The Scholar Gipsy as a Pastoral Elegy
The pastoral elegy is an important species of the elegy. It represents both the mourner and the mourned as shepherds (the Greek word for shepherd is pastor). This poetic form was originated by the Sicilian Greek Theocritus, was continued by the Roman Vergil, was developed in various European countries during the Renaissance and remained current in English poetry through the nineteenth century. The pastoral elegists, from the Greeks through the Renaissance, developed elaborate conventions. In addition to the representation of both the mourner and subject (the mourned) as shepherds tending their flocks there are these conventions:
(a) The poet begins by invoking the muses and makes frequent reference to other figures from classical mythology.
(b) All nature joins in mourning the shepherd’s death.
(c) The mourner charges with negligence the nymphs or other guardians of the dead shepherd.
(d) There is a procession of appropriate mourners.
(e) The poet raises questions about the justice of divine providence and adverts to the corrupt conditions of his times. Such passages are sometimes called “digressions”.
(f) There is a closing consolation. There is the lyric reversal from grief and despair to joy and assurance which occurs when the elegist suddenly realizes that death in this world is the entry to higher life.
(g) The setting of the pastoral elegy is drawn from the country life with its quiet beauty peace and tranquility.
If we judge The Scholar Gipsy by the yardstick of the aforesaid conventions we see that it is a modification of the pastoral elegy. Here neither the mourner (i.e. the elegist) nor the subject (the scholar Gipsy) is a shepherd tending his flocks. The poem begins with the poet’s asking a real 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. There is, to begin with, no invocation to the muses, nor does all nature join in mourning the shepherd’s death (the poem does not deal with a shepherd’s death at all), nor does the poet raise questions about the justice of divine providence, nor is there a closing consolation, or the reversal from grief and despair to joy and assurance after the elegist’s sudden realisation that death in this world is the entry to the higher life.
The Scholar Gipsy is a pastoral elegy, not in the sense that Arnold mourns the tragic lot of the Scholar Gipsy who “tired of knocking at preferment’s door” forsook his friends and went to learn the gipsy lore and came to little good in the worldly sense of the term, but in the sense that he adverts to the evil conditions of his age with its “sick hurry, its divided aims”, its doubt, spiritual ignorance and the suicidal dissipation of mental and moral energies. The following lines contain Arnold’s Virgilian cry over the diseased conditions of his times.
“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.”
The poem has a fine pastoral setting. It gives a charming picture of the English countryside around Oxford the cornfields with ripe autumnal harvest, shepherds tending their sheep, reapers reaping ripe corns, boys scaring rooks, peasants going to bathe in the abandoned lasher, housewives mending holes in old clothes and children haunting the rills in search of cresses.
The Scholar Gipsy has little of the pastoral conventions. It is really a modification of the pastoral elegy.