Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Boredom Bred by Modern Life
One of the themes of "The Scholar-Gipsy" by Matthew Arnold is the ennui and boredom bred by modern life. The narrator of the poem clearly finds everyday modern life lacking in excitement and inspiration. He describes everyday life in the following way: "repeated shocks, again, again / Exhaust the energy of strongest souls." Everyday life is wearying and exhausts the mind and body. It is from this kind of wearying life that the scholar-gipsy of lore has escaped. The narrator admires the scholar-gipsy for being able to find release from the life of a scholar in Oxford. Instead, the scholar-gipsy escapes into nature with a band of "gipsies," or Romani people. The "gipsies" represent a group that does not follow modern, industrial patterns but instead still wanders and tries to make a life by reading people's minds.
Nature as Release from Modern Life
Another theme is the way in which nature provides a release from modern life. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator is watching shepherds in a pasture. Stalks of flowers shade him from the sun, and the narrator sees the towers of Oxford in the distance. These towers represent the ugly, unwanted intrusion of modern life into a perfectly pastoral scene. Later, the narrator believes he and others see the scholar-gipsy in fields and pastures. The scholar-gipsy has a free, unfettered life in nature, which represents the freedom of life before the industrial age.
Nature as Inspiration
A related theme is the inspiration that comes from nature. Arnold writes about the scholar-gipsy, "Thou waitest for the spark from heaven!" The narrator believes that the scholar-gipsy is able to receive divine inspiration and is closer to the sources of this inspiration than he himself is. In contrast, the narrator says that people in modern life are "light half-believers of our casual creeds." The narrator believes that modern people are not believers in anything and have no real convictions. The scholar-gipsy is closer to sources of authentic joy than the narrator and others living modern lives are. While nature brings the scholar-gipsy a life of happiness and creativity, modern people in a more industrial world lead stale, uninspired lives.