The poem is an excerpt from a longer poem by Goldsmith called "The Deserted Village" and conveys the speaker's sentiments about a teacher. The word "village" in the title clearly suggests that the poem is set in a rural area, probably where the speaker lived and was taught by the subject of the poem. In the first two lines, the speaker mentions exactly where the school was located. The fence beside which the school building was situated is described as "straggling," which means that it was dilapidated and probably leaning over. The road leading towards and past the school was lined with flowers, which were "unprofitably gay." The phrase suggests that the flowers that were blooming beautifully were not being admired or appreciated.
In the following couplet the speaker refers to the the school building itself, a "noisy mansion" bustling with the activity of teaching and learning. The village teacher, equipped to manage a class, taught his lessons there. The term "master" denotes the respect he enjoyed. The speaker goes on to describe the teacher's character and style of teaching. Each description is rounded off in a rhyming couplet.
The teacher was very strict and had a stern look about him. The speaker states that he "knew him well," which means that he had an in-depth understanding of his teacher and could probably read into his expressions and gestures. This familiarity could also have been the result of the many personal and individual encounters he had had with his educator. The word "truant" implies that the speaker may have been one of those who deliberately missed classes and who had been confronted by the teacher about his misdemeanors.
Further aspects about the teacher's personality indicate that he had an expressive face and that his pupils could easily read his mood as a result. They would, for example, know that a certain ominous look spelled trouble coming, especially for those who had been disobedient. They would be trembling in anticipation and fear of what was to come. It is clear that the teacher also had a good sense of humor, for "many a joke had he." The students would feign pleasure at his funny stories and laugh at them, probably to avoid being reprimanded.
Word would quickly spread around the classroom about impending trouble whenever the teacher scowled. The speaker provides a contrast to the teacher's strict demeanor not only by stating that he was humorous at times but also by mentioning that he was kind. The speaker states that if one should take it to the extreme, it could be said that the teacher's greatest flaw was that he loved learning too much.
...or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.
The schoolmaster was not only much admired and respected by his students but was evidently also looked up to by the village residents. Everyone seemed to have praise for his great knowledge. It was a known fact in the village that he could write, do mathematics, and predict weather patterns and tides. It was also assumed that he was an accurate surveyor who could determine borders easily. It is apparent that he could also debate intelligently and be involved in discussions with the village parson, a person who was greatly respected by his parishioners. The teacher seemed to be a fierce opponent in such discourse, for he would continue arguing a point even after he had already lost the dispute. The master would use difficult words and emotive language to sound convincing and impress the poorly educated village folk.
People in this rural community were in awe that the teacher could know so much. They could not understand how his small head could contain so much knowledge. The poem ends, however, on a sad and poignant note. The final couplet tells us that all the teacher's achievements have become a thing of the past. The place where he had enjoyed so much success has ceased to exist and has been forgotten.
The eulogistic nature of the poem conveys the speaker's respect and admiration for his erstwhile educator. The poem also reflects the changes that occurred in rural communities when land was divided and property was abandoned or claimed by private landowners. Many inhabitants then emigrated to find a home elsewhere.