Pastoral is a literary term that idealizes rural life, the countryside, and the natural world. As a literary mode, the pastoral depicts the everyday moments of rustic and common life. Often, the pastoral is contrasted to the rough, dirty, corrupt nature of city life. In “The Scholar-Gipsy” Arnold opens his poem by engaging the shepherd, an icon often used in pastoral imagery. The word “pastoral” is derived from the Latin “pastor” which means “to shepherd.” Thus, it is no coincidence that the shepherd is the dominant image at the opening of Arnold’s poem.
Later, Arnold engages the pastoral mode by romanticizing the Oxford countryside in the third stanza. Here, the speaker highlights the scent of the lindens with their “perfumed showers” and the bower, created by foliage, which offers solace and refuge. The speaker describes the Oxford countryside as the place where he spent his happiest days. The Oxford countryside is not only important to the speaker, but to Arnold as well. Arnold, like the scholar in the poem, felt himself torn between being a poet and maintaining a middle-class life style. Arnold turns to the pastoral to help him work through this complication.
Other examples of pastoral imagery occur in the seventh stanza, where Arnold invokes the image of boys at work in the wheat fields, the grass meadows, the sunshine, and the warm, green-muffled Cumner hills. Also, in the ninth stanza, the speaker tells of the maidens who complete the May dance around the elm, which is a reference to the pagan fertility ritual. It is also important to note the change in tone, beginning in stanza 15. Here, the speaker realizes that although Glanvil’s story of the scholar is over 200 years old, the scholar’s spirit and imagination are still alive. The speaker spends the remaining stanzas of the poem contrasting the life of the living scholar to those of ordinary mortals. This is notable in stanza 21 as the speaker expresses the living scholar in terms of moonlight, flowers and dew.