The Scholar-Gypsy

by Matthew Arnold

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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

“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 that the scholar is certainly dead and buried. The poem then turns again, at the beginning of stanza 15, where, by his imaginative leap, the poet realizes that the scholar still lives in spirit and imagination. From here until the last two stanzas, the poet contrasts images of the life of the still-living scholar, free to pursue his quest, against the lives of ordinary mortals. These contrasts are present in almost every stanza of this section, usually with the scholar presented first, and modern humans second. The scholar possesses an “immortal lot” because he has not wasted his spiritual and psychic energy on the changes and schemes of mortals. He left the world young and fresh, firm in his resolve, secure in his vision, self-sufficient; he still seeks his one goal, the spark from heaven. Humanity also seeks the spark, but it fails to appear; even the wisest sage can tell only of wretched days and misery. Modern life is a disease, and the poet repeatedly urges the scholar to fly from all contact with ordinary mortals and to continue to nurse his unconquerable hope that someday the spark will fall.

In the final two stanzas, which act as a sort of parable, the poet compares the urgent necessity for the scholar to flee to the action taken by a Tyrian trader who finds his usual territory increasingly overrun by lighthearted Greek traders. Recognizing the Greeks as invaders of his native city, Tyre, the trader turns his ship about, sails west from the Peloponnesus, through the Mediterranean, to beaches outside the Straits of Gibraltar, where he finds new customers among the dark Iberians who come to examine his wares.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

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: “immortal,” “fresh,” “undiverted,” “firm,” “unclouded joy,” “gaily,” “unconquerable,” “enchanted,” set off against language used to describe the modern intellectual plight: “exhaust,” “numb,” “sick,” “doubt,” “half-believers,” “casual creeds,” “vague,” “wretched,” “misery,” “sick,” “palsied,” and others. This contrast adds up to convey to the reader a powerful emotional understanding of the intellectual life of Arnold’s day, with its uncertainty and strife.

The effect of the imagery is probably most concentrated in the final two stanzas. Here Arnold intends the extended image of the Tyrian trader to sum up the poet’s advice to the scholar to flee all contact with ordinary mortals. This final summarizing extended image is a hallmark of many of Arnold’s poems and clearly a common poetic practice for him. Similar images may be seen in “Dover Beach,” “Sohrab and Rustum,” “Tristram and Iseult,” “Rugby Chapel,” and others. In “The Scholar-Gipsy” the closing image is probably also intended, with its return to lush pastoral imagery, to calm the reader after the vigorous and biting denunciation of the modern world.

The pastoralism of the poem is perhaps its most noticeable aspect. Unlike so many poets who return to the traditional Arcadia or to a generalized sort of rural serenity, Arnold has naturalized, or domesticated, his pastoral. Arnold uses a very specific countryside, that around Oxford, as the locus for his poem. All the places mentioned in the poem are real places, well-known to Arnold and to many Oxford students. Arnold often walked the countryside described and often returned to it for refreshment. In his days at Oxford, Arnold was frequently accompanied on his walks by his close friend, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough; for the two of them, many of the local places, as well as the legend of the scholar-gypsy itself, acquired special, personal meanings.

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