Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Matthew Arnold's poem "The Scholar-Gipsy" is based on Joseph Glanvil's The Vanity of Dogmatizing. It has three main characters and a group of unnamed minor characters.
Joseph Glanvil is in the preface to the poem. He was a real-life English philosopher and clergyman in the 1600s who argued for rationalism, tolerance, and science. But he also argued for the existence of witches and evil spirits, and his writings were used to justify witch hunts.
The poem's speaker, usually considered to be Arnold himself, introduces, tells, and comments upon the story of the wandering scholar as he sits on a hill above Oxford with Glanvil's book.
The scholar-gipsy of the title is a poor Oxford student who joins a wandering band of "gipsies," or Romani people. (The term "gypsy" is usually considered derogatory today.) The scholar realized Romani have their own forms of learning. Once he has learned all he can from them, he will share it with the rest of the world. In the twentieth century, scholar Marjorie Hope Nicholson identified the scholar as based on Francis Mercury van Helmont, an alchemist, diplomat, pioneering early chemist, and believer in an esoteric school of thought called Kabbalah.
The Scholar's Colleagues
Two colleagues of the scholar-gipsy from Oxford also make a brief appearance in the poem, sharing what they know of the "gipsies."
The unnamed members of the band of Romani people, "gipsies," share their knowledge as well. Romani people are believed to have originally come from India, making their way across the Middle East and North Africa, eventually to Europe and then the rest of the world. In Europe, they faced strong stigmas and much persecution and violence, even pogroms and genocide during the Holocaust alongside Jews. They were often accused of or associated with thievery or deception. In many stories they are portrayed as fortune-tellers or practitioners of magic, including the casting of curses said to bring bad luck or misfortune.