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...
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