Themes and Meanings

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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 awareness of the conflict, storm, struggle, futility, and care of modernity makes his poem not simply an elegant imitation of the pastoral elegy or a tender tribute to a lost friend, but rather a lament for his entire age and civilization. In this context, Clough in Arnold’s poem is treated as a painful and tragic example of just how deadly the soul-and life-destroying strife of the modern world can be. Although Arnold and Clough were close friends, they disagreed significantly about both life and poetry. Clough viewed Arnold and his poetry as in retreat from the demands of his age; Arnold felt that Clough was sacrificing both himself and his poetry to the age. In “Thyrsis,” Arnold treats Clough with respect and love, but he underscores the waste of his engaged life.

Arnold’s alternative to this engaged life forms another major theme in “Thyrsis,” the theme of quest. For Arnold, the lonely, pure, personal quest represented by the Scholar-Gipsy and his signal-elm is the only alternative to the chaos and emptiness of the outer world. The precise object of the quest may seem vague (“A fugitive and gracious light he seeks/ Shy to illumine”), but the very act of spiritual questing offers a unity of purpose and an integrity of life that contrast powerfully with the “heart-wearying” conflict of ordinary life.

Arnold’s powerful treatment of his major themes in “Thyrsis,” loss, the tragedy of Victorian modernity, and the need for spiritual questing, makes this poem one of the great poetic works of the Victorian period. Along with such poems as Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) and Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855), “Thyrsis” defines a poetic age marked by post-Romantic sadness, a distinctly Victorian spiritual energy, and a philosophical angst which would help define literature for a century after Arnold.

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