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The Village Schoolmaster
1 way: road.
2 blossom’d furze: i.e. flowering gorse (the beautiful yellow flowers).
7 boding tremblers: anxious (and so) shaking school-children – a gently comic phrase.
13 aught: anything.
14 fault: here pronounced “fought”, to rhyme with “aught”.
16 cipher: calculate, do maths.
17 terms and tides presage: i.e. he could predict (presage) where boundaries should be and the dates of religious festivals. “Tides” means “times”, as in “Eastertide” for example.
18 gauge: calculate more complex things (like the liquid contents of a container or the area of a piece of land).
19 owned: i.e. admitted.
21 words of learned length: i.e. long words (probably from Latin).
22 rustics: working-class country people.
This is an extract from a longer poem by Oliver Goldsmith called “The Deserted Village”, one of the best known poems of the eighteenth century. To some extent this passage, the portrait of an agreeable village school-teacher, needs to be set in context.
The village Goldsmith is writing about he calls “Auburn”: it probably wasn’t a single real village, but was an imaginary ideal one, created nonetheless from villages he has observed. The village he imagined is now deserted because all the people have emigrated, the main reason being the “enclosure” or (as we would now say) privatization of their land by rich people. There was a lot of land in eighteenth-century England that was either owned in common, or which didn’t have clear ownership, or which was just “waste” land. Gradually lots of it was taken into private ownership and fenced off, and in this process poor people could lose their precarious livelihoods or be displaced to towns, or in this case overseas. What was actually going on is much disputed by historians, usually because of their political differences, but what Goldsmith thought was going on is clear from what he says elsewhere in the poem: “Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide” (307).
Goldsmith returns to the village that he knew as vibrant and alive, and finds it deserted and overgrown. He remembers the good things of village life, including this affectionate if humorous portrait of the schoolmaster.
The schoolmaster is a big presence in the village. In an age when literacy and numeracy were powerful things, when many were illiterate and innumerate, then the “rustics”, the ordinary working-class people of the village, look up to the school-teacher. He seems a kind of god. The children are quite scared of him. They laugh at his jokes, even if they are not funny. The adults are impressed with the way he can survey fields (“lands he could measure”, 17) and how he can work out boundaries or the times of holy-days like Easter. He can even do more complex calculations (“gauge”, 18). Of course, this is all ironic: the school-teacher isn’t that knowledgeable – he just seems very knowledgeable to the “gazing rustics” (22).
The poem is in the form of rhyming pentameter couplets, sometimes called heroic couplets, the favourite poetic form of the eighteenth century. One ten-syllable line is followed by another, with an end rhyme straight way. This is a balanced and symmetrical verse form, in which each two lines (twenty syllables in all) make up a kind of unit of meaning: the couplet. The couplets here are mainly closed couplets, in that, for the most part, each couplet ends with a pause and is a unit of sense in itself:
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he: … (9-10)
As you can see, that is a unit of sense, in this case a sentence: it tells us one thing, and tells it to us with a certain wit and point.
“The Village Schoolmaster” also shows other characteristics of the preferred style of the eighteenth century. The diction (or as we would say) vocabulary is carefully chosen so as not to include colloquial or vulgar words. It keeps a quietly modest but elevated tone, without any common or slang words intruding. What do you think of this style? There are also some inversions of word-order, as for instance in line 17, where the object comes before the verb: we’d say “He could measure lands”. But the most important effect is still the rhythmic one, the balance of the couplet form: even the pauses in the lines can have a graceful effect. In the following couplet, the pause in the first line breaks the line after six syllables (6,4), while the concluding line of the couplet breaks the line after the fourth syllable (4,6), so creating a symmetry:
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew (5-6)
The poem’s jokes are gentle jokes, wry and genial, not big belly-laughs, big gags. The tone of the poem is balanced and genial, and that geniality (full of gentleness and humour) implies a frame of mind, a way of viewing things, that Goldsmith sees as important, as having a moral value in itself.
In one sense, of course, Goldsmith is gently mocking the schoolmaster: he’s a big fish in a small pond – it’s very easy for him to impress the villagers with his learning, just because he can read a bit of Latin and knows how to do his sums. The parson, as the religious leader of the village, is of course the most respected man, but the schoolmaster loves a good argument with him, and keeps arguing even when he’s obviously lost (19-20). On the other hand, this is a loving, endearing portrait. Here’s a man who (beneath it all) is really modest and doing a good job in a quiet and simple place: helping to spread a little literacy and numeracy among the ordinary people of the village, helping them out in doing calculations about “terms” and so forth. He’s at the centre of a community – and Goldsmith is mourning the passing away of that community, the passing away of the village itself, now run-down and deserted. That’s why the lovely yellow flowers on the furze are “unprofitably gay” (2) – there is now no-one about to enjoy their beauty. The schoolmaster is gone long ago, with all the children of his school. A fine community has been lost.
So, this is an affectionate portrait of a community that is no more, and the school-house now deserted. The affectionate portrait of the schoolmaster is a part of this world that has passed away. Some think of Goldsmith as a relatively light poet, not particularly profound. “Goldsmith threw a sunshine over all his pictures,” said Robert Southey, and Thomas Carlyle said he was “pure, clear, generous” but that he lacked “depth or strength”. Do you agree? This may be quite light verse, but it is brimful of moral values: the schoolmaster is, no doubt, a little pompous, but – though he mocks that – Goldsmith shows us a good man, doing a good job and being quietly useful to the community about him. And that is part of his larger meaning.
Oliver Goldsmith felt that England was becoming obsessed with trade and creating wealth, and that in this new imperial, capitalist England the ordinary rural poor were getting a raw deal. He wrote his poem to warn again “the rage of gain,” in other words the useless over-accumulation of wealth that set wealth over people. The schoolmaster is part of that good world that be believes is being done away with, the “spirit” of England before the “spirit” of capitalism took hold. He creates an affectionate portrait that implies the modest, truthful, humble world of community that he admires best.
Set up a debate: Was Goldsmith a conservative dreamer, creating a falsely idealised picture of village life? Was the shift of population away from the countryside all such a bad thing, for example? Or, contrariwise, is he an impressive writer, teaching us to value things like modesty and community, things we need back today ?
You might like to think about how different the world of an eighteenth-century village is (at least as portrayed by Goldsmith) from the town-life of today. Here priest and teacher are the most respected people in the community. What is the value system that Goldsmith is holding up to us, where education and religion are the most important values, and where excessive money-making and acquisitiveness are seen as having dangers?
Perhaps you could try and write some pentameter couplets or heroic couplets yourself, to see how this poetic form works. It looks easy, but in fact to do well it’s very hard.
Think about the equable and balanced tone of the whole extract. Compare or contrast this effect of careful balance with the violent movement of “Patrolling Barnegat”, for example, or the almost dancing rhythm of “Inversnaid”.