The Scholar-Gipsy

by Matthew Arnold

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How does Arnold advise the Scholar Gipsy to avoid modern life in "The Scholar-Gipsy"?

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The Scholar Gipsy is a legendary figure from the seventeenth century, a poor student who left Oxford to learn hidden wisdom from a gypsy (Roma) band of travelers. By the speaker's time, the nineteenth century, the scholar gipsy has achieved the status of a ghost who is said to have been sighted on numerous occasions because he never died.

Arnold's speaker differentiates between the scholar gipsy's life and modern life as he dwells on this legendary figure. He at first disbelieves the gipsy is still alive, even as a ghost, but then wonders if his way of life has led to immortality.

Arnold's speaker advises the gipsy scholar, but more to the point, the rest of us, to avoid modernity by pursuing a single-minded purpose in life. Modern people are too fragmented, too prone to racing around in different directions, pinging from this to that, and not really firmly believing in any one thing.

In the following stanza, the speaker summarizes why the gipsy scholar should flee the modern life. It is, first, characterized by a "feverish...infection" or a sense of warring within ourselves: we are not at peace with who or what are, or what we believe in. We have too many contradictory ideas clashing in our hearts and minds. This causes us to lose our "bliss" and become "unblessed" and unhappy. We become timid and nervous as our minds war within ourselves and our aims shift. Eventually, this results in fading, aging, and dying:

But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,
Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest;
And we should win thee from thy own fair life,
Like us distracted, and like us unblest.
Soon, soon thy cheer would die,
Thy hopes grow timorous, and unfix'd thy powers,
And thy clear aims be cross and shifting made;
And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade and grow old at last, and die like ours.
It is better for the scholar gipsy to be at peace, single-minded, and living close to nature.

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