REVISING: GOLDSMITH

revising the poem: coleridgePoints Illustrated

Revision of The Deserted Village, towards the fully-dressed style of Augustan poetry.

The Deserted Village: 1759 Version

Oliver Goldsmith's best-known poem, The Deserted Village, went through several drafts. The original appeared in a letter to his brother, the Rev. Henry Goldsmith, in 1759, where the author introduces "the hero of the poem, as lying in a paltry alehouse." {1}

The window, patch'd with paper, lent a ray,
That feebly showed the state in which he lay.
The sanded floor, that grits beneath the tread:
The humid wall with paltry pictures spread:
The game of goose was there expos'd to view
And he twelve rules the royal martyr drew:
The seasons, farm'd with listing, found a place,
And Prussia's monarch show'd his lamp-black face.
The morn was cold; he views with keen desire,
The rusty grate unconscious of a fire.
An unpaid reck'ning on the frieze was scor'd,
And five crack'd teacups dress'd the chimney board.

This is conventional eighteenth-century verse, not especially well-turned, but painting the scene aptly and adding a few telling details: lampblack face, unconscious of a fire and five crack'd teacups, etc. The draft was expanded as Letter XXX of The Citizen of the World, published in 1762, which explained that the scene was that of the author's bedroom.

Where the Red Lion flaring o'er the way,
Invites each passing stranger that can pay;
Where Calvert's butt, and Parson's black champagne,
Regale the drabs and bloods of Drury-Lane;
There is a lonely room, from bailiffs snug,
The Muse found Scroggen stretch'd beneath a rug;
The window, patch'd with paper, lent a ray,
That dimly showed the state in which he lay.
The sanded floor, that grits beneath the tread:
The humid wall with paltry pictures spread:
The royal game of goose was there in view
And he twelve rules the royal martyr drew:
The seasons, farm'd with listing, found a place,
And brave prince William show'd his lampblack face.
The morn was cold; he views with keen desire
The rusty grate unconscious of a fire.
With beer and milk arrears the frieze was scor'd,
And five crack'd teacups dress'd the chimney board.
A nightcap deck'd his brows instead of bay,
A cap by night — a stocking all the day!

What belonged to the author rather than the room, (i.e. feebly), has been replaced by dimly, Prussia's monarch has become brave prince William, and the game of goose has become royal. The gain is in sense, euphony and exact description.

Matters are rather different when Goldsmith comes to adapt this piece for The Deserted Village. It's not that the poet's circumstances have improved, or that Goldsmith wishes to cast the warm hue of nostalgia over the remembered scenes. The verse has now to be fully dressed for the social occasion, and the many touches of affectionate humour (news much older than their ale went round) or smiling apology (parlour splendours) smoothly worked in.

Low lies that house where nut-brown draughts inspir'd,
Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retir'd,
Where village statesmen talk'd with looks profound,
And news much older than their ale went round.
Imagination fondly stoops to trace
The parlour splendours of that festive place;
The white-wash'd wall, the nicely-sanded floor,
The varnish'd clock that click'd behind the door;
The chest contriv'd a double debt to pay,
A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day;
The pictures plac'd for ornament and use,
The Twelve Good Rules, the Royal Game of Goose;
The hearth, except when winter chill'd the day,
With aspen boughs, and flowers, and fennel gay;
While broken tea-cups, wisely kept for show,
Rang'd o'er the chimney, glisten'd in a row.

To us, of course, the earlier drafts may seem more natural, with less contrivance, less inflation of simple observation into general themes, but generalities are what the eighteenth century expected, and on what poets lavished their skills, very considerable in this case.

The opening lines of draft 2 are somewhat shapeless, but in The Deserted Village snippet even the sagging roof of the house is precisely evoked by the vowels:

Low lies that house where nut-brown draughts inspir'd,

and the epithets in the following line are exact: grey-beard and smiling. The following couplets not only enclose the sense properly but give it pleasing shape:

Where village statesmen talk'd with looks profound,
And news much older than their ale went round.

Imagination fondly stoops to trace
The parlour splendours of that festive place;

Before that favourite device, antithesis, takes a turn:

The white-wash'd wall | the nicely-sanded floor,
The varnish'd clock | that click'd behind the door;

But the device is not overdone, becoming muted in The chest contriv'd a double debt to pay and The pictures plac'd for ornament and use, and then broken into three phrases: With aspen boughs | and flowers | and fennel gay;

And so on. Much more could be said, particularly about the verse texture and the vowel harmonies, if we read the piece properly.

That is not now so easy, as these are the devices that the Romantics threw out, just as Modernism threw out much nineteenth-century craft. But in both cases the cost has been high. Social comment on everyday life becomes difficult, and the jewelled phrasing of Tennyson and the PreRaphaelites takes itself off to remote locations or idealized themes. The Augustans had just as keen an eye as Modernists, but the sense they made of those observations remained accessible to everyone who cared to think. Classics of our prose, Arnold called them, championing an ineffable view of poetry as something that lies between or beyond the words, what cannot fully be said — a view Persians and Chinese would understand but Indians perhaps would not.

Notes and References

1. A. F. Scott, The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (CUP, 1957), 55-58.
2. Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-1774) The Deserted Village. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.

 

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