November 10: Country and City and Goldsmith and Willie and Laura Mae Jones

Okay, so I'm doing last Monday's reading, which I had read but not written about, mostly because it saves me labor, but also because it's on a favorite topic of mine: the alleged virtues of the country over the city. Or, in Oliver Goldsmith's case, the superiority of The Deserted Village of Auburn over the stinking lanes of London.

There's always been good money in this take. Hell, there still is -- Thomas Kinkade, Master of Light, doesn't paint the evening traffic on the 405, he paints stuff like this:

How often have I paused on every charm,
The shelter’d cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topp’d the neighbouring hill;
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age and whispering lovers made!
You can just see the set of plates. To be charitable, this poem is also a social commentary: Auburn is deserted because the land has been taken over for big, Hamptons-style mansions, and people have left for the city to find work:
Where, then, ah! where shall poverty reside,
To ’scape the pressure of contiguous pride? ...
Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide,
And even the bare-worn common is denied.

If to the city sped—what waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury and thin mankind;
To see each joy the sons of pleasure know
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.
Which is pretty trenchant. You could also express this sentiment (gone are the old ways, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot) in prose. It fact, it's been done, at least once, like so:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Italics mine; they are italics of wonder, because (digression!) why do conservative religious people ever ally themselves, politically, with capitalists -- the very people who want to open the mall early on Sunday? I never understood that. I also make the English major-y note that Goldsmith uses a couple of stages-of-life metaphors when he's describing this decay, as if this regrettable process is completely natural and so incapable of reform -- it can only be deplored.

Despite the trenchantness, though, I find Goldsmith just a tiny wee bit condescending toward the country people. Please note, I'm being sarcastic -- it's actually immensely irritating, partly because I come from (and have just come back from) the type of town that city folk either dismiss condescendingly or laud in the same way. Goldsmith gives this game away early when he confesses why he's so upset at poor Auburn's demise:
I still had hopes, my latest hours to crown,
Amidst these humble bowers to lay me down;
To husband out life’s taper at the close,
And keep the flame from wasting, by repose:
I still had hopes, for pride attends us still,
Amidst the swains to show my book-learn’d skill,
Around my fire an evening group to draw,
And tell of all I felt, and all I saw;
He was going to do us hicks a favor by living among us and telling us about how he knew Sir Joshua Reynolds. No thanks, pal. (Unless you're buying.) What's worse to me is that what's so charming about us is that we're dumb. Here's the schoolmaster:
The village all declared how much he knew;
’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too; ...
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.
I trimmed a few lines in this passage and now notice that Goldsmith uses "knew" twice for his rhyme in a short space. Who's the genius now?

Finally, to show how eternal Goldsmith's take is, here's a couple of lines near the end:
Good Heaven! what sorrows gloom’d that parting day,
That call’d them from their native walks away;
When the poor exiles, every pleasure past,
Hung round their bowers, and fondly looked their last.
And here's Tony Joe White (via Dusty Springfield) on the same subject (especially in the third verse; note that there's basically no video, but I like this song a lot, so too bad):

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