The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Scholar-Gipsy” is a pastoral poem, in twenty-five ten-line stanzas, based on a legend recounted by Joseph Glanvill in The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661). Matthew Arnold supplies the essential elements of the legend in lines 31 through 56 of the poem.

The poem opens on a pleasant August afternoon, with the poet-shepherd dismissing his companion shepherd to take care of his usual pastoral chores, bidding him to return at evening when the two will renew their quest. Meanwhile, the poet waits in a pleasant corner of a field filled with colorful flowers, lulled by the distant sounds of sheep and workmen; trees shield him from the sun as he looks down on the university town of Oxford.

The poet picks up Glanvill’s book and rereads the tale of the talented but poor scholar who left his studies at seventeenth century Oxford to learn the mystic secrets of the gypsies. Rumors persisted that the scholar was seen occasionally; in stanzas 7 through 13, the poet imagines that the scholar is still glimpsed by shepherds, by country boys, by Oxford riders returning on the ferry, by young girls, by reapers, by a housewife darning clothes at the open doorway of a lonely cottage, by the blackbird, even by the poet himself. These seven stanzas primarily evoke the pastoral countryside around Oxford.

Making a quick turn at stanza 14, the poet ceases to daydream and realizes that it has been two hundred years since Glanvill’s story and...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

With its formal language and stanza form, “The Scholar-Gipsy” displays many of the characteristics of an ode. This stanza form may well have been suggested to Arnold by that employed by John Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In addition, the lush imagery of the more pastoral parts of the poem may owe something to the example of Keats.

There are important dichotomies in the poem which influence the overall structure. The poem tends to fall into two separate but related parts, reflecting the two quests documented in the poem. The first part, the first thirteen stanzas, deals primarily with the quest of the poet for the scholar; the second part, the remaining stanzas with the exception of the final two, deals with the quest of the scholar (and of Arnold) for the spark from heaven, the mystical moment of insight. The first part, along with the two final stanzas, contains most of the pastoral language in the poem, while the second part is marked more by poetry of statement as well as by a different tone.

As in much of Arnold’s best poetry, it is the imagery that carries the burden of meaning and emotion. There is the contrast in the language of the two parts mentioned above; but in the second part itself, there is an even more important division, one that leads to the expression of one of the poem’s major themes. One finds, in almost every stanza, language that characterizes the life of the scholar:...

(The entire section is 555 words.)