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The Village Schoolmaster, by Oliver Goldsmith

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1130 words Published: 15th Mar 2017

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Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Village Schoolmaster” depicts the memory of an educated schoolmaster who occupies a position of reverence and awe in a rural village. The poem was written as part of a larger work, The Deserted Village, in which Goldsmith describes an imaginary ideal village called Auburn, a composite of several villages Goldsmith had himself observed. Returning to the village after many years, now in its decline, the narrator remembers the village as it had once been, idealised through the lens of time and memory. Goldsmith’s portrait of the schoolmaster is written from a position of nostalgia, and the affectionate and humorous portrait of the schoolmaster reflects a respected figure from an idealised past. Through a humorous and reflective portrait of the archetypical village schoolmaster as well as through a stylised poetic form, Goldsmith expresses a concern for the uncertain future of the country life in a time of growing commerce and industry.

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Goldsmith’s belief in the superiority of the rural life finds expression in poetic style as well as subject. The poem’s structure is in rhyming pentameter couplets, a form featured prominently in the eighteenth century’s heroic poems. The heroic couplet, used by poetic giants from Chaucer to Dryden, evokes a history of an English poetic tradition and contributes to a nostalgia for the past which Goldsmith expresses in his portrait of the schoolmaster. The language is simple and far from the lofty language expected of the heroic couplet; although Goldsmith uses an elevated diction, employing poetically conventionally words such as “rustics” in place of the more colloquial “peasant” or “clodhopper”. Word order is inverted to maintain the rhythm and rhyme scheme in ‘Well had the boding tremblers learn’d the trace’ and ‘Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage’ (7, 17), effectively elevating the verse from its common subject and in the process elevating the image of the schoolmaster himself from a country teacher to an important and respected figure in provincial life.

The elevated poetic form and idealisation of the pastoral landscape in The Deserted Village reveals a profound nostalgia for a now lost past for which the poet yearns. “The Village Schoolmaster” is, therefore, a portrait of a figure who is eulogized and becomes representative himself of a lost past. The poem begins with a pastoral description of the schoolhouse and its master:

Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way

With blossom’d furze unprofitably gay,

There, in his mansion, skill’d to rule,

The village master taught his little school (1-4)

The portrait of the village is one of natural beauty, the blooming flowers unconcerned with the commerce and industry which define the later age. The schoolmaster resides inside his ‘mansion’, and ironic reference to the simple building of the schoolhouse. This figures the schoolmaster as lord over his domain of young pupils and an imposing figure of intellectual prowess in the village. The figure which Goldsmith chooses for his portrait, like the pastor who also features in The Deserted Village, spans generations of the community, communicating the kind of knowledge that enriches both his life and those around him. The heroic form and pastoral imagery suggest a eulogy for a disappearing rural culture in which roles such as that of the schoolmaster were vital.

Writing in the late eighteenth century, when education comprised a broad spectrum of subjects rather than the specialised education of modern times, Goldsmith portrays the schoolmaster as a respected figure of learning in a rural village in which basic reading and writing skills were the highest education many villagers attained. The figure of the schoolmaster, therefore, is an awesome presence, a man deserving of respect and admiration. He is described thus: ‘A man severe he was, and stern to view’ (5) who commands respect from his pupils. The children ‘laugh’d with counterfeited glee’ (9) at his many jokes, whether they were funny or not. Yet the schoolmaster is not a fearsome figure as the narrator is quick to point out: ‘Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught, / The love he bore to learning was in fault’ (13-14). His faults, if any, are due to his dedication to education and learning rather than as character defects.

The villagers are impressed with his ability to read and write, measure lands, do complex calculations, and mark the cycle of religious holy days. Adults and children alike hold his learning in awe; but this is an ironic passage which emphasises the ignorance of the villages rather than the learnedness of the schoolmaster. In arguments with the parson, the schoolmaster does not always triumph, but uses ‘words of learned length and thund’ring sound’ to further the argument, gaining respect from the audience of villagers as well.

While words of learned length and thund’ring sound

Amazed the gaxing rustics rang’d around

And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,

That one small head could carry all he knew (21-24)

His basic knowledge and ability to read make him seem knowledgeable to the ‘gazing rustics’ (22), but he is not the intellectual god he is held up to be. His importance is relative only to their own ignorance. However, this is not a satirical portrait meant to reveal weakness or fault; the poet’s admiration of the schoolmaster is clear. He is the source of education to the village, at times ruled by the ‘love he bore to learning’ (14) but doing a good deed in bring education to the common people and fulfilling a vital role in village life. In eulogizing the passing the schoolmaster, Goldsmith is mourning the passing of the community of which the schoolmaster was central.

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Goldsmith’s poem is more than a wistful nostalgia of his own childhood experience. His message is an explicit criticism of the decline of rural life in favour of urban centres. The revered figure of the schoolmaster is lost and forgotten, his value and respect is no more. ‘But past is all his fame’ the poet laments, ‘The very spot / Where many a time he triumph’d is forgot’ (25-6). Goldsmith stands against the ideals of the modern world: industrialism, commerce and materialism. The portrait of the schoolmaster is a tribute to that part of the world, the rural countryside, which is fading away to make room for capitalist enterprise.

Works Cited

Goldsmith, Oliver, “The Deserted Village”, The Collected works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman, Volume IV, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966, pp. 287-304.


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