Compare and contrast Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”.

Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” were published within a gap of two years in the final decade of eighteenth century, i.e. 1740 and 1742 respectively. Both the poems were written in the Pastoral form, by which they portrayed as well as challenged the socio-political and economic developments in the eighteenth century England. Where Goldsmith writes about his concerns about the phenomenon of “depopulation” in the English villages, Gray questions the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Interestingly, what both the author’s portrayed were the outcomes of the thriving Capitalism in England and the growing imperialism.

Gray’s “Elegy” and Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” are written with an English village in the hinterland: in the former, Gray moans the death of the village dwellers’ unsung “artless tales” and in the latter, Goldsmith laments the dismantling of the village life. W. W. Greg has argued in Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama, Pastoral was used by the eighteenth century poets as a yearning to “escape, if it were but in imagination and for a moment, to a life of simplicity and innocence from the bitter luxury of the court and the menial bread of princes.” The “Elegy” and “The Deserted Village” ostensibly reflect this yearning of their poets. However, it is to be understood that both the poets use Pastoral as a tool to comment upon the rising greed and avarice of the upcoming bourgeoisie and their growth at the expense of the countryside. Gray, in his “Elegy”, uses the graves of unknown poor villagers as a metaphor to warn the rich of the cities against the inevitability of death despite one’s social status and wealth: “The boasts of heraldry, the pomp of power,/ …Awaits alike the inevitable hour.” Goldsmith, in his “The Deserted Village”, weaves a lamentation of the ‘depopulated’ village whose natural innocence has been usurped by the artificiality of industrialisation against the topography of Auburn. For Goldsmith, the “Sweet Auburn” is the ideal, utopic countryside where the humans used to live in harmony with nature; until the wealthy land owners of the “trade” dispossessed “the swain” off its “hamlets roses”. The village’s depopulation, in the larger scheme of things, becomes a “prelude to and symbol of a more general wearing away of ethical principles” (RICHARD J. JAARSMA, “Ethics in the Wasteland: Image and Structure in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village”). Its earlier sense of community is dismantled by this phenomenon which becomes a direct comment upon the onset of a class based society in eighteenth century England; the dominating bourgeoisie thriving on the expense of a decaying village economy. In that sense, one realises, that when the poet-persona of “the Deserted Village” favours “the native charm” over the “the gloss of art”, Goldsmith is not only, ostensibly, presenting the natural-artificial conflict but also at another level commenting upon the pomp and greed for luxuries of those in power.

Both Gray and Goldsmith debunk the original theory of using Pastoral with ‘shepherds’ as the necessary representatives of the innocent countryside. In the “Elegy”, Gray writes about the graves of some “Cromwell guiltless”, “mute Milton” and “village-Hampden” in the churchyard who in their lives didn’t achieve success or recognition at all by the misfortune of being poor and thus, unknown. He uses the names of contemporary (in)famous figures not only to heighten a sense of improbability of getting “fame” ever but also to present the woes of infamy, that wealth brought with greed and avarice. On the other hand, Goldsmith “re-populates” the village with the individuals who represented the institutions necessary for the maintenance of community: the village schoolmaster being a “source of culture and education”, the preacher being a “source of individual and religious values” and the public house being a “source of social value and fraternal intercourse (Michael J. Wenzel, “Repopulating ‘The Deserted Village’”).

The two poems also differ in the way the poetic persona is present in them. In the Gray’s “Elegy” the poet and the persona are two ostensibly different identities. The persona is the spectator sitting in the country churchyard and commenting on the graves, detached from the village life as such. The poet distances himself from this persona and reassures him of an honoured death as he wished-

For thee who, mindful of the unhonoured dead,

Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;

If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,

Such kindered spirits shall inquire thy fate,

The poetic persona’s wish is fulfilled as the poet presents the Epitaph: “Here rests his head upon the lap of earth/ A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.” Interestingly, these lines on the Epitaph reflect a momentary desire of wish-fulfilment on Gray, the poet’s part to achieve fame that he, being a member of the poor gentry, was unable to do during his lifetime. In that sense, the two identities collapse at the end of the poem. On the other hand, Goldsmith’s poetic persona is one of the lonely individuals that re-populate Auburn; the villager who, among many others, had migrated to other lands (foreign or domestic) in search of better opportunities and revisits the now desolated landscape of his youth. Thus, he is not the onlooker of the “Elegy” who observes the ruins of the countryside but he is one of the displaced and dislocated villager who “intensely experiences what he laments.” (Michael J. Wenzel, “Repopulating ‘The Deserted Village’”)

Gray’s “Elegy” ends with the death of the poetic persona, in a way projecting the poet’s desire to escape from the world of riches with its hollowness and superficiality, the vanity of sycophancy in the courts in front of death and the lack of filial love amidst the pomp of power. The inclination towards escapism heightens a sense of hopelessness. On the other side, In Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”, the end is rather hopeful. The poetic voice is hopeful because amidst the desolation, poetry survives. The power of poetry ensures the repopulation of Auburn and it’s restoration as the long lost earthly paradise in harmony with nature and humanity.

Bibliography:

  1. Wright, George T., “Stillness and the Argument of Gray’s Elegy”, 1977.
  2. Weinbrot, Howard D., “Gray’s Elegy: A Poem of Moral Choice and Resolution”, 1978.
  3. Jaarsma, Richard J., “Ethics in the Wasteland: Image and Structure in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village”, 1971.
  4. Wenzl, Michael J. “Re-Populating ‘The Deserted Village’”, 1974
  5. Greg, W. W., Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama, (1906)
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