Johann Wilhelm von Goethe on the pictures evoked by The Deserted Village, 1821
Goethe (see Nos 71 and 79 below for biographical information) throughout his life continued to believe in the greatness of Goldsmith as a thinker and writer. 'It is not the mass of creations,' he told his confidant Johann Peter Eckermann in 1828, 'that counts. We have in literature, poets considered very productive because volume after volume of their poems has appeared. But in my opinion,' Goethe continued to explain, 'these people ought to be called thoroughly unproductive; for what they have written is without life and durability. Goldsmith, on the contrary, has written so few poems that their number is not worth mentioning; nevertheless, I must pronounce him a thoroughly productive poet-indeed, even on that account; because the little he has written has an inherent life which can sustain itself' (Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann, ed. Havelock Ellis, 1930, p. 247). If Goldsmith had written more poetry, one wonders if Goethe could have paid such close attention to each of his poems. In the passage below, Goethe describes the impression made on him and his friends by The Deserted Village; it is quoted from The Autobiography of Goethe: Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life, trans. by John Oxenford (1848, 2 vols), Bk xii, i. p. 474·
. . . a little poem, which we passionately received into our circle, allowed us from henceforward to think of nothing else. Goldsmith's Deserted Village necessarily delighted every one at that grade of cultivation, in that sphere of thought. Not as living and active, but as a departed, vanished existence was described, all that one so readily looked upon, that one loved, prized, sought passionately in the present,
to take part in it with the cheerfulness of youth. Highdays and holidays in the country, church consecrations and fairs, the solemn assemblage of the elders under the village linden-tree, supplanted in its turn by the lively delight of youth in dancing, while the more educated classes show their sympathy. How seemly did these pleasures appear, moderated as they were by an excellent country pastor, who understood how to smooth down and remove all that went too far,-that gave occasion to quarrel and dispute. Here again we found an honest Wakefield, in his well-known circle, yet no longer in his living bodily form, but as a shadow recalled by the soft mournful tones of the elegiac poet. The very thought of this picture is one of the happiest possible, when once the design is formed to evoke once more an innocent past with a graceful melancholy. And in this kindly endeavour, how well has the Englishman succeeded in every sense of the word! I shared the enthusiasm for this charming poem with Gotter, who was more felicitous than myself with the translation undertaken by us both; for I had too painfully tried to imitate in our language the delicate significance of the original, and thus had well agreed with single passages, but not with the whole.