The Scholar-Gipsy

by Matthew Arnold

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How does "The Scholar-Gipsy" portray the tension between imagination and the modern world?

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"The Scholar-Gipsy" portrays the tension between the imagination and the modern world by contrasting the beauty and lushness of the landscape inhabited by the "gipsies" with the tedium of the quest for distinction and preferment at the university.

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"The Scholar-Gipsy" was first published in 1853 and was based on a legend recounted in a book called The Vanity of Dogmatizing, which was published in 1661. The world it portrays, therefore, is not particularly modern in a simple chronological sense. However, this may be one of the points made by the poem: that there was always tension between the imagination and the modern world. Modernity in this sense means that everything is becoming larger, faster, and more systematic. The scholar was "tired of knocking at preferment's door," which suggests that the society in which he lived had no use for his "pregnant parts and quick inventive brain." This sounds like the conflict between imagination and any new, unfamiliar world of the type that has always surprised scholars after they have spent years lost in their study of the remote past.

As a "gipsy," the scholar lives a life of imagination, perhaps of fantasy. When, on a rare occasion, he meets other scholars still at Oxford, he makes extravagant claims for the knowledge of the gipsies:

His mates, had arts to rule as they desired
The workings of men's brains,
And they can bind them to what thoughts they will.
However, if the scholar ever masters these gipsy arts, there is no sign that he uses them. The imaginative life he has chosen appears to be its own reward as it is described in Arnold's lush pastoral poetry. The tension between this and the modern world of ambition and preferment appears principally in the contrast between the dry description of the academic life at the university and the idyllic nature of the landscape that surrounds Oxford.

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