and Their Villages.2 These two articles represent, indeed, opposite extremes in their response to the poem. Pacey assumed that the Canadian poem was an inferior imitation of The Deserted Village by Goldsmiths famous great uncle and namesake, while Hughes claims that The Rising Village is truly Canadian and needs to be read on its own terms. The last three sentences of his article represent the culmination of Hughes argument: It should now be clear that Goldsmith was not simplemindedly imitating his great-uncle. The poem and the poet have surely lived too long in the shade of the earlier poet and poem. It is time for the poem to stand by itself for it is most as suredly capable of doing so (42). I shall argue here that the truth lies somewhere between these two poles.
I cannot fully accept the suggestion that the poem stands by itself because it seems clear that Goldsmith never intended that it should do so. Hughes himself grants that The Deserted Village is the predecessor-model of the Canadian poem (27). He admits that the comparative approach is satisfying up to a point, but beyond that point it prevents us from understanding the Canadian work in its own right (29). I would insist, however, that we cannot properly understand the Canadian work in its own right unless we see it in relation to the poem from which it indisputably derives but derives not as a blatant imitation but in literary terms as part of a conscious and accepted poetic tradition.
Many of the connections between the two poems are obvious (and, needless to say, Hughes recognizes them), but in the interests of my argument I must recapitulate them. First and foremost, of course, no one with the name of Oliver Goldsmith could sit down to write a poem in the early nineteenth century without being acutely conscious of the shadow of the author of The Vicar of Wakefield, The Deserted Village and She Stoops to Conquer peering over his shoulder. And in choosing his title, he both alludes to the earlier poem and indicates a difference in emphasis. A passage from his autobiography makes the structural connection between the two poems unambiguously clear:
The Deserted Village ends with the emigration of the displaced inhabitants, the following extract indicates:
The Rising Village begins where the earlier poem left off.
But there are other noteworthy connections. In dedicating the poem to his brother, and personally addressing him in the opening lines, Goldsmith is consciously following the older Oliver Goldsmiths procedure not, indeed, in The Deserted Village but in The Traveller (1764). By a curious coincidence, both elder brothers were named Henry, so the names not only of the authors but of those to whom the poems were dedicated are identical. And above all, course, the Canadian Goldsmith employs the same verse-form. Here I must insist that Hughes goes too far in his political reading of the poem when he maintains that Goldsmith uses the rhymed couplet because, with 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 (30). This may possibly be a secondary factor, but the primary reason can only be that this was the verse-form favoured by his predecessor. By means of this common verse-form, Goldsmith was able to forge a rhetorical and tonal link with The Deserted Village and so set his seal on the connection between the two poems.
Goldsmith makes the connection explicit in his opening verse-paragraphs, first by articulating his intention to emulate his fame / Whose genius formed the glory of our name (RV, p.2, ll.5-6)5 and second by the reference to Auburns village eight lines later. There are, moreover, several direct quotations set conspicuously in inverted commas: lowly train (RV, .2, l.15; DV, l.252), To tell of all they felt and all they saw (RV, p.5, l.156; lapsed from DV, l.92), man severe (RV, p.7, l.231; DV, l.197). Again, The village church in unadorned array (RV, p.5, l.167) balances The decent church that topt the neighbouring hill (DV, l.12); the description of tavern (RV, pp.4-5, ll.131ff.) is offered as both a comparison with and a contrast to the inn at Auburn (DV, ll.217ff.), while the portrait of the Canadian schoolmaster (RV, p.7, ll.229ff.) depends for its effect on the contrast with his Auburn equivalent (DV, ll.193ff.) Furthermore, the account of the portive pleasures in Nova Scotia depends upon the readers recognising echoes from The Deserted Village. Here is the Canadian version:
And this is the Anglo-Irish original:
I have set these lines side by side because they neatly exemplify the principle of similarity with difference which is perhaps the Canadian Goldsmiths most important literary effect. On the one hand, similarity is established through subject-matter and language (spreading tree, for example); on the other, he makes the point that the charms have indeed fled from England but are recreated in Nova Scotia.6
There are many other echoes. Here is the Canadian Goldsmiths description of the Acadian village as seen, in standard eighteenth-century fashion, from a convenient eminence:
He is recoding a specific passage from The Deserted Village:
Once again, the Canadian Goldsmith both follows his source and transforms it. He follows his predecessor up the hill, but he goes, significantly and appropriately, at dawn instead of in the evening, and his lines set up a comparison with the Auburn of the past and a contrast with the Auburn of the present. Where the evening setting of the original suggests the end of a process, the dawn of the imitation heralds a positive new beginning. I have said enough, I hope, to prove that, while The Rising Village undoubtedly exists as a poem in its own right, it cannot be considered in isolation from the tradition in which it was written. To ignore or play down this tradition is to do damage to the essential effects of the poem.
