For the central premise of “The Scholar-Gipsy,” Arnold draws upon a legend of the area surrounding the university city of Oxford. The legend tells of a wandering scholar who rejects the material world of the academy to pursue a vague and idealistic objective. Arnold uses this story as a metaphor for his indictment of a world that is obsessed with materialism and individual advancement but is largely indifferent to culture and the pursuit of the ideal. In 1844, Arnold had purchased a copy of Joseph Glanvill’s The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661). Glanvill’s book recounts the tale of an Oxford student who, with neither patron nor independent financial means, was forced to discontinue his studies and to make his way in the world. Increasing poverty leads him to join a band of roving gypsies, with whom he begins a new and very different education. From these vagabonds, who roam at will following rules and traditions that in no way answer to the world of “preferment,” he discovers the power of the imagination stimulated by nature. Gradually he rejects the world of humanity and materialism. As the years become centuries, the increasingly mysterious scholar-gipsy continues his quest, a solitary figure always seen at a distance, carefully avoiding any contact with the corruption of modern civilization.
“The Scholar-Gipsy,” with its bucolic setting, has many of the characteristics of the traditional pastoral elegy. These characteristics are clearly apparent in the first stanza. As, for example, John Milton does in “Lycidas” (1638), Arnold addresses the young poet, casting him in the role of the shepherd who has abandoned the “quest,” the pursuit of the ideal, to go forth into the world of political change and turmoil. In 1848, Arnold’s close friend, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, left his post at Oxford in order to become more directly involved in the revolutionary social changes that were then restructuring all of European society. In the first stanza, the speaker calls upon the poet-shepherd to return, when the turmoil has settled, from leading the “sheep” of restless England. Return, he importunes the shepherd-poet, when “the fields are still,/ And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest.” The speaker (Arnold) and his fellow poet will remain behind, in the natural setting, away from the din of the city. The third stanza is almost purely descriptive. It presents the speaker reclining amid the beauties of nature, which Arnold renders with true Keatsian sensuosity.
In the fourth through the seventh stanzas, Arnold relates the legend of the scholar-gipsy, drawn from “Glanvill’s book.” The secrets of the “gipsy-crew,” the ultimate truth to be drawn from nature, remain elusive, the wandering scholar tells some former fellow...
(The entire section is 1137 words.)