Saturday, July 7, 2007

oh Acadia, you so fine / you so fine you blow my mind / Acadia *clap clap* Acadia

This is the first time I have ever made it through The Rising Village, because I spent my undergraduate degree (and my M.A., if I'm honest) being afraid of long poems and avoiding them at all costs. I blame it on an early and prolonged exposure to Paradise Lost, personally. Anyway, I remember reading excerpts of The Deserted Village in my third year, and being struck by the bleakness of the imagery. Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Deserted Village in 1770 to comment on the horrific state of affairs in the abandoned villages across England -- he writes of the challenges of poverty and the sins of chasing wealth. Our Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Rising Village in response to his uncle's poem and in order to show the opportunities available across class lines in the new world -- particularly in his beloved Acadia (now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick). He didn't settle in Canada, and died in England in 1861, but his respect and passion for the emerging colony is palpable.

This is a short post, because (a) it's only one poem and (b) I want to take a moment to edit Oliver Goldsmith Sr.'s wikipedia entry, because it makes no mention of this Oliver Goldsmith and
The Rising Village, which seems important.

The Rising Village
by Oliver Goldsmith

Happy Acadia! [....]

How pleasing and how glowing with delight
Are now thy budding hopes! How sweetly bright
They rise to view! How full of joy appear
The expectations of each future year!


While the poor peasant, whose laborious care
Scarce from the soil could right his scanty fare
Now in the peaceful arts of culture skilled,
Sees his wide barn with ample treasures filled;


Thy grateful thanks to Britain's care are due,
Her power protects, her smiles past hopes renew,
Her valour guards thee, and her councils guide,
Then may thy parent ever be thy pride!

I find the passage I have quoted above particularly noteworthy. All the lines come from the same stanza, though I have cut out some of the intervening lines. But the passage is so interesting to me because it seems to simultaneously rebuke and celebrate mother England. The poet says, essentially, that the peasant who could barely eek out a living in England finds life, liberty and riches in Acadia. He argues that Acadia has provided the new settler with budding hopes and joys and with the plenty and the opportunities for great success. But even thought peasants are likely only to find a future in the new world, Goldsmith makes it clear that they should be aware that they owe everything they have achieved to England. It is only through England's grace that the colonies exist undisturbed, and therefore -- regardless of the toil of those who work for their freedom from the oppressive ruling class system in England -- they could accomplish nothing without the hand of mother Britain. It seems like an awkward situation -- if you stay, you are beholden to England for your failures, but if you go, your successes belong to her as well. No wonder so many people wanted to run for the colonial hills!

Overall, the poem plaints a positive picture of Acadia and, by extension, Canada and the New World as well. Goldsmith is careful never to condemn England -- he paints just about the rosiest picture ever of the class system in the UK when he writes, "Majestic palaces in pomp display / The wealth and splendor of the regal sway; / While the low hamlet and the shepherd's cot, / In peace and freedom mark the peasant's lot." What a wonderful way of saying, "Stay where we put you!" But though he refuses to condemn England, that doesn't stop him from praising the new colony of Canada for it's difference from England -- Goldsmith has respect for the freedom and the options offered to colonists and his perception that Acadia is a significantly more democratic than was England. He is careful, too, to point out just how difficult the early experiences of the settlers had been -- he seems focused on illustrating how hard the settlers worked to "earn" their freedom from class struggle. At the end of the day, though, "The golden triumphant corn waves his head." The settlers have had success, and Goldsmith makes a point of explaining in the poem the process and work involved in clearing land. There's no doubt that he respects the hard graft of the settlers in the new colony.

There's a troubling discussion of the settlers "fending off" the aboriginal population. It's a product of (a) the time and (b) Goldsmith's privileged position as an officer of the British army, but for Goldsmith the greatest success of the settlers is their ability to survive the aboriginal attacks. He condemns the native people for believing that they "still retain possession of the soil," which belies a historical misunderstanding of the connection natives had to the land... And even if they had a possessive attitude, we know that no formal treaties were signed in the maritime provinces after the Royal Proclamation in 1763, so let's face it, the land really was their own. It's just interesting to be reminded of the political viewpoint of the period -- it seems so foreign to our own.

In relation to that, there is a celebration of the faith and devout Christianity of the settlers in the new land. In the Deserted Village, I believe (taxing my poor memory) that there is a section on the village chapel falling into disuse. The opposite is true in The Rising Village, where people who possess very little, as the settlers do, show gratitude for everything and believe all their blessings to be divined by God: "While, grateful for each blessing God has given, / In pious strains, they waft their thanks to Heaven." Settlers are pious because they know that "God alone can shelter him from harm." This is something worth celebrating, for Goldsmith, because it's impressive to him that the colonies, which he seems to fear could fall easily into religious disrepair, are really a bastion of faith and piety.

Acadia isn't perfect, however, and Goldsmith doesn't hesitate to point out the areas of colonial life that he has problems with. The doctor and the school teacher come under fire as being basically incompetent, but without enough competition for their jobs to encourage any kind of improvement. There is a sense that the colonies are a good place for the poor, but there isn't really any place for members of the professional classes, the middle classes, or the wealthy. The colonies are a place to go to work with your hands, it seems, and not your brain.

Finally, there's a really odd section in the middle where he outlines a failed love story. I don't understand the purpose of this. Is there a Flora and Albert in The Deserted Village? I am unsure, and will have to look it up later.

Anon and anon, my poetry loving peers.

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