“The Scholar-Gipsy” was written by poet and essayist Matthew Arnold in 1853. The poem is based on a story which was found in The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661), written by Joseph Glanvil.
The poem tells the story of a poor and disillusioned Oxford student who leaves university to join a group of traveling “gipsies” (Romani people). The Scholar-Gipsy wants not only to withdraw from his studies but also to withdraw from the modern world. He is so welcomed and becomes such a part of the "gipsy" family that they reveal some of their secrets to him. When he is discovered by two of his former Oxford peers, he tells them of how the Romani have their own unique way of learning. He plans to stay with them to learn as much as he can from them. He will then share their wisdom with the world, although he does not wish to return to that world himself.
Arnold begins his poem by describing a rural setting just outside of Oxford. The speaker watches as a shepherd and reapers work in a field there. The speaker remains, enjoying the view of the fields and Oxford in the distance until the sun sets, his book lying beside him.
Although the story (1661) was written two hundred years before the poem (1853), local people still claim to see the scholar-gipsy walking on the Berkshire moors:
This said, he left them, and return'd no more.—
But rumours hung about the country-side,
That the lost Scholar long was seen to stray,
Seen by rare glimpses, pensive and tongue-tied,
In hat of antique shape, and cloak of grey,
The same the gipsies wore.
The speaker even claims to have seen this shadowy figure himself. He questions whether the scholar-gipsy could really still be alive after two centuries, but he also does not believe the scholar-gipsy could have died, as the legendary figure has turned his back on the everyday modern world and mortal life:
Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,
Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.
The speaker ends the poem by appealing to the scholar-gipsy to avoid mortals in case he should be infected by the disease of modernity.
Wave us away, and keep thy solitude!
Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar-Gipsy,” the major British Victorian poet’s central poem, anticipates the crisis of the modernist period. The poem is testament to Arnold’s preoccupation as a poet and a cultural critic: “this strange disease of modern life.” Arnold returns to this theme throughout his work, including in his poetic masterpieces Thyrsis (1866) and “Dover Beach” (1867) and in his major work of prose criticism, Culture and Anarchy (1869). “The Scholar-Gipsy” serves as a template for Arnold’s poetic and intellectual career and epitomizes his paradoxical combination of Victorian vigor and social progressivism with a protomodernist sense of dissociation arising from religious doubt, social fragmentation, and ennui.
Written in a ten-line stanzaic pattern for a total of 250 lines, the poem is a major English pastoral elegy in the tradition of John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637) and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). It bears the imprint of Arnold’s classicism, with allusions to Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) and its masterful conclusion in the form of an epic simile. At the same time, however, Arnold seems to undermine the sense of tradition, poetic or cultural, that he is seeking to maintain. The traditional pastoral elegy seeks to reaffirm a continuity between past and present and between the person who has died and the still-existing values that he or she had embodied.
The subject of Arnold’s elegy is a legendary, poor Oxford University student of the seventeenth century who has abandoned his studies to learn the occult ways of the nomadic Roma, or gypsy, people. The Scholar-Gipsy is portrayed not as dead but as existing...
(The entire section contains 1897 words.)
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