Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
- Yep, that's another personification in the first line—the capitalized noun probably tipped you off.
- "Knowledge" is the subject of this sentence, but where's the verb? The sentence structure is wacky. Let's try to untangle it.
- Let's see…if we rearrange the sentence so that it's in a more usual structure, here's what it would look like: "Knowledge ne'er (never) did unroll her ample page, [which is] rich with the spoils of time, to their eyes."
- Okay, now that's starting to make more sense, but there's a metaphor there that needs more unraveling. Let's check it out.
- It's as though Knowledge is a big collection of pages, and, as time goes on, those pages get filled with more and more information—that's what the speaker calls the "spoils of time." ("Spoils" means "plunder" or "loot.")
- But these poor guys in the graveyard never had access to all the knowledge history had to offer—those pages were never "unrolled" "to their eyes."
- And why? Because poverty ("penury"= poverty) held back the noble parts of their characters—their passion, even their rage.
- More personification! "Penury" is being treated like a person—it's the thing that repressed and froze the dead people's potential.
- And another metaphor, too: imagine that a person's soul is a river. Well, poverty can freeze up the current of your soul-river.
- This is a bummer, but the speaker might have a point. Let's read on…