The Scholar Gipsy as a Criticism of Life
Arnold defines poetry as “criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and beauty.” His own poetry mostly conforms to this definition. It is highly intellectual and critical of the life of his age. “In all his deepest poems,” as Hugh Walker says, “in Thyrsis and The Scholar Gipsy, in Resignation, in the Obermann poems, in A Southern Night, Arnold is passing judgment on the life of his age, the life of his country, the lives of individual men.”
Arnold held that what Europe in his generation principally needed was criticism and he gave this criticism in verse as well as in prose
Arnold, however, gives his criticism poetically. It comes soaked in his imagination and feeling which transform it into a thing of beauty,
In The Scholar Gipsy Arnold criticizes the life of the moderns. He criticizes their aimlessness and restlessness, their lack of faith, their stoicism, their suicidal dissipation of mental and moral energies and the philosophers’ confusing and ever-changing prescriptions for the cure of “this strange disease of modern life.” But it is the aimlessness of the moderns and the suicidal dissipation of their mental and moral energies, which come in for his strongest criticism. The modern men did not have fixed aim or purpose in their life. They often changed the plan or program of their work. They strove hard, but knew not what they strove for. They wasted their energies by taking to hundreds of pursuits one after another and never sticking to any Perseverance was foreign to their nature. The result was that they achieved nothing in spite of all their efforts.
In The Scholar Gipsy Arnold thus bemoans their aimlessness :
“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.”
Arnold criticizes the lack of faith, belief and sincerity on the part of his contemporaries. His contemporaries had no doubt their own beliefs and ideas. But their beliefs were not based on their personal conviction, they stumbled into them by accidents of birth or environment; nor did they hold them with any strength of sincerity:
Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt nor clearly willed.”
It is because of their lack of faith and sincerity that the moderns could not carry through any of their pursuits. They left them all half-finished with the result that their life was a long succession of “new beginnings, disappointments new.”
In the poem Arnold criticizes the intellectual thinkers of the day, who prescribed various remedies for the cure of “this strange disease of modern life”. These thinkers could not offer men anything really to cure “this strange disease”: the philosophies they put forward were only palliatives which they themselves could not rely on and hence went on changing continually:
“And how the breast was soothed, and how the head
And all his hourly varied anodynes.”
The stoicism of his contemporaries also comes in for Arnold’s criticism, as in the following lines,
“and (we) try to bear,
With close-lipped patience for our only friend,”
According to Arnold this stoicism (i.e. fortitude and patience) is but another name for hopelessness and melancholy.
“Sad patience, too near neighbour to despair.”
The life of the Scholar Gipsy is a complete contrast to that of modern men. He had “one aim, one business, one desire”, and directed all his efforts to the realization of his aim which was to learn the gipsy-lore. He wanted and waited “for the spark from Heaven”, and did not despair when the divine inspiration delayed. So the poet bids the Scholar Gipsy avoid contact with modern men and “plunge deeper in the bowering wood” for any contact with modern life will kill the peace of his mind, wither away his “perennial youth” and make him “die like ours.”
The Scholar Gipsy is a vigorous indictment of modern life. But this indictment has been expressed poetically-through a fine pastoral setting, vivid pictures of nature and imagination and feeling. The poem is, indeed, a fine blend of poetry and philosophy, and appeals more to our emotions than to our intellect.