Oliver Goldsmith and the Third World

by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2007)

 

Doctor Johnson was very good at encomia. (Or should it be encomiums? I think both are correct, but I prefer the former on the grounds of euphony, though I await with eagerness the correction of pedants.)

Speaking of the great portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Johnson said, ‘Sir Joshua, sir, is the most invulnerable man I know; the man with whom, if you should quarrel, you would find the most difficulty how to abuse.’ I cannot think of many people of whom such a thing could plausibly be claimed, and because Johnson implied that abuse had to contain at least an element of truth (or else why should it ever be difficult to abuse anyone?) his tribute is a sincere and moving one.

Doctor Johnson’s epitaph for Oliver Goldsmith was handsome too: ‘Oliver Goldsmith: Poet, Naturalist, Historian, who left scarce any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn.’

Johnson also knew how to damn with faint praise, of course. He said of Goldsmith’s poem, The Traveller, that it was the finest poem that had appeared since the time of Pope: but Johnson’s low opinion of the intervening poets was well known. He thought even Thomas Gray, of the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, dull, and called him ‘a mechanical poet.

Goldsmith’s most famous poem, and I suspect the only one ever read nowadays, is "The Deserted Village," written in pleasant, and occasionally moving, rhyming couplets. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Goldsmith, who usually wrote with great speed, expended more time and effort over this poem than over anything else he ever wrote. I re-read it recently, for reasons both complex and dull, and my response to it was deeply ambiguous, for reasons more to do with the ideas expressed in the poem than the with the felicity or otherwise of the manner in which they were expressed.

"The Deserted Village" could have been written by contemporary anti-globalisers were they inclined to write poetry, which thankfully they are not. For the poem (published in 1769) is a lament on the modern world, and on the destruction of an older, kinder, better world by that vile activity, trade.


First, Goldsmith praises the village as it once was and as he once knew it:

 

Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,

Where health and plenty cheer’d the labouring swain,

Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,

And parting summer’s lingering blooms delay’d…


The village was once a virtual paradise, though (or because) life there was simple:

 

A time there was, ere England’s grief’s began,

When every rood of land maintain’d its man;

For him light labour spread her wholesome store,

Just gave what life required, but gave no more;

His best companions, innocence and health;

          And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.


Alas, a worm enters the bud:

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train

Usurp the land, and dispossess the swain;

Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,

Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose…


The land having been sequestered by ‘unwieldy wealth,’ the rural population goes to
the city, both driven and attracted thither, the latter by its luxury and glitter:

 

If to the city sped - What waits him there?

To see profusion that he must not share;

To see ten thousand baneful arts combin’d

To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;

To see each joy the sons of pleasure know,

Extorted from his fellow creature’s woe.


Goldsmith expresses his disapproval of this process in the most famous lines of the whole poem:

 

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 destroy’d, can never be supply’d.


And Goldsmith then addresses himself to the great ones of the earth and asks them important questions:

 

Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey

The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay,

’Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand

Between a splendid and a happy land.


It is, of course, very easy to pick holes in Goldsmith’s arguments, or presumptions. The idea of a prelapsarian past, during which a little light labour procured for mankind a simple but healthy subsistence is a recurrent delusion. When Goldsmith describes agricultural labour before the machine age, it is clear that he has never done much or any of it himself. It was hard, repetitive, dull, boring and dangerous. And it is highly unlikely that many agricultural labourers were ignorant of the advantages of wealth: they simply had no idea of how to go about acquiring it.

As for ‘trade’s unfeeling train,’ it was to be only a few years before Adam Smith definitively pointed out what in fact had been pointed out before, that tradesman, in acting selfishly, had to please his customers. To do so, they had to enter imaginatively into their worlds: so tradesmen could not afford to be unfeeling in the same way as a feudal baron could afford to be unfeeling.

And Goldsmith is clearly a believer in zero-sum economics: that one man’s loss is another’s gain, that in order for one man to be fat many others must be thin. This supposition underlies a lot of Third-Worldist thinking, according to which part of the world is rich because the other part is poor. This noxious idea springs eternal, because the economy - of a country or indeed of the whole world - is conceived statically, as a cake, rather than dynamically, as a growing organism.

It is not very difficult to prove that the wealth of the world has increased dramatically, that impoverishment has declined, and that it is simply not true that the wealth of one requires the poverty of another.

Yet I did not respond to the poem as if it were simply a catalogue of vulgar errors, long since corrected. This is because, looking at developments in my own lifetime, I think there has been regression as well as advance; and perhaps it is because of my advancing years, but I often think the former has been greater than the latter, despite the enormous increase in prosperity I have witnessed. The idea that wealth can accumulate and men decay is not inherently a foolish one.

