The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage and hounds. (p. 15)
This nostalgic but politically charged poem cemented Goldsmith’s literary reputation, which had been established by ‘The Traveller’ (1764) and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).
Goldsmith dedicated the poem to Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous portrait painter and his close personal friend. Unusually for a dedicatory letter, Goldsmith criticises Reynolds and other contemporaries. His target is their lack of acknowledgement of the problems faced by people in the countryside:
I know you will object (and indeed several of our best and wisest friends concur in the opinion) that the depopulation it [the poem] deplores is no where to be seen, and the disorders it laments are only to be found in the poet’s own imagination. To this I can scarce make any other answer than that I sincerely believe what I have written; that I have taken all possible pains, in my country excursions, for these four or five years past, to be certain of what I alledge, and that all my enquiries have led me to believe those miseries real, which I here attempt to display (p. vi)
Although set in a fictional village, the poem is rooted in Goldsmith’s lived experience in both rural Ireland and England and can be considered as an insightful piece of social commentary and political activism.
‘The Deserted Village’ idealises rustic life and country folk. Goldsmith depicts the inhabitants of the village as simple, wholesome people whose essential goodness is susceptible to the sins and cynicism of town-dwellers.
The premise at the heart of Goldsmith’s hit play She Stoops to Conquer (1773) is that Miss Hardcastle, though lacking great wealth or a title, is innocent and wholesome because of her country upbringing. She is therefore more desirable as a match for Charles Marlow (an aristocratic heir) than the experienced and immodest city girls.