Hughes claims at one point that the two works do not properly belong to the same genre (28). Here once again I must disagree. This is not merely because I do not share his classification of The Deserted Village as a satire to the neglect of the element of elegy which (to say the least) is just as strong; neither satire nor elegy, in fact, characterizes The Rising Village. But the two poems are linked in a tradition that transcends this kind of generic cate gorization. So influential was The Deserted Village that it fostered a sub-genre within the English tradition of descriptive and topographical poetry that may be designated the Village Poem. Examples include George Crabbes The Village (1783), James Hurdiss The Favourite Village (1800), John Clares Helpstone (1820) and Ebenezer Elliotts The Splendid Village (1833). Remnants of the tradition survived even into the present century; one of Edmund Blundens poems, Old Homes, which begins,
is an unusually late instance. As my list indicates, village poetry can include a remarkable diversity of tones and approaches, but all the poems are linked by a specific subject-matter which is partly attributable to their common ancestor. The vast majority of them demonstrate quite explicitly their debt to the older Goldsmith. Moreover, the Canadian Goldsmith is not the only non-English contributor to the tradition. Later in this article I shall have occasion to discuss an interesting and very early American example, Timothy Dwights The Flourishing Village, part of a larger topographical poem en titled Greenfield Hill (1794) a poem far more obviously derivative from The Deserted Village than Goldsmiths.
First, however, I would like to explore in greater detail some of the subtler and more problematic interconnections between The Rising Village and The Deserted Village. Here the question of intention becomes decidedly tricky. I have, I think, demonstrated that Goldsmith unequivocally related his own poem to that of his great-uncle. But how far can one pursue these in terconnections? I agree with Hughes that he ultimately produces a very different poem because the circumstances under which he was writing and the conditions he was describing were both notably different. But, once the principle of interconnection is established, all sorts of possible tensions and ironies can be detected in the diverging patterns of the two poems. Many of these are, as it were, inherent within the material; Goldsmith could not have avoided them even if he had tried. For my part, I am not prepared to argue that Goldsmith was invariably conscious of them and even if he were, he did not always succeed in exploiting them but they are available to the careful reader and need to be discussed here.
Goldsmith points up the contrast between Nova Scotia and England by an apparently eulogistic account of Britannia:
A reader familiar with The Deserted Village cannot help but pause here as he remembers some of the lines in the earlier poem:
Splendid and its cognates are recurrent words in The Deserted Village, but they are words of criticism. They stand for luxury, opulence, the qualities that have sounded the death-knell of the old Auburn. Yet the Canadian Goldsmith uses the word (apparently) with approval. Similarly, the couplet praising cities and plains clashes oddly with the values of the earlier poem. For the Anglo-Irish Goldsmith the phrase merchants glory would carry with it a palpable sense of indignant sarcasm, and the poet who lamented the lot of the sad historian of the pensive plain (DV, l.136) could never use the word plains in connection with the farmers pride not, that is, unless pride were presented unequivocally as a sin. But the tone of the Rising Village passage does not lead us to suspect that criticism is intended.
Moreover, the immediately succeeding lines raise even greater difficulties:
Can it be, one wonders, that Goldsmith has temporarily forgotten the argument of his great-uncles poem: that the peace and comfort of Auburn are poignant because all these charms are fled and the village has been tyrannically uprooted? Possibly he is intending to be ironic here; it would be necessary, I think, for Hughes thesis that this should be so. If he is, I can only say that he fails to establish his attitude in an unambiguous manner.
