Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
Thyrsis is a pastoral elegy written by Matthew Arnold to honor his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, who died in 1861. It is one of the greatest elegies in English literature, equal in stature to John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821). Thyrsis is 240 lines long, divided into twenty-four ten-line stanzas. All the lines are in iambic pentameter, except the sixth line of each stanza, which is in iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme for each stanza is abcbcadeed. The stanzaic form of Thyrsis is thus a slight variation on the ten-line stanza John Keats developed for his odes (“Ode to a Nightingale,” 1820, for example). Keats’s slightly different rhyme scheme is ababcdecde. The lines of Keats’s stanzas are in iambic pentameter, except for the eighth line, which like Arnold’s tenth is in iambic trimeter.
Clough and Arnold attended both Rugby School and Oxford University together, but while Clough was acknowledged as a bright star, Arnold was perceived as a dandy. It was not until his first volume of poems was published—a collection with a definite elegiac tone—that Arnold’s friends and family realized his extravagant style of dress was a mask he wore to face the alien Victorian world outside academia and to cope with having a famous father, the headmaster of Rugby. Clough did not do as well at Balliol College, Oxford, as at Rugby. He graduated with second-class honors, telling Arnold’s father that he had failed. However, he was awarded a fellowship at Oriel College. Several years later, he resigned his position, partly over reservations about accepting the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church. Clough traveled on the Continent for a time, returned to England, and accepted a rather dull position in the Education Office. Clough died in Florence in 1861. Arnold began his elegy shortly thereafter, but he did not complete and publish it until 1866.
Thyrsis is set in the countryside around Oxford, where Arnold and Clough had taken many walks in happier days. An elm tree on a hill came to have meaning for both of them. They agreed that, as long as the tree stood, the “Scholar-Gypsy” was still alive, roaming the Cumnor Hills near Oxford. The Scholar-Gypsy was a legendary seventeenth century Oxford scholar who, growing impatient with the learning of his day, was said to have left Oxford to live among the gypsies and learn their lore. According to the story, the scholar said that he would return once he had mastered the gypsies’ lore, but he never did, and he passed out of time into the realm of myth: From the seventeenth century into the nineteenth century, people would claim to have seen the Scholar-Gypsy wandering about the region. He would appear without warning and just as suddenly be gone. He became for Arnold and Clough a symbol of a sacred search for an unattainable truth. Arnold wrote a poem relating this tale around 1851, and it forms a kind of companion piece to Thyrsis. Arnold felt that Clough, in leaving Oxford, had impatiently abandoned the search for truth, and this feeling came to have a dominant effect on his elegy to Clough.
In 1861, Arnold returned to Oxford and the countryside he had known so well to think through Clough’s life and their relationship. This visit became the basis for the walking tour described in Thyrsis. The first four stanzas of the poem provide the setting. The poet is alarmed at the changes that have occurred since he was an undergraduate. He has come to see if the “signal elm” is still there, which would mean that the Scholar-Gypsy still continues his search for truth. However, all the changes he witnesses cast that possibility in doubt. Stanza 4 explicitly introduces the pastoral element in the poem: There is talk of shepherds and the “pipes” Arnold and Clough used to play. At the stanza’s end, Thyrsis’s name is introduced, but not Thyrsis himself. He has gone away.
Stanza 5 makes explicit that this elegy will have more to do with criticizing the deceased than with honoring his memory. Thyrsis was impatient in this pastoral setting. A shadow grew over his head as he thought of “Some life of men unblest.” Outside the pastoral world, his piping took on a tone of anger and protest, and he could not wait out the “storms.” As a result, now, “he is dead.” In stanzas 6 through 8, Thyrsis’s actions are compared to those of the cuckoo who foolishly fled, not waiting for the return of spring. In one of Vergil’s eclogues, the shepherd Thyrsis loses a singing contest to Corydon. Arnold’s Thyrsis met a different fate: “Time, not Corydon, hath conquered thee!”
In a traditional pastoral elegy such as “Lycidas,” one of the conventions is to ask why the gods did not prevent the loss of the deceased. The poet, instead of questioning the gods, blames Thyrsis himself for his demise. Stanzas 9 and 10 draw heavily on pastoral tradition. The poet recalls that in Sicily during the classical period, when a shepherd died, one of his fellows would take his pipe and play a “ditty sad,” so that in Hades Proserpine would see to it that the dead shepherd was returned to life. Unfortunately, the poet laments, Proserpine was never in England, so calling on her to return Thyrsis would be “in vain.”
What follows, in stanzas 11 through 15, is the lament that the poet is now forced to sing since Thyrsis will not be returning. Though his words will be “wind-dispersed and vain,” the poet still must have his time to grieve and find “our tree-topped hill.” However, he is thwarted by the thought that perhaps he does not have the power to create his song, though he knows the countryside well. In stanzas 11 through 13, the speaker’s poetic power is revealed through his detailed and lyrical description of the flowers that grow in the region and of people he knew who worked along the Thames. He laments, however, “They all are gone, and thou art gone as well!” Time has taken them all, and now the night, “In ever-nearing circle weaves her shade” about him in his dejection. Almost swooning, the poet feels the night’s “slowly chilling breath invade/ The cheek grown thin, the brown hair sprent with grey.” His footsteps and his heart slow; hope is not as quick to recover; and the challenges he must face seem stronger and larger than ever, for “long the way appears, which seemed so short/ To the less practiced eye of sanguine youth.” Because the world’s problems seem insurmountable now, “near and real” becomes the “charm” of night’s “repose.”
Fortunately, in stanzas 16 and 17, the silence is interrupted by a group of hunters riding back to town, “jovial and talking.” Their presence draws the poet away from his darkening thoughts, and at last he is able to see the signal elm. Though he cannot get to it this night, it is definitely there. The quest is still alive. From stanza 18 to the end of the poem, the poet attempts to recoup the image of Thyrsis whom he has up until now disparaged. Though Thyrsis is not buried in England, he lies in a “boon southern country” (Italy) and is “now in happier air.” He rests where he can hear the ancient pastoral shepherds sing their ditties. The poet, though, is in England, where the Scholar-Gypsy still seeks the truth, having outlived Thyrsis.
The poet’s final consolation is a reversal of what he says earlier. According to the final lines, after Thyrsis left the Cumnor Hills, he was still following the Scholar-Gypsy’s vision, but in the world outside he was forced to become a wanderer. What does it matter now, the poet asks, if Thyrsis’s poetry turned from pastoral to angry protest? He had the vision, but now he is gone. The poet, admitting that he rarely visits Oxford any more, asks that Thyrsis’s voice will be there for him in the future as a reminder of the quest: “Why faintest thou? I wandered till I died./ Roam on!” After all, the tree is still there and the Scholar-Gypsy still wanders the hills.
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