Arnold's poem is about the story of a 17th century Oxford scholar who, sensing the useless toil of school, leaves to travel with the Gypsies and learn their secrets. In a larger sense, his poem is about "modernity" in general and the relationship of the individual to society, or more particularly, individual genius to social expectation. That is, the "scholar Gipsy" inspires the poet because he has chosen to abandon the "shocks" of society and embraces a life of the imagination. In so doing, the scholar Gipsy has attained a kind of immortality: exempt from the pressures of "this strange disease of modern life, / With its sick hurry, its divided aims," his spirit endures, both in the pages of the book the poet is reading and also in the collective imagination of society ("Thou hast not lived, why should'st thou perish, so?")
The poem is written in the form of a pastoral elegy, a form that celebrates rustic life but also mourns a lost time of simplicity. However, Arnold subverts this genre by calling into question what is being mourned. To the extent that the poem describes the poet's own inability to make the same choice the scholar Gipsy made to abandon Oxford, perhaps what is being called into question is the Victorian emphasis on work, achievement, and, above all, conformity.