The opportunities for paradox and irony continue in the lines describing the clearing of the forest to make a settlement in the New World. In both poems (contrary to romantic convention) silence has negative connotations. In The Deserted Village the older Goldsmith laments the passing of sounds of community lowing herds, playful children, barking dogs, etc., sounds that mark a healthily busy rural world (see ll.125-8 already quoted). The Canadian Goldsmith, by contrast, notes the oppressive silence of the virgin forest:
But (and this is my point) he does not seem to make anything of the contrast. He has led us to expect cross-reference back to the earlier poem, but in this case he raises expectations that he never satisfies. Perhaps he assumes that the reader will register the connection on his own, but I suspect not. Similarly, no English reader (and we recall at this point that the poem was originally published in England) could read the lines about tree-felling with out being struck by the contrast between his own sense of destruction8 and the positive connotations that come through in Goldsmiths lines:
He would be surprised (even, perhaps shocked) by the approval in the culminating next two lines:
Again one expects an elaborating commentary from Goldsmith, but he does not provide it. I am frankly undecided whether this is a matter of accident or design.
In his description of the Indian attack, one would expect an original presentation, since the Indians represent a threat unique to the New World. Here, however, Goldsmith surprises us (again, either by accident or by design the innocent-looking couplet,
Desolate is recoenizablv a Deserted Village word:
It combines with such words as usurp, decay, robbd, scourgd and devastation to build up an accusation against the mercantile landlord class. That the word is applied in The Rising Village to the murderous Indians would seem to indicate a conscious irony on Goldsmiths part, but we cannot be sure.
A few lines later, however, the associations change dramatically. Unlike the unfortunate villagers in Auburn, the Nova Scotian pioneer withstands the Indian attacks. He still retains possession of the soil (RV, p.4, l.104), we are told, and ultimately it is the Indians who must retire discomfited:
One is not over-reading, I think, to note that the Indians here find themselves in precisely the same position as the dispossessed countrymen in The Deserted Village. There is a potentially rich irony in the demonstration that the villagers drive the Indians out of their native haunts just as they were forced into unwilling exile themselves by the enclosing landowners in Britain. Perhaps this is a characteristically twentieth-century reading that would not have occurred to Goldsmith or his original readers, yet the pattern is there, established within the poem, backed up by the unequivocal parallels emphasized by Goldsmith in earlier verse-paragraphs. I do not wish to be dogmatically assertive about all these interconnections, but it seems to me that, cumulatively, they make a point. In view of what I have written, I do not think that Hughes need fear that a stress on the connections with The Deserted Village will necessarily make The Rising Village any less forceful or any less Canadian.
Up to this point I have based my argument on a relatively detailed comparison of The Rising Viilage with its acknowledged predecessor-model. I would now like to turn to another North American poem derived from The Deserted Village, Timothy Dwights The Flourishing Village. After a brief scrutiny of this poem, we should be in a better position to decide whether some of the difficulties in The Rising Village are to be explained by the poets individual temperament and ability or by the circumstances of the North American experience.
Timothy Dwight, born in 1752, was a grandchild of Jonathan Edwards. After attending Yale, beginning a lifelong career as a teacher and preparing to enter the Congregational Church, he took part briefly in the War of Independence. In 1783 he was ordained pastor of the Congregational Church at Greenfield, Connecticut, and two years later published his long religious poem The Conquest of Canuan. His most important poem, Greenfield Hill, of which The Flourishing Village forms a part, appeared in 1794. The following year he was appointed President of Yale, where he emphasized theology and religious observance. He published, preached and taught widely until his death in 1817.9
Greenfield Hill is divided into seven parts, The Flourishing Village forming the second section. Dwight explains his original plan in a prose introduction: Originally the writer designed to imitate, in the several parts, the manner of as many British Poets; but finding himself too much occupied, when he projected the publication, to pursue that design, he relinquished it.10 None the less, the first four parts follow this plan. Part I, The Prospect, is written in blank verse primarily derived from Thomsons Seasons; Part II, as we shall see, imitates The Deserted Village and its rhymed couplets; Part III, The Burning of Fairfield, employs octosyllabics in the tradition of John Dyer and Matthew Green; Part IV, The Destruction of the Pequods, is written in Spenserian stanzas that suggest the influence of James Beatties The Minstrel. The last three parts abandon any attempt at metrical variety, employing octosyllabics and rhymed couplets once again.
Like the Canadian Goldsmith, Dwight is quite specific about his debt to The Deserted Village. As he writes in his notes to the second part:
The basic plans, then, appear identical; both show villages successfully developing in the New World on socio-political principles opposed to those of the old country that saw the devastation of Auburn.
