A figure of speech
is simply a literary device used to intensify imagery
and heighten the effect of the writing. In this poem, Gray is particularly dedicated to the use of personification
, which we first see in the description of the "moping owl" which issues a "complain[t]" to the moon. Personification is a form of metaphor
in which human characteristics are attributed to something which is not human; here, Gray is imagining feelings and motivations for the owl, which in all probability, are not really there.
Later in the poem, we see personification used far more extensively to depict various abstract ideas, such as Honour, Knowledge, and Penury. When describing the old men of the "hamlet" who lie sleeping in the churchyard, Gray conjures the image of memory raising (or rather, failing to raise) "trophies" over their tombs. This is a vivid use of personification, as it encourages the reader to consider memory as a living being which can choose whether or not to celebrate those who have previously died. Death, meanwhile, is described as having a "cold ear," suggesting that it (or he) is reluctant to listen to the appeals of Honour, Memory, or "Flatt'ry." Once a man is dead, he is dead.
We can also see evidence of more conventional metaphor in the poem, as Gray describes each old man of the hamlet as lying in a "narrow cell." The word "cell" here probably does not imply a prison cell but, rather, the sort of cell in which a monk might live as part of a community. This creates the sense that the dead men are simply biding their time in their graves, waiting to be awoken and welcomed to the "bosom" of God.