The Deserted Village

How Oliver Goldsmith's poem 'The Deserted Village' inspired a painting, many years ago, and why his words and the image formed in my mind from them still dwell with me today.

'Sweet Auburn' The painting inspired by Goldsmith's poem (Acrylic on Card 44” x 32”)
'Sweet Auburn' The painting inspired by Goldsmith's poem (Acrylic on Card 44” x 32”)
This painting, from some time ago, depicts a scene from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Deserted Village’.

For those who don’t know the poem, it tells of the once thriving fictional rural village, ‘Auburn’, loved by the poet, which has fallen to desertion and decay in the late 1700s.

Almost all of its inhabitants are displaced from its stable and productive life, one of dignity and simple pleasures, if devoid of wealth, to futures far less certain and more precarious. Amongst the ruins of the cottages remains one “widowed, solitary thing”.

Goldsmith is not entirely explicit in stating the reason for the village’s decline, but hints boldly at the likely reasons, which were all too common at the time when many villages suffered this kind of fate.

Sometimes this came about by displacement, where a wealthy landowner decided to incorporate the site of a village into a grand new landscaped park design. Alternatively, it occurred by the inequitable and cumulative process of the enclosure of lands. This latter process was seen by the well off as being to the good of efficient and productive farming, but showed scant regard to its effects on most of the less well off rural population.

The poem was first published 252 years ago, in 1770, and it is exactly 250 years ago that the last print edition within Goldsmith’s life occurred, in 1772, as he was to die only two years later.

It was thirty years ago when I was first struck by Goldsmith’s words. I was in my second year of studying engineering at college (and probably should have been studying it a little harder) when I was browsing in a second hand bookshop. This was part of my almost weekly perusal of the many such shops that existed in the town at the time and I picked up a delightful old copy of Goldsmith’s works.

Such was the power of the poem, that I felt compelled to paint this scene, the piece laid on the floor of my college room. Maybe I would paint it differently if I were to return to it now, but I have a vast affection for it, and it still hangs in my hallway today.

Why did Goldsmith’s words about events of his time speak so compellingly to me, over such a gap in time?

Perhaps they felt like missing pieces in a jigsaw that I was slowly piecing together; a jigsaw of understanding on the underlying truth of our true relationship with the countryside. They particularly reminded me of a place familiar from teenage walks with a friend at dusk: the eerily beautiful and ancient, yet strangely sad and lonely, church of Albury, in Surrey.

The church was incongruously placed in the middle of nowhere, amongst the remnants of beautiful parkland and ancient trees, oddly distant from any site of habitation to provide it a congregation. It was once the site of a village, perhaps just such as Goldsmith described, and I could suddenly see it as once it might have been.

I had also recently read O. Rackham’s “The History of the Countryside” and J.L. and B. Hammonds’ “The Village Labourer”. These furnished a link of understanding as to the injustice of circumstance which lay behind the changes that time had wrought to such places.

At the end of the poem, Goldsmith expresses a hope to his poetry that its voice could “Aid slighted truth with thy persuasive strain”. Goldsmith probably didn’t live long enough to find out if Poetry, his ‘nurse of every virtue’, had anything of the effect he desired. Perhaps though, looking back over the course of history, it seems like his voice might have been part of the cause of a groundswell of opinion that began to curb a little of the worst effects of these rapacious changes. Unfortunately, such societal consciousness came far too late and failed substantially to alter the course of rural depopulation and poverty of his era.

Perhaps though, he would have been pleased to see how his words could be found so easily all these years later, and how inspirational and relevant many, like me, still find them... “prevailing over time...teach(ing) erring man to spurn the rage of gain”.

And there’s always a painting on the wall to remind me...