The Scholar-Gipsy

by Matthew Arnold

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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,
And bower me from the August sun with shade;
And the eye travels down to Oxford's towers.
At the beginning of the poem, the narrator is watching a bucolic scene of shepherds and other aspects of rural life. In these lines, he describes a rural scene in which nature and its beauty hold sway. Here, modern life and its industry and bustle do not affect the scene. Instead of tall buildings, there are only the stalks of flowers that shade the narrator from the sun. He has momentarily forgotten the cares of the world and achieved a state of transcendence. Nature has inspired him to transport himself to another state in which modern life seems far away. However, at the end of the stanza, his eyes catch sight of Oxford's towers, symbolizing his cares and the travails of modern life. The towers of Oxford stand in stark contrast to nature and its comforts, and they remind him of the story of the "scholar-gipsy" who escaped modern life.
Whereat he answer'd, that the gipsy-crew,
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.
"And I," he said, "the secret of their art,
When fully learn'd, will to the world impart;
But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill."
The narrator recalls the story of the scholar-gipsy that he read about. This man left Oxford to travel with a band of "gipsies" (Romani people, then called gypsies), and his friends from Oxford found him. He told them that the "gipsies" had revealed to him everything about life that he needed to know, including the art of reading other people's minds. He planned to learn their arts, but he needed divine inspiration, or "heaven-sent moments," to learn these skills. The scholar-gipsy has rejected the learning of Oxford for the more spiritual ways of the Romani, and he wants divine inspiration to learn their ways. His life has become a rejection of modernity and an embrace of older, more traditional ways of life.
—No, no, thou hast not felt the lapse of hours!
For what wears out the life of mortal men?
'Tis that from change to change their being rolls;
'Tis that repeated shocks, again, again,
Exhaust the energy of strongest souls
And numb the elastic powers.
The narrator claims to have seen the scholar-gipsy in various places in nature until he realizes that the scholar-gipsy was supposed to have lived two hundred years before. The scholar-gipsy acquires the characteristics of a supernatural being. The narrator writes that the scholar-gipsy has transcended the cares and mortality of other men. People who live modern lives are subject to shocks and stresses that wear out their souls and numb their powers of resilience, but the scholar-gipsy has immortal powers because he has transcended the life of modernity for a more spiritual existence. The narrator years for this type of escape from the cares and strains of modern life.

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