The Poem

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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Forms and Devices

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...

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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.