The poem begins with a description of an old schoolhouse that is bordered by a dilapidated fence and flowering gorse bushes ("blossom'd furze unprofitably gay").
The narrator tells us that the school was once a "noisy mansion" presided over by a village schoolmaster. He remembers how severe and stern the man was; as a teacher, he was feared by every child who played truant. The narrator relates that frightened schoolchildren could "trace the day's disasters in his morning face." Despite his sternness, however, the schoolmaster told plenty of jokes. His students laughed at them to humor him; they were determined to prolong his brief moments of sanguinity and to lessen his periods of discontent.
Yet, for all his severity, the schoolmaster was known to be kind. If he was an uncompromising teacher, it was only due to his commitment to education. The village people stood in awe of him. He was literate, knowledgeable about "terms and tides" (geographical boundaries and the times of festivals), skillful in mathematical computations ("gauge"), and experienced in land-surveying. Additionally, he was skilled in the art of rhetoric and debate ("In arguing too, the parson own'd his skill,/ For e'en though vanquish'd he could argue still").
In fact, the schoolmaster was the wonder of the "gazing rustics" (the uninformed throng of people who marveled at his deep knowledge). These people were so awed by the schoolmaster that they often wondered how "one small head could carry all he knew." In the end, the narrator ends the poem with the sad proclamation that the schoolmaster no longer teaches at the schoolhouse ("past is all his fame") and that "The very spot/ Where many a time he triumph'd is forgot."
Basically, the schoolmaster's accomplishments have been consigned to the oblivion of a forgotten past. In the modern world, the schoolmaster only serves as a quaint reminder of the old ways.
"The Village Schoolmaster" is a poem that exemplifies Oliver Goldsmith's whimsical and light-hearted humor, inimitable characterization, and coherent style.
Written in rhyming pentameter couplets, which are characteristic of eighteenth-century heroic poems, Goldsmith's verse is nostalgic in its remembrance of the schoolmaster who was once an integral part of a rural setting. Although humorously pointing to the "village master's" idiosyncrasies, there is, nevertheless, an underlying criticism of the decline of the rural countryside and its villages that were forced to give way to modernization: "But past is all his fame."
The "village master" is described as "severe" and "stern," yet he tells "many a joke" and is also depicted as being kind and dedicated:
Full well the busy whisper...
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.
Truly, the schoolmaster is an integral member of the village, capable of affection and yet ready to discipline the children when necessary. His sternness comes from his desire for his students to learn: "The love he bore to learning was his fault."
As the poem concludes, the speaker praises the schoolmaster because he is more knowledgeable than many others, and he "could argue still" as well as any other man. Certainly, the schoolmaster holds an important role in the community, as he teaches the youth and is capable of helping the men with more challenging tasks, such as measuring their land and conducting legal issues—"terms and tides presage." Indeed, the schoolmaster is portrayed as an important member of the village, and it is with a nostalgic tone that the speaker of the poem recalls the "spot/ Where many a time he triumph'd is forgot."
In "The Village Schoolmaster," an ironic admirer describes the schoolmaster's school as being beyond a "straggling" fence, or a fence that can't keep up--can't keep upright, that is. This means that the fence, probably a white picket fence, is tumbling over a bit from age. His schoolhouse is described as a noisy mansion. It wasn't large in reality, but by using the imagery of a mansion, the schoolmaster gains some image of greatness--greatness in miniature.
The schoolmaster's physical qualities are described as stern with easily read expressions because his face showed the signs of each day's catastrophes. He is said to be a teller of jokes at which his students "counterfeited" laughter, but by the ironic tone of narrator, displayed in words like "straggling" and "noisy mansion" and "little," the reader suspects the children laughed wholeheartedly.
His character triats are described next. He is kind and very learned about many subjects. He also enjoys a good energetic discussion with the clergyman. The ironic voice of the narrator appears again when he points out that even when schoolmaster has lost the argument, he keeps on talking with words of "learned length and thundering sound." The poem closes with the disclosure that this was all long ago and the beloved schoolmaster is no more. The poem was a tribute most likely written by a student from days long gone.
The village Goldsmith is writing about is called "Auburn": it is not real, but an imaginary ideal one, possibly one of the villages he had observed as a child and a young man in Ireland and England. Goldsmith, the poet, returns to the village that he knew as vibrant and alive, and finds it deserted and overgrown.
The setting of the particular passage is described in the first three lines. Then Goldsmith discusses the character of the schoolmaster himself. In his appearance, he is very severe and stern. The reader would suppose him humourless, except that he likes to tell jokes. When Goldsmith says "the boding tremblers learn'd to trace/The days disasters in his morning face," the reader comes to understand that the schoolmaster does not mince his words. In the last two lines, he indicates that the schoolmaster was no more. All of his fame has gone and "the spot/Where many a time he triumph'd is forgot”
The schoolmaster was a big presence in the village. In an age when literacy and numeracy were powerful the people of the village, looked up to him. He seems a kind of god. The children are fearful of him. They laugh at his jokes, even if they are not funny. “Full well “(9-10)
The adults are equally impressed with the way he can survey fields ("lands he could measure", 17) and work out boundaries or the times of holy-days like Easter. He can even do more complex calculations ("gauge", 18). This is all ironic: the school-teacher appears knowledgeable to the "gazing rustics" (22).
The poem's jokes are gentle, wry and genial. The tone of the poem is balanced and gentleness and humour imply a frame of mind that Goldsmith sees as important, as having a moral value in itself.
Goldsmith is gently mocking the schoolmaster: he is big fish in a small pond. He can impress the villagers with his learning, just because he can read a bit of Latin and knows how to do his sums. The parson, as the religious leader of the village, is of course the most respected man, but the schoolmaster loves a good argument and keeps arguing even when defeated(19-20). On the other hand, this is a loving, endearing portrait. Here's a man who is modest and doing a good job in a quiet and simple place: helping to spread a little literacy and numeracy among the people of the village, helping them in doing calculations about "terms". He is at the centre of a community - and Goldsmith is mourning the passing away of that community, the passing away of the village itself. That is why the lovely yellow flowers on the furze are "unprofitably gay" (2) - there is now no-one about to enjoy their beauty. The schoolmaster is gone long ago, with all the children of his school. A fine community has been lost.
So, this is an affectionate portrait of a community that is no more, and the school-house now deserted. The affectionate portrait of the schoolmaster is a part of this world that has passed away.