About Mathew Arnold, the Poet:
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Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) poetry is the poetry of a critic. His very definition of poetry as the “criticism of life” under the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty prevents him from rising to those imaginative heights where all criticism melts away in the glowing light of beauty. Romanticism in Arnold tends to take the form of pensive melancholy over the frustration of life, a kind of nostalgia of the soul. Though his poetry is the poetry of despair- the Virgilian cry over the mournfulness of mortal destiny he conveys his experience with remarkable restraint.
Despite all his pessimism he is a stoic. To the desolate cry of his sense of loneliness “the stoic in him,” rightly observes Lucas, “made answer—the battle in the darkness must nonetheless be fought on to its lonely end.” He loved nature in her quieter and more subdued moods. Like Tennyson or Browning he uses nature as a convenient background of human thought. The sea is, for him, the one element in which he sees the deepest reflection of his own melancholy and sense of isolation. He writes in a style marked by classical restraint, lucidity and grace. He seeks to avoid cloudy subjectivity and exclude as far as possible the elements of fancy. Nevertheless his poetry is instinct with imagination and warm with emotion.
The Scholar Gipsy by Mathew Arnold
The Scholar Gipsy was first published in 1853 in a volume of Arnold’s poems entitled Poems. Arnold found the story on which this poem is based in Glanvil’s Vanity of Dogmatizing which was published in 1661. In his introductory note to The Scholar Gipsy Arnold quotes from Vanity of Dogmatizing as far as is necessary for the reader’s acquaintance with the career of the young Oxford scholar who gives him the title of the poem. The synopsis of Arnold’s quotation from Vanity of Dogmatizing is as follows:
“A young Oxford student, forced by his poverty to leave his studies, joined a company of vagabond gypsies. The gypsies, impressed by his behavior, discovered to him their mystery. After he had been a pretty while well exercised in the trade, a couple of scholars, his former acquaintances, while out riding, saw him among the gypsies. He told them why he took to that kind of life and informed them that the gypsies were not such impostors as they were taken for, “but that they had a traditional kind of learning among them and could do wonders by the power of imagination.” He also told them that he himself had learnt much of their art, and when he had compassed the whole secret, he intended to leave their company and give the world an account of what he had learned.”
Summary of The Scholar Gipsy
The poet asks the shepherd to take the bleating sheep out and feed them on grass, and to return to him in the evening and renew his search for the Scholar Gipsy
The poet will sit in this shady upland meadow and pass all day listening to the bleating of the sheep, the cries of the reapers and other cheerful sounds of a summer-day.
Sitting in this high, shady place he will feast his eyes all day on red poppy flowers and pale blue convolvulus flowers, smell the fragrance of linden flowers and watch the towers of Oxford University.
He has at hand Glanvil’s book in which he has read the story of the poor Oxford scholar who, having failed to find himself some gainful employment, left his friends and went to learn the gipsy-lore and never came back to Oxford and his friends.
But one day, after many years two of his former fellow students chanced to meet him in the country-lanes and on enquiry learnt from him that the gypsies knew the art of controlling the thoughts of others, and could make others think as they desired. The scholar told his friends that when he had fully learnt the secret of the art of the gypsies, he would impart it to his friends. But in order to know this secret he must wait patiently for the time when inspiration would come to him from God.
Saying this he left his friends. Since then none had seen him. But it was rumored that men had seen him occasionally wandering here and there, dressed in the antique garments of the gypsies. In spring shepherds had met him on the Hurst or at some alehouse in Berkshire.
The poet has asked shepherds to bring him reports of the scholar. He has often asked the boys who scare away the rooks from the wheat-fields if they had seen the scholar.
He knows that the scholar loves the secluded spots: Oxford riders have often seen him cross the Thames dragging his fingers through the cool waters of the river.
When the Oxford riders land, the scholar is no more to be seen. Maidens who come from distant villages to dance around the elm tree in Fyfield in May have seen the scholar in the evening and have been given flowers by him: but he has never spoken a word with any of them.
And in June peasants, when they went out to bathe in a pool of water by the bank of the Thames, had often seen him sitting on the bank of the river in his outlandish dress. But when they came back he was not seen again.
In the Cumner hills the housewives have seen him leaning against a farm gate; children have seen him looking at the grassy fields and the pasturing Cows.
In autumn the Scholar Gipsy has been seen in the company of gypsies when they pitch their tents on the outskirts of Bagley-Wood.
The poet thinks that he once met the scholar in winter on a temporary wooden bridge. Wrapped in his winter clothes, the scholar was struggling with snow on his way towards Hinksey. When he reached the Cumner hill top he stopped for a moment to look towards the rows of lights in Christ Church hall. He then made for some lonely farm-house for shelter at night.
Two hundred years have passed since Glanvil wrote the story of the Scholar Gipsy. The Scholar Gipsy must have died long, long ago and been buried under some shady yew tree in some quiet village church-yard.
The poet feels that the Scholar Gipsy cannot die. The Scholar Gipsy did not live the kind of life which wears out man’s vitality and freezes the genial current of his soul. He did not constantly change the plan of his work and as such was not subject to such shocks and disappointments as come to an ordinary man again and again.
The Scholar Gipsy had one aim, one purpose. The men of his generation are dead, and men of this generation will also die. But he possesses a destiny that is deathless.
The Scholar Gipsy left the world while his powers were fresh and not wasted on aimless activities and while he was free from doubt and fatigue which seize us who strive, but do not know what we strive for, who wait for success, but not in hope.
We wait for the spark from heaven to fall; but have neither the strong faith nor the firm determination of the Scholar. We take decisions which are never translated into action because of our irresolution. The result is that we cannot achieve any progress.
We also wait for the divine inspiration. The inspiration does not come and we suffer immensely. Even the wisest among us reveals to us the sad experience of his unhappy days and tells us what various means he adopted to soothe his mental sufferings.
We pine in sufferings, and wish this sorrowful life should end quickly. We give up even the desire to be happy and try to bear up our sorrows stoically. But the Scholar Gipsy wanders about the country-side with a mind free from all doubts and uncertainties and with the full conviction that he will surely receive one day the divine inspiration (i.e. his ideal).
The Scholar Gipsy was born in an age when men’s minds were not clouded with doubts and disbeliefs, when men lived freely in joy and faith, and when the strange disease of modern life its restlessness and aimlessness had not appeared. So the poet asks the Scholar Gipsy to avoid the contact of modern men and keep to his solitude.
The poet wishes that the Scholar Gipsy should keep to his retired life, cherishing his hope of getting divine inspiration at the appointed time.
He asks him to keep away from modern men, for once his mind is infected with the distractions of modern life, his mental peace and happiness will be gone, his hope will die away, his clear purpose will be muddled completely, his perennial youth will fade away and he will die like any ordinary man.
The poet again asks the Scholar Gipsy to avoid the contamination of modern life.
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