Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar-Gipsy,” the major British Victorian poet’s central poem, anticipates the crisis of the modernist period. The poem is testament to Arnold’s preoccupation as a poet and a cultural critic: “this strange disease of modern life.” Arnold returns to this theme throughout his work, including in his poetic masterpieces Thyrsis (1866) and “Dover Beach” (1867) and in his major work of prose criticism, Culture and Anarchy (1869). “The Scholar-Gipsy” serves as a template for Arnold’s poetic and intellectual career and epitomizes his paradoxical combination of Victorian vigor and social progressivism with a protomodernist sense of dissociation arising from religious doubt, social fragmentation, and ennui.
Written in a ten-line stanzaic pattern for a total of 250 lines, the poem is a major English pastoral elegy in the tradition of John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637) and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). It bears the imprint of Arnold’s classicism, with allusions to Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) and its masterful conclusion in the form of an epic simile. At the same time, however, Arnold seems to undermine the sense of tradition, poetic or cultural, that he is seeking to maintain. The traditional pastoral elegy seeks to reaffirm a continuity between past and present and between the person who has died and the still-existing values that he or she had embodied.
The subject of Arnold’s elegy is a legendary, poor Oxford University student of the seventeenth century who has abandoned his studies to learn the occult ways of the nomadic Roma, or gypsy, people. The Scholar-Gipsy is portrayed not as dead but as existing in an immortal twilight of the Romantic imagination. Moreover, rather than reinforce a sense of cultural continuity, Arnold is at pains to warn his elegiac “subject” away from deadening contact with the modern world, which is portrayed as radically alien in form and values from those he inhabits.
Arnold’s unusual pastoral elegy begins well within the expectations of the genre. The poem’s speaker addresses an unnamed shepherd and describes the timeless pastoral duties involved in the care and feeding of his flock. However, even the first stanza suggests something is amiss, as the speaker pictures the sheep at night on a “moon-blanched green” and then urges the symbolic shepherd to “again begin the quest.” The moon becomes a symbol for the power of the imagination, and “quest” seems like a strong word for a simple shepherd’s job of rounding up sheep. The speaker interjects himself into the poem in the second stanza, portraying himself seated in a field high in the Cumnor Hills overlooking...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)