Many, if not most, advances are not pure and unadulterated; there is rarely gain without loss. I can illustrate this with a very trivial example from my own experience.

In my childhood, fruits were still seasonal; there were summer fruits and winter fruits. With the tremendous advances in methods of cultivation, transport, distribution, marketing and so forth, there is only one season of the year: and that is now.

As a child I used to look forward with longing to the short raspberry season (raspberries were, and are, my favourite fruit). This longing was equalled only by the joy, the rapture, when the first raspberries of the season appeared. How I wanted the season to go on for ever, and yet I knew it would last only three or four weeks. Never has fruit given me such pleasure.

Nowadays, I can buy raspberries all year round. They arrive from every corner of the globe: it is astonishing that raspberries from Chile appear in my local supermarket 48 to 72 hours after they have been picked (and they are far from bad, too). This is a miracle of organisation that only the market could have achieved.

And yet: much as I still like raspberries, I will never recapture the joy I experienced in my childhood which consisted as much of the eager anticipation as the fulfilment of my desire. I do not approach the fruit counter of my supermarket with any great excitement.

Nor do I expect my supermarket one day to put up a notice to the effect that it is no longer importing raspberries because it wants its customers to experience the joys of longing and anticipation. I suspect that I would be quite cross if it did. So Goldsmith is right: some things, some pleasures, some joys, once destroy’d, can never be supply’d.

Nor does it seem to me self-evident that the flight to the city is always an unmixed blessing, or that people do not lose something important when they move. One of the things that I have remarked on my travels, for example, is the almost instant loss of visual taste when peasants move from the country to the city. I have seen it in Asia, in Africa, in South America.

I do not want to indulge in any Noble Savagery, yet I have noticed that peasants often have a remarkable eye for form and colour. They give beauty even to utilitarian objects. Most African huts, for example, have an elegance about them, a delicacy of form and - where colorations are used - they also display a colour sense that is moving in its refinement. But as soon as the peasants move to the city, they accumulate kitsch, not because kitsch is all that is available to them, but because they come at once to like it. Delicacy and refinement are replaced by crudity and garishness. Perhaps they associate all that is kitsch with modernity: but I have no real theory why the transformation of taste should take place, but it does.

Of course, you might say that if their tastes change, what is it to you? If they are happy with plastic roses and cheap enamel bowls instead of beautifully woven mats and elegant pottery, who are you to complain? It is their right to make choices about their own lives. If they think living in a squalid slum in a city of umpteen million offers them a better life than eking out an existence in the remote countryside, what right have you to complain?

Fundamentally I agree; I don’t think you can keep people by force in an anthropological museum for the aesthetic delectation of refined people such as I. And yet it would be also false to say that I look forward eagerly to a world in which all the instinctive, or at least unselfconscious, artistry of peasant life has been extinguished in favour of mass-produced artefacts of doubtful aesthetic worth.

Again, when Goldsmith asks whether a splendid or a happy land is more desirable, he is only uttering a commonplace: that, within quite wide limits, money does not buy happiness.

Finally, Goldsmith - who trained as a doctor - tells us that the peasant life was healthy by comparison with that of the city. From our present standpoint of unprecedented good health, this sounds absurd. Yet when Goldsmith wrote, a half of all children in London died before the age of five. For some hundreds of years, London could not have maintained, much less increased, its population by reproduction alone: it needed immigrants from the countryside. Otherwise, its population would have shrunk.

Furthermore, cities remained obviously noisome places for a hundred years to come. In the poorer parts of Liverpool, for example, the median age at death was 18. Even when my father was born, in the slums of London, the infant mortality rate, that is to say the numbers of children dying in their first year of life, was 125 per 1000. And London was then among the healthiest capital cities in Europe.

So Goldsmith’s attitude was not self-evidently ridiculous, though in the event it proved to be mistaken. Of course it was modernisation, with its concomitant urbanisation, that produced not just the enrichment of mankind, but its vastly improved life expectancy. Goldsmith was not to know that; what he saw was the break-up of a way of life that was apparently in equilibrium with its surroundings exchanged for conditions that were truly horrific. Furthermore, it would have been no consolation to him to know that future generations would benefit from this exchange; for we live predominantly, if not entirely, in the present.

I think the anti-globalists are making the same mistakes as are made in The Deserted Village, but they are not entirely to be despised for it. For the truth remains that there is always loss as well as gain in any advance. That is why melancholia recurs in successive generations at a certain point in their life cycle.

 

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