Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Throughout his poetic career Arnold was a writer of elegies. He wrote more than a dozen actual elegies, and many of his other poems have important elegiac elements. For Arnold, the elegy was the perfect form in which to express his distinctive personal blend of melancholy and stoicism. It also offered him a congenial form in which to lament the tragic realities of what he once referred to as “this strange disease of modern life.” Of all of Arnold’s elegies, “Thyrsis” is one of the greatest and most complex.

Arnold’s theme in “Thyrsis” is not simply the loss of Arthur Hugh Clough. Rather, the poem is a lament for many kinds of loss: the lost paradise of Oxford, the loss of Arnold’s youth, his and Clough’s lost innocence, and the loss of meaning and direction in the society and culture of his day. Also, given that “Thyrsis” was Arnold’s last important poem, it is a kind of elegy for his own career as a poet.

In much of his greatest poetry, “Dover Beach” (1867), “The Buried Life” (1852), “The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853), and “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1855), Arnold is deeply concerned with his moment in history, with what he sees as the special problems, anxieties, and crises of modern Victorian life. Indeed, it may be said that Arnold’s sense of angst, alienation, and dehumanization mark him as the first significant English poet of modern consciousness.

In “Thyrsis,” Arnold’s...

(The entire section is 550 words.)