But despite the difference in political attitude (greater, as might be expected, in the patriotic American than in the Canadian descendant of United Empire Loyalists), Dwight imitates the Anglo-Irish Goldsmiths poetic effects extremely closely. Moreover, he follows a hallowed eighteenth century tradition in drawing attention to his borrowings and adaptations in the notes appended to his poem. The Flourishing Village begins:
and a little later we encounter the following:
The correspondence to ll.251-4 of The Deserted Village is close indeed. We might say that where the Canadian Goldsmith points up the connection by means of constant allusion, Dwight more often imitates and adapts the very rhymes and cadences of the original. At other times, of course, he creates equivalent situations and duly produces a description of the Greenfield schoolmaster which can be compared with those offered by the two Goldsmiths.
Oddly enough, Dwights general attitudes are closer to the older Goldsmiths than are those of the grand-nephew. His references to empty pride (p.400, l.92) and foul luxury (p.401, l.151), one feels, are not merely verbal but ideological debts to the author of The Deserted Village. Moreover, he emphasizes the extent to which Greenfield avoids the abuses of Auburn:
Although in the Thomsonian first part, while describing Longas Sound, he notes with apparent approval how
for the most part Dwight reflects the Anglo-Irish Goldsmiths suspicion of splendour, opulence and mercantile values.
Dwight, of course, had every reason to be antagonistic to the British. In 1779 the town of Fairfield, in which Dwights parish of Greenfield was situated, had been laid waste by British troops. As he describes the incident in the first part,
We note once again the word desolation, employed by both the Goldsmiths. Here, indeed, the British assault on Fairfield shares with an earlier Indian attack the place of the destructive landlords in The Deserted Village and the Indians in The Rising Village. When Dwight was writing, the War of Independence was not long over. The United States were beginning the slow process of defining their distinction from Europe. Dwight is continually reiterating his belief that life in New England is superior to that in the Old World.
But he can only articulate this connection in the literary tradition he was rejecting. As Kenneth Silverman has written, the very culture Dwight loathed gave him the only terms he knew in which to express his hopes. Because his borrowed language bound him to an English view of his situation, his terms of praise for Connecticut are the conventions and poetic images of a culture that in his view has prostituted them.11 The result is decidedly odd. The poem is full of patriotic eulogy for the principles of the United States and criticism (always implicit, frequently explicit) for the inequities of Britain and Europe. But the language, the rhythms, the verse-forms, many of the allusions and references, what we might call the feel of the poem all these inevitably suggest a cultural connection that his argument is denying. Silverman calls the resultant effect a kind of serious parody;12 this is a good general description, but it does not establish the precise relation between the parody and its original. We are aware of an uneasy sense of disparity between what Dwight tried to put into his poem and what we as readers find ourselves drawing out of it.
A similar (though not, of course, identical) situation confronts us when we turn back to The Rising Village. D.H. Lawrences famous advice, Never trust the artist. Trust the tale,13 seems to have little application in this context. While Dwight intends to write an independent North American poem but is thwarted by the English literary tradition he has to employ, Goldsmith is in a more complicated dilemma. The links with Britain remain, but the circumstances of life in Nova Scotia continually threaten to upset the balance that is being attempted. In these conditions, how can we be sure whether Goldsmith is upholding the connection or subtly undercutting it?
Hughes argues vigorously in favour of the second alternative; I am not so sure. A decidedly strong point in Hughes reading of the poem is the way in which he is able to interpret the story of Flora and Albert as an integral part of the poems argument whereas earlier commentators could only dismiss it as an irrelevant digression. For Hughes, it is an allegory:
This is too clear-cut for my taste, and I am bound to say that I do not think it quite works. If Hughes is right, why did Goldsmith go to the trouble, not once but twice, of stating that Albert is a native of Nova Scotia? He is introduced into the poem as follows:
And when he deserts Flora, he arrives:
Since Goldsmith is insistent that, on the literal level, Albert is neither English nor aristocratic, Hughes reading seems forced. Moreover, Goldsmith specifically offers his story not in terms of England and Nova Scotia but of vice and virtue. The paragraph introducing the tale (RV, p.8, ll.285-308) is unequivocal, and I see no reason to doubt the poets conscious intentions; that Hughes interpretation may reveal an unconscious or suppressed reaction on Goldsmiths part is possible but not demonstrable.
Some of the same problems arise in a consideration of the closing lines of the poem. Hughes sees the parallel invocations to Acadia and Britannia as decidedly ambivalent:
Here I find Hughes vocabulary unfortunate. By translating Goldsmiths poetic language into a reductive political rhetoric, he distorts the effect. If we stay closer to Goldsmiths lines, we see that, in the verse-paragraphs devoted to Acadia, he makes two statements that reinforce the connection with The Deserted Village, a fact that complicates any political reading.
First, he notes that the changes in the fortunes of the Nova Scotian village move in the opposite direction from those of Auburn. In The Deserted Village a peaceful and content Auburn is replaced by a desolate ruin; in Nova Scotia, the Indians reign of terror (RV, p.13, l.506) is followed And how changed the scene! (l.507) by prosperity and security with joy and plenty crowned (l.516), though the story of Flora and Albert (and this in itself justifies the inclusion of the tale) warns that the possibility of decline is ever-present. Second, in describing this prosperity, Goldsmith offers another of his puzzlingly ambiguous statements:
Commerce, luxuriant, rich, splendour. Once again the words with negative connotations in The Deserted Village become positive here. A reader sensitive to the political message of the earlier poem cannot help wondering whether commerce and luxury will not have the same baleful effect on the Nova Scotian village as they had on Auburn.
I would like to argue that this is the point of Goldsmiths poem, just as I would like to have argued earlier that he intended the possible link between the landowners devastation of Auburn and the Indians attack in Nova Scotia. But I cannot, in all conscience, do so. They are readings, like those of Hughes, which extend some of the meanings seemingly implicit in the poem, yet they are extrapolated interpretations, not explications of what is de monstrably there in the text. I do not think that we can escape the conclusion that Goldsmith, for all his merits, failed to communicate (even, perhaps, to recognize) the rich complexities that were available in his material. At any rate, like Timothy Dwight he was unable to reconcile within his poem the conflicting claims of tradition and independence.
In conclusion, I must return to the verse-form of The Rising Village. I have noted that Dwights Greenfield Hill employs blank verse, octosyllabics and Spenserian stanzas as well as rhymed couplets. This suggests that Hughes argument about the relation between political realities and appropriate verse-forms is exaggerated. Numerous verse-forms were available, though it is certainly true that some would prove more suitable than others. I agree with Hughes that the rhymed couplet was the best verse instrument in English for his purposes (42), but would reiterate the prime reason: that The Deserted Village had already employed this form and established a traditional precedent.
Ultimately, I cannot accept what seems to me to be Hughes rigidly deterministic connection between poetry and politics. It provides a neat (I think, too neat) thesis that oversimplifies the issues. The Rising Village is certainly a poem with political implications, but Goldsmiths ability as a poet is in the last analysis distinct from the quality of his response to the political tensions of his time. This brings us back, appropriately, to the poetic success of The Rising Village. Hughes maintains that the failure of the poem on its first publication in England 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 (30). Certainly the poem would have seemed an anomaly in the literary world of Byron, Scott, Southey and Wordsworth, but this is not to be explained solely in terms of history and politics. I suspect that the chief reason for its failure was the un remarkable quality of its verse.
There is no point in trying to disguise the fact that The Rising Village lacks the verbal subtlety, rhythmic range and variety of tone that distinguished The Deserted Village. Goldsmith possessed a notable talent for poetry (one that can easily be underrated it seems to me far more interesting than Dwights), but he lacked the genius of his great-uncle. He was unable to dominate words and control metrical effects in the manner of his ancestor; his was not a new voice in verse, and his subject-matter required a new voice. The Anglo-Irish Goldsmith created what it is now fashionable to call a persona for his poem; the Canadian Goldsmith did not, and this partly explains why as critics we find ourselves arguing about his intention rather than about his achievement. He was not, like his ancestor, a distinguished maker. But, while we may regret the unwritten great poem that might have been, there is no excuse for underestimating what we have. The Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith was writing at the end of an era; his Canadian namesake wrote at the beginning of another. It would be foolish to expect (or, under the circumstances, to desire) poetic splendour. Goldsmith was able to offer a more modest but also more appropriate achievement. If we wish to allegorize his poem, I believe that an allegory of poetic development in a new land is more applicable than a political reading. Goldsmiths inestimable contribution as literary pioneer was to raise a solid and serviceable log cabin in the Canadian poetic wilderness. It survives as a historic and significant creation.