Study Guide

Thyrsis

by Matthew Arnold

Thyrsis Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Thyrsis is a pastoral elegy written by Matthew Arnold to honor his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, who died in 1861. It is one of the greatest elegies in English literature, equal in stature to John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821). Thyrsis is 240 lines long, divided into twenty-four ten-line stanzas. All the lines are in iambic pentameter, except the sixth line of each stanza, which is in iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme for each stanza is abcbcadeed. The stanzaic form of Thyrsis is thus a slight variation on the ten-line stanza John Keats developed for his odes (“Ode to a Nightingale,” 1820, for example). Keats’s slightly different rhyme scheme is ababcdecde. The lines of Keats’s stanzas are in iambic pentameter, except for the eighth line, which like Arnold’s tenth is in iambic trimeter.

Clough and Arnold attended both Rugby School and Oxford University together, but while Clough was acknowledged as a bright star, Arnold was perceived as a dandy. It was not until his first volume of poems was published—a collection with a definite elegiac tone—that Arnold’s friends and family realized his extravagant style of dress was a mask he wore to face the alien Victorian world outside academia and to cope with having a famous father, the headmaster of Rugby. Clough did not do as well at Balliol College, Oxford, as at Rugby. He graduated with second-class honors, telling Arnold’s father that he had failed. However, he was awarded a fellowship at Oriel College. Several years later, he resigned his position, partly over reservations about accepting the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church. Clough traveled on the Continent for a time, returned to England, and accepted a rather dull position in the Education Office. Clough died in Florence in 1861. Arnold began his elegy shortly thereafter, but he did not complete and publish it until 1866.

Thyrsis is set in the countryside around Oxford, where Arnold and Clough had taken many walks in happier days. An elm tree on a hill came to have meaning for both of them. They agreed that, as long as the tree stood, the “Scholar-Gypsy” was still alive, roaming the Cumnor Hills near Oxford. The Scholar-Gypsy was a legendary seventeenth century Oxford scholar who, growing impatient with the learning of his day, was said to have left Oxford to live among the gypsies and learn their lore. According to the story, the scholar said that he would return once he had mastered the gypsies’ lore, but he never did, and he passed out of time into the realm of myth: From the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century, people would claim to have seen the Scholar-Gypsy wandering about the region. He would appear without warning and just as suddenly be gone. He became for Arnold and Clough a symbol of a sacred search for an unattainable truth. Arnold wrote a poem relating this tale around 1851, and it forms a kind of companion piece to Thyrsis. Arnold felt that Clough, in leaving Oxford, had impatiently abandoned the search for truth, and this feeling came to have a dominant effect on his elegy to Clough.

In 1861, Arnold returned to Oxford and the countryside he had known so well to think through Clough’s life and their relationship. This visit became the...

(The entire section is 1366 words.)