Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1150 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
For the central premise of “The Scholar-Gipsy,” Arnold draws upon a legend of the area surrounding the university city of Oxford. The legend tells of a wandering scholar who rejects the material world of the academy to pursue a vague and idealistic objective. Arnold uses this story as a metaphor for his indictment of a world that is obsessed with materialism and individual advancement but is largely indifferent to culture and the pursuit of the ideal. In 1844, Arnold had purchased a copy of Joseph Glanvill’s The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661). Glanvill’s book recounts the tale of an Oxford student who, with neither patron nor independent financial means, was forced to discontinue his studies and to make his way in the world. Increasing poverty leads him to join a band of roving gypsies, with whom he begins a new and very different education. From these vagabonds, who roam at will following rules and traditions that in no way answer to the world of “preferment,” he discovers the power of the imagination stimulated by nature. Gradually he rejects the world of humanity and materialism. As the years become centuries, the increasingly mysterious scholar-gipsy continues his quest, a solitary figure always seen at a distance, carefully avoiding any contact with the corruption of modern civilization.
“The Scholar-Gipsy,” with its bucolic setting, has many of the characteristics of the traditional pastoral elegy. These characteristics are...
(The entire section is 1137 words.)