One of the effects of the progress of sentimentalism was the decline of satire. Peculiarly the weapon of the classical school, it had fallen into unskillful hands: Churchill, though keen and bold, lacked the grace of Pope and the power of Johnson. Goldsmith might have proved a worthier successor; but though his genius for style was large, his capacity for sustained indignation was limited. Even his Retaliation is humorous in spirit rather than satiric. He was a being of conflicting impulses; and in his case at least, the style is not precisely the man. His temperament was emotional and affectionate; by nature he was a sentimentalist. But his inclinations were restrained, partly by the personal influence of Dr. Johnson, partly by his own admiration for the artistic traditions of the classicists. He despised looseness of style, considered blank verse unfinished, and cultivated what seemed to him the more polished elegance of the heroic couplet. The vacillation of his views appears in the difference between the sentiments of The Traveller and those of The Deserted Village. The former is a survey of the nations of Europe, the object being to discover a people wholly admirable. Merit is found in Italians, Swiss, French, Dutch, and English,—but never perfection; even the free and happy Swiss are disgusting in the vulgar sensuality of their pleasures; happiness is nowhere. One is not surprised to learn that Dr. Johnson contributed at least a few lines to a poem with so orthodox a message.
In The Deserted Village, on the other hand, Goldsmith employed the classical graces to point a moral which from the classical point of view was false. His sympathetic feelings had now been captivated by the notion of rural innocence. The traits of character which he attributed to the village inhabitants,—notably to the immortal preacher who, entertaining the vagrants,
Quite forgot their vices in their woe,—
are those exalted in the literature of sentimentalism, as, for example, in his contemporary, Langhorne’s Country Justice. The Deserted Village was in point of fact an imaginative idyll,—the supreme idyll of English poetry; but Goldsmith insisted that it was a realistic record of actual conditions. Yet he could never have observed such an English village, either in its depopulated and decayed state (as Macaulay has remarked), or in its rosy prosperity and unsullied virtue; his economic history and theory were misleading. Like Macpherson, but through self-delusion rather than intent, he was engaged in an effort to deceive by giving sentimental doctrines a basis of apparent actuality. But the world has forgotten or forgiven his pious fraud in its gratitude for the loveliness of his art.