The Scholar-Gypsy

by Matthew Arnold

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

The pastoralism of the poem leads immediately to several themes. Most generally it represents, as it does for many poets, an escape from the intolerable world of court or affairs. Arnold certainly romanticizes the Oxford countryside, attributing to it his happiest days. Against this romantic background, then, Arnold places the quest for and of the scholar-gypsy, which gives added significance to the background. As a broad generalization, the scholar (and Arnold) seek the meaning of life. Since for Arnold Christianity was dead, and there seemed nothing to take its place giving meaning to life, the result is a constant search and intense loneliness and emptiness in life. Another general way of phrasing all this is that it presents the wisdom of the heart against the wisdom of the head. The head sees the true condition of the modern world, but the heart is drawn to the simpler, more unified life represented by the scholar and Oxford.

The poem itself is much more specific. The countryside is a specific one, well-known and loved by Arnold; the legend of the scholar-gypsy had special meaning for him. The scholar represents a side of Arnold that was at odds with the way in which he had to live his life. Arnold felt himself tugged to and fro by the demands of the world. He believed sincerely that his need to function in the modern world had killed him as a poet. His status as a family man, as an inspector of schools, and as the self-dedicated instructor of the middle-class obliged him to live and work in the world of hurry, change, and debate, while he desired calm and singleness of purpose. It is worthy of note that the only italicized words in the whole poem are in line 152, “Thou hadst one aim, one business, one desire”—emphasizing the poet’s desire for singleness of purpose.

While Arnold certainly seeks something that will supply meaning for life, what the poem specifically emphasizes is that the poet seeks a way of life analogous to that of the scholar. The scholar is free, dedicated, not pulled about by the daily concerns of modern life—and thus he has a kind of immortality. In this connection, it is to be noted that Arnold is hardly concerned at all, in the images of the poem, with the physical side of modern life, with commerce and trade, with large cities and bustling crowds, with mass culture and the cheap and tawdry. The poet’s concern is with the intellectual life, with having something secure onto which to hold, with being in command of one’s own soul and intellect. The poem clearly suggests that dedication to the quest is even more important than its resolution.

Finally, for a full appreciation of how seriously Arnold took these issues and this quest, “The Scholar-Gipsy” must be read in conjunction with his later poem “Thyrsis,” a pastoral elegy for the death of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hugh Clough. The poem is deliberately connected to “The Scholar-Gipsy” by being only one stanza shorter, by the use of exactly the same rhyme scheme and stanza form, and, most important, by being set in exactly the same landscape and using again the figure of the scholar, which clearly meant so much to both Arnold and Clough.

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