“THE SCHOLAR-GIPSY” OF MATTHEW ARNOLD
R. A. JAYANTHA
University College, Tirupati
Thanks to the revival in recent times of genuine critical interest in Victorian Poetry, which was under a cloud for some decades, Matthew Arnold's Poetry has begun to attract considerable sophisticated critical attention. His is in some respects the most readily appealing Victorian poetic voice, although it is not certainly the strongest. Although his ‘Scholar-Gipsy’, with which this paper is concerned, luckily has never lacked admiring readers, it is only of late that it has been close-read by many with particular attention to its theme, image, and structural integrity, and its relevance to the present-day reader.1 The poem is about a certain spiritual crisis, a crisis of faith, experienced by Matthew Arnold and many other sensitive minds of the Victorian period. One of the major causes for the crisis was the retreat of traditional religious faith and belief, resulting in a dizzy feeling of uncertainty and fluctuation regarding the meaning and significance of life, a stifling sense of living in a spiritual vacuum, of loneliness and nostalgia. This, in fact, was a constant preoccupation of Arnold, and in poem after poem, the most famous being “Dover Beach”, he returned to the theme of the “withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith”. If in “Dover Beach” he is concerned mainly with his personal and subjective experience of the crisis, in “The Scholar-Gipsy”, it may be said, he is preoccupied with his experience as well as that of his generation.
To write poetry in the context of his times, Arnold felt, was not easy. As one who not only set a very high value on poetry, (Later in life he was to assert that poetry would increasingly take the place of religion), but also who believed that poetry was his true vocation, he felt that the times were “unpoetical,” that is, unpropitious for the writing of poetry. This feeling was shared by other important poets of the age also. For, not only the material to be turned into poetry was found to be intractable but the poet himself had to function and find his destiny in an alien and disintegrating environment, which inevitably made poetic exploration and communication extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible. In the absence of a community of belief and of a unifying reference for the religious, cultural and social life of man, the poet was driven to be a lonely artist functioning in isolation, and to address himself to a society for which poetry did not seem to matter. Further, Arnold realised that his poetry, to be true to his sensibility, had to be different from that of the great Romantic predecessors, in spite of his admiration for them, especially for Wordsworth and Keats. Sceptical as he was, he could not share the confident faith of the Romantic poets in imagination and intuition. Instead, while conserving jealously his own moderate poetic ardour, he had to hold fast to his own rudder as poet, and devise for his poems appropriate poetic strategies, sometimes drawn from the Romantic and Classical traditions alike. These factors largely explain the form and structure of “The Scholar-Gipsy.” which seems an amalgam of different poetic modes. Though classified by Arnold himself as an elegy–and Arnold’s temper was always at home in the elegiac–the poem has for its components landscape description, narration, romantic dream vision in a pastoral landscape, elegiac argument, and finally epic simile. This fact has to be borne in mind while examining the different parts of the poem and the different functions they are made to serve. Arnold exhibits considerable skill in structuring them into a unified poem.
“The Scholar-Gipsy” develops along a sort of dialectical pattern. Broadly speaking, it juxtaposes two diametrically opposed worlds, the idyllic world of the Scholar-Gipsy and the sick and inert world of the poet-speaker. The tension of the poem springs from this juxtaposition. The poem falls into recognisable sections and grows by discernible stages. The opening section of three stanzas presents a mellow rural scene of quiet and restful peace near Oxford, as viewed by the poet from a vantage point, from “this nook over the high, half-reaped field.” At the end of the description, he settles down to read “the oft-read tale” of the Gipsy-Scholar from Glanvil’s book. Andrew Farmer finds this opening description “confusing and indirect” and thinks that it “does not seem...to serve any special purpose although it is effective in itself”. But, in fact, it is intended to serve, and it does serve, a specific though limited function; namely, it serves as a symbolic back-drop for the rest of the poem. Arnold uses such landscapes in many of his other poems for a similar purpose. Next, the very details of the landscape–the “high field’s dark corner”, “the bleating of the folded flocks” borne “from uplands far away”, the “distant cries of reapers” etc., and the inter-play of light and shade in the landscape–all these together with the slow elegiac movement of the verse create a sense of restful calm and quiet relaxation, of disengagement and withdrawal from the world of brisk activity and from all that might distract one’s attention, and induce in the poet and the reader alike the mood appropriate to the elegiac meditation that is to follow very shortly in the poem. Even the apparent ambiguity regarding the time in the description, whether it is afternoon or evening the poet here refers to, contributes to this mood. Further the sense of imaginative withdrawal and disengagement from the immediate and actual, even as it helps the poet-speaker to distance himself from his own pressing and disturbing emotions, it also enables him and the reader to follow on “viewless wings of poesy” the wandering Scholar-Gipsy. The question regarding the identity of the shepherd addressed in the first line of the poem, whether it is clough or someone else, seems irrelevant. For, addressing a fellow shepherd is a part of the pastoral convention, which Arnold adopts here. This shepherd is asked to go back to his bleating flock for the present, and pursue his “quest” some other time, for two obvious reasons. Firstly, the poet wants to be left alone so that undisturbed he can “read the oft-read tale” of the Oxford Scholar and meditate on it. Secondly, he wants to introduce into the poem the theme of quest. The quest is for a spiritual order or pattern, for an integrated ideal, