What are the figures of speech contained in the poem "The Village School Master"?

One figure of speech in "The Village School Master" is irony. The little school seems to be the opposite of a mansion. Another figure of speech is alliteration. The line "While words of learned length and thund'ring sound" features two occurrences of alliteration. Finally, the poem seems to end with a euphemism. “Forgot” might mean something much more stark.

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I think it's prudent to define "figures of speech" before I tell you about the figures of speech in Oliver Goldsmith's poem "The Village Schoolmaster." When "figures of speech" come up for discussion, what's being discussed is how words can be used in a non-literal way in order to create a more powerful and vivid reading experience.

A figure of speech occurs within the first four lines of "The Village Schoolmaster." Goldsmith writes:

There, in his noisy mansion, skill'd to rule,
The village master taught his little school.

The two lines represent irony. It seems like the mansion is actually not a mansion. What Goldsmith is describing is the opposite of a large, roomy, luxurious home. He’s talking about a tiny schoolhouse.

Another figure of speech employed by Goldsmith is metaphor. Goldsmith tells how the students

learn’d to trace
The days disasters in his morning face.

Goldsmith doesn’t mean that students are literally tracing their schoolmaster’s face. They’re not covering it with thin paper and going over that paper with a pencil. Trace means something else. It means they’re learning or finding out about all of the commotion and hullabaloo that’s been happening.

There’s another kind of figure of speech in the lines I just quoted. There’s alliteration in “days disasters.” Alliteration can also be found later on in the line:

While words of learned length and thund’ring sound.

Another figure of speech arrives in the last line. Goldsmith says,

But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumph’d is forgot.

It seems like “forgot” could be a euphemism for something more stark. Maybe something bad happened to the schoolmaster. Perhaps something bad happened to the village. It’s possible that the schoolmaster died. It’s also plausible that people really did just forget about the schoolmaster. I suppose that’s the problem with figures of speech. It’s hard to pin down their literal meaning.

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Literary devices are the methods writers use to add more value than the merely literal meaning to their work.

Gray, for example, uses alliteration frequently in this poem. Alliteration occurs when words in close proximity begin with the same letter. Some examples in the poem are the repeated "s" sounds in "severe he was, and stern to view" in line 5, the "d" sound in "days disasters" in line 8, and the "l" sound in "love he bore to learning" in line 14. These create a pleasing sense of rhythm and emphasis.

Metonymy is when either the part stands in for the whole or the whole stands in for the part. In this poem, Gray repeatedly uses the "village" as a whole to report the common wisdom reported by people within the village.

Gray uses antithesis, or the literary device of putting opposites together, such as in "noisy mansion" and "little school." "Little school" expresses the literal reality of the place where the schoolmaster taught, while "mansion" expresses the emotional reality of the space as oversized in people's imagination. Humor is also deployed through antithesis, such as in poking gentle fun at the villagers' idea that the schoolmaster knows so much: "how much he knew" is juxtaposed to the idea that he knew writing and arithmetic. This characterizes the villagers as simple people, easily impressed.

Finally, we can't forget the rhyming couplets, the chief literary device in the poem. They create the simple sense of repetitive, sing-song comfort that replicates the simplicity of schoolhouse life in a small village.

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The poem makes use of visual imagery in the descriptions of the setting of the old schoolhouse. There's a "straggling fence" peppered with "blossom'd furze": the fence is now rather decrepit but the gorse bushes seem to bloom extravagantly, though the schoolhouse now sits empty. This schoolhouse is described as the schoolmaster's "noisy mansion," a metaphor that conveys the master's sense of it being his domain, his estate of sorts, to rule over as he sees fit. The narrator says that the master's students "learn'd to trace / The days disasters in his morning face." In other words, the students could tell from their teacher's expression in the morning just what their day would be like, based on what kind of mood he was in. The word disasters is an overstatement, or hyperbole, as the effects of one man's bad mood can hardly be literally termed disasters, and the phrase morning face is a synecdoche for the expression on the schoolmaster's face. Here, the word face is substituted for the wordier, but more precise, phrase expression on his face.

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Here's the poem:

Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way
With blossom'd furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skill'd to rule,
The village master taught his little school;
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learn'd to trace
The days disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laugh'd with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey'd the dismal tidings when he frown'd:
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.
The village all declar'd how much he knew;
'Twas certain he could write, and cipher too:
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e'en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own'd his skill,
For e'en though vanquish'd he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thund'ring sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang'd around;
And still they gaz'd and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumph'd is forgot.

Alliteration: "terms and tides"; "rustics rang'd"

Anaphora: "Full well they laugh'd"; "Full well the busy"

Analogy: it's a part to whole.  The schoolmaster (part) is compared to the village (whole)

Imagery: 3 types

  • setting-based  imagery: "straggling fence"; "noisy mansion"; "little school"
  • intellectual/educational imagery: "Lands"; "terms and tides";  "small head"
  • rhetorical/linguistic imagery: "words"; "jokes"; "story"

Rhyming couplets: pairs of rhyming lines ("spot" / "forgot")

End-stopped lines (punctuation "." or "," or ";" at the end of a line)

Caesura: punctation in the middle of a line ("Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,")

Speaker/Tone: loves the school master; poem is a dedication to him

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