The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis” is a pastoral elegy consisting of twenty-four ten-line stanzas. The stanza form of the poem is adapted from John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) and has the rhyme scheme abcbcadeed. In each stanza the lines are iambic pentameter except the sixth, which is iambic trimeter. Following the traditional conventions of the pastoral elegy, “Thyrsis” laments the death of Arnold’s close friend and fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough, who died at age forty-two in 1861. Clough is the “Thyrsis” of the poem, while Arnold refers to himself in the poem as Corydon. Although the poem is mainly concerned with the death of Clough, it also deals significantly with Arnold’s love of Oxford, his belief in a spiritual quest for unity and totality, and his preoccupation with the modern Victorian world as a place of dehumanization, confusion, distraction, and futility.

The poem begins with Arnold’s description of the landscape around Oxford, which he associates with his own youth and his early friendship with Clough. Returning to this beautiful countryside as an adult, the poet still feels its charm and loveliness, but he is haunted by the many changes he sees in it, and most of all he is haunted by Clough’s absence. As Arnold or his persona walks from Oxford out into the surrounding country, he looks for a “signal-elm” that he and Clough as students associated with the wandering, questing figure of the “Scholar-Gipsy,” who according to an old legend left Oxford to go in search of mystical powers among the gypsies and who was the subject of Arnold’s earlier poem “The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853). For the young Arnold and Clough, as long as the tree stood it was a sign that the Scholar-Gipsy was still questing.

Initially failing to find the tree, Arnold meditates on how Clough and he were both driven to leave the pastoral innocence and idealism of Oxford, Arnold by economic necessity, Clough because of philosophical and moral doubts. Clough as Thyrsis left the “shepherds and the silly sheep,” his “piping took a troubled sound,” and he died amidst the “storms that rage outside our happy ground.” Like a cuckoo despairing because of the passing of spring, Thyrsis flew away from Oxford into modernity and death, leaving Arnold, figured as the pastoral Corydon, alone.

Arnold notes that “when Sicilian shepherds lost a mate” they sang of their loss in pastoral elegies, but he is far from certain that such elegies can be effective still. Nevertheless, he wishes not only to lament the death of Thyrsis, but also to continue the quest that he and Thyrsis and the Scholar-Gipsy once shared.

Arnold recognizes that he and the landscape have changed, that the night is falling, and that life seems baffling and death almost attractive. For a moment he seems about to give up the quest for unity and illumination when, suddenly, he sees the “lone, sky-pointing tree.” Although the tree cannot change the fact of Clough’s death, it reminds Arnold of his friend’s questing spirit and of their shared dream of the Scholar-Gipsy. Thus, it remains for him to resist despair and carry on alone their quest for wholeness in a fragmented world. The poem ends with Arnold’s hope that Clough’s spirit will remind him of this quest when he must return to London’s “harsh, heart-wearying roar.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

The most obvious of Arnold’s technical achievements in “Thyrsis” is his effective use of the classical pastoral elegy. Although the ancient form first used by Theocritus and Moschus had been employed brilliantly by such earlier English poets as John Milton and Percy Bysshe Shelley, a subgenre which depends upon the expression of mourning using shepherds and elaborate pastoral conventions presents obvious problems that few poets have solved since Shelley.

Arnold’s triumphant use of the form depends on a number of elements. First, Arnold vitalizes his pastoral elegy by making it, in a sense, modern. The world of pastoral innocence and beauty is throughout the poem contrasted with the distracted, tormented, and confused chaos of modern cities and modern political and religious conflict. Moreover, Arnold shows a kind of modern integrity in refusing to offer his readers the usual pastoral consolation for Clough’s death. For Clough or Thyrsis there is no easy rebirth or resurrection; there is only Arnold’s stoic determination to carry on the quest in Clough’s absence.

Another way in which Arnold enlivens his classical form is through the Keatsian stanza and diction of his poem. The ten-line stanza of “Thyrsis” not only derives from Keats but also has a richness, elaborateness, and gravity of movement that rival Keats and yet are distinctly Arnoldian. So too the diction of the poem is Keatsian in its felicity, lushness, and sensuality. This is particularly evident in the remarkable treatment of flowers in the poem. Thus, Arnold celebrates spring, which brings “whitening hedges, and uncrumpling fern,” and “blue-bells trembling by the forest-ways.”

The harmonious combination of classical form, Romantic style, and modern philosophical perspective in “Thyrsis” is typical of Arnold’s rich layering of textures in the poem. One can see this same quality reflected in his treatment of landscape in “Thyrsis.” On one level, the landscape is appropriately and generally pastoral. It is rural, bucolic, and associated with shepherds and traditional country life. On another level, the landscape is concretely and specifically real. That is, it is a remarkably detailed and graphic evocation of actual Oxfordshire. Finally, the landscape is morally and philosophically symbolic. The flowers, hills, stars, night, and weather of the landscape symbolize movements of feeling, moral states of mind, decisions, losses, and victories. Of all of the symbols in Arnold’s landscape, the most important is the signal-elm, whose survival symbolizes both the survival of Arnold and Clough’s youthful dreams, the mythic figure of the questing Scholar-Gipsy, the quest itself, and Arnold’s continued commitment to that quest.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

Allott, Miriam, ed. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1979. This edition of Arnold’s poems is in the respected Longman Annotated English Poets series. It contains an accurate edition of the poems, with variants, and is fully annotated.

Connolly, Patrick Carill. Matthew Arnold and “Thyrsis.” London: Greenwich Exchange, 2004. This study of Arnold’s intellectual and poetic development includes a full analysis of Thyrsis, with an emphasis on its mythic, literary, and philosophical backgrounds.

Culler, A. Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. A study focused on Arnold’s poetic development, Culler’s book contains close readings of the major poems and their relations to Arnold’s life and to each other. The treatment of Thyrsis combines a full analysis of the poem with a discussion of its relation to the friendship of Arnold and Clough.

Hamilton, Ian. A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Hamilton’s critical biography attempts to show how a young poet lost his battle over the years against the social and literary critic he later became. The discussion of Thyrsis examines the friendship and rivalry between the two friends. In the poem, Arnold seems determined to prove that Clough may have failed, but he did not.

Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. The first fully detailed biography of Arnold. Covers his childhood, his school years, his travels in Europe, his marriage, and his later life. Deals with Arnold’s literary and social ideas and provides detailed portraits of some of the key literary figures of the day whom Arnold knew. The friendship with Clough is fully covered and explicitly related to Thyrsis.

Roper, Alan. Arnold’s Poetic Landscapes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969. Examines the way the landscape functions in Arnold’s poetry. In the chapter “The Cumnor Hills,” Roper details the landscape that is the background for both Thyrsis and “The Scholar-Gypsy.” He thoroughly presents both the similarities the two poems share and their significant differences.

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