The Scholar Gipsy Analysis
The Scholar Gipsy is generally considered to be the best and the most characteristic of the poems of Matthew Arnold. All the special features of his poetry- his wistful melancholy, his disgust with modern life, his yearning for spiritual calm, his love for the quiet beauty of the countryside, his subjectivity are all revealed in the poem.
Arnold found the story on which the poem is based in Glanvil’s Vanity of Dogmatizing. An Oxford student, forced by his poverty to leave his studies, joined a company of vagabond gipsies. After a time a couple of scholars, his former acquaintances met him. He told them that the gipsies had the wonderful power of controlling the thoughts of others. 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. “This story well fitted in with Arnold’s disgust with modern life, its feverish and fickle activity and lack of any strong conviction, which he voices in this poem as in many others.” (C.B. Young).
The melancholy strain which is sounded in all of Arnold’s poems- from the longest to the shortest, from the gravest to the gayest-runs like an undercurrent through this poem. Here he bemoans the lack of spiritual knowledge and faith and suicidal dissipation of mental and moral energies. The following lines,
“O life unlike to ours!
Who fluctuate idly, without term or scope,
Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives
And each half lives a hundred different lives
Who wait like thee, but not like thee, in hope.”
ring with the ‘Virgilian cry’, the voice of a man crushed beneath the weight of the consciousness of the total spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the modern man.
The poem illustrates Arnold’s yearning for spiritual calm sweetness and light. The poet yearns for the calm, happy days when the Scholar Gipsy was born- the days when men’s minds were not clouded by doubts and sullied by ennui, when “life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames. He also longs for those calm, quiet secluded places which are not affected by the madding crowd’s ignoble strifes-for “forest-skirts”, “mild pastoral”. “dark dangles” where nightingales sing, the secluded, high corner of some field.
The treatment of nature in The Scholar Gipsy is characteristic of Arnold’s. He was a keen observer of the aspects and operations of nature in their minute details. “He loved nature in her quieter and more subdued moods; he preferred her silences to her many voices, moonlight to sunlight.” (Lewis Jones). The first two stanzas of the poem bring out Arnold’s love for the calm, quiet and sober beauty of nature-fields that are still, “strips of moon-blanched green,” screened nook of a half-reaped field, “the bleating of the folded flocks” and “all the live murmur of a summer’s day.” Like Arnold the Scholar Gipsy loves “retired ground”-“the darkening fields”, “Godstow bridge”, “solitary river bank”, “lone homestead in the Cumner hills”. “springing pastures” etc.
Arnold had given an accurate and vivid description of the topography of Oxford, which gives the poem an interesting local colour. We see Oxford with its dreaming spires, hills, woods, quiet valleys, deep meadows and the river around it. “To add to the charm Arnold has filled the landscape with humanity at work.-shepherds and reapers, gipsies and scholars, hunters and oarsmen, dancing maidens and wandering youths.” (Stopford Brook)
The poem has autobiographical significance. The Scholar Gipsy resembles Arnold in many respects. Like the Scholar Gipsy Arnold loved Oxford, “her ancient colleges, her dreaming spires, lovely in her peace, romantic in her memories, classic in her thought, hiked retired round, and calm and quiet aspects of Nature, had one aim, one business, one desire” and nursed the unconquerable hope in an age free from doubts and disbeliefs.
The Scholar Gipsy is a symbolic poem. The elusive figure of the Scholar Gipsy with his Oxford culture, and shy, gentle manners, haunting retired ground and waiting for the spark from heaven to fall, is a sort of cloudy Symbol of a high idealism that devotes itself to a quest of ‘a fugitive and gracious light’ to the exclusion of ‘place and honour, houses and gold’ and aught else that is ‘in the world’s market bought and sold’. There is perhaps something feeble and pathetic about such an idealism, but there is nothing stilted or stained about it.”
The style of the poem is distinctive, marked by classical polish, grace and restraint; at times it rises to the height of poetic appeal and suggestiveness. The poem is written in uniform stanzas, iambic in metre with an intricate rhyming pattern (ab cd ca de ed).