After the wit and detached descriptions of the Augustans, English poetry moved towards a more emotional stage. This, as we have seen, became the manifesto as it were of the Romantics, with Wordsworth’s famous dictum, that poetry was about the overflow of emotion – though, as he put it, recollected in tranquility.
But before that active engagement with personal feelings, there were two very different types of emotion that came to the fore in the poetry of the 18th century. The first might be described as sentimental, and found its best known expression in two poems celebrating a sense of loss.
I refer to Grey’s Elegy written in a country churchyard and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village. I had thought initially to discuss only one of these, but I see no reason not to talk about both, for both are widely anthologized, and were the staple of school literature syllabuses in the days when English literature was taught systematically.
I find Goldsmith the more interesting of the two, for he deals both with memorable characters and with a social phenomenon, namely the abandonment of the countryside as the economic system changed. He wrote in the middle of the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution had taken full possession of England, but even in those early days rural communities based on agriculture were losing both their importance and their interest.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied…..
But times are altered; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
The greater impact of the poem comes however through its descriptions of individuals, or rather types that were also dying out, most notably the Schoolmaster
Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way,
With blossomed furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skill’d to rule,
The village master taught his little school;
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learned to trace
The day’s disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper circling round,
Conveyed the dismal tidings when he frowned;
Yet he was kind, or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault;
The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cypher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And ev’n the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson owned his skill,
For even tho’ vanquished, he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thundering sound,
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
And also the village parson
Near yonder copse, where once the garden smiled,
And still where many a garden-flower grows wild;
There, where a few torn shrubs the place disclose,
The village preacher’s modest mansion rose.
A man he was, to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year;
Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Nor e’er had changed, nor wished to change his place;
Unpractised he to fawn, or seek for power,
By doctrines fashioned to the varying hour;
Far other aims his heart had learned to prize,
More skilled to raise the wretched than to rise.
His house was known to all the vagrant train,
He chid their wanderings but relieved their pain;
The long-remembered beggar was his guest,
Whose beard descending swept his aged breast;
The ruined spendthrift, now no longer proud,
Claim’d kindred there, and had his claims allowed;
The broken soldier, kindly bade to stay,
Sate by his fire, and talked the night away;
Wept o’er his wounds, or, tales of sorrow done,
Shouldered his crutch, and shewed how fields were won.
Pleased with his guests, the good man learned to glow,
And quite forgot their vices in their woe;
Careless their merits, or their faults to scan,
His pity gave ere charity began. Continue reading