Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Matthew Arnold is recognized as one of the most well-known poets of the Victorian era. Victorian poetry focused on using sentimentality and imagery to convey the feelings or message the poet wished to express. The topics of nature and Romantic ideals were common points of inspiration for writers of the Victorian period.
In his poem "The Scholar-Gipsy," Matthew Arnold uses many examples of vivid imagery to paint a picture of the natural world surrounding the speaker. As the speaker is reclining somewhere near Oxford, he describes the beauty of the natural world all around him.
Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid
As the speaker takes in his surroundings, he begins to narrate the main story that flows through the poem. It revolves around a friend that the speaker knew at Oxford who chose to leave his studies to join a band of traveling "gipsies" (Romani people). This friend that he knew chose to pursue a different type of life: a life of freedom, travel, and exploration of the world and Roma customs, transforming him into the "scholar-gipsy."
Nature is the backdrop that is woven throughout the entire poem, representing the freedom the speaker longs for, an escape from "what wears out the mortal life of men." The speaker describes the adventures of the scholar-gipsy with color and vividness, as in the "dark bluebells" or "purple orchises." The scholar-gipsy represents what the speaker wishes he could be:
a truant boy
Nursing thy project in unclouded joy
And every doubt long blown by time away.
In contrast, the speaker feels he is stuck in a much different reality, and he longs to return to his carefree days at Oxford, when he was younger and the world was still full of possibility—
when wits were fresh and clear
and life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames.
Now, the speaker feels weighed down by the responsibilities and pursuits of daily life and his inability to "borne fruit in deeds." The scholar-gipsy becomes something more than just a mortal person to the poet; he is seen as an almost immortal being who has risen above the "strange disease of modern life." The scholar-gipsy has learned the secrets of the world, something that the speaker has been unable to accomplish, for he feels he will "lose to-morrow the ground won today." Ultimately, the scholar-gipsy comes to represent an unattainable state of being for the speaker, because unlike the mortal speaker with his limitations, the scholar-gipsy waits for "the spark from heaven."
Matthew Arnold uses the natural world, beautiful imagery, and sentiment to express the speaker's frustration, the limitations imposed on him by the world, and the person he dreams of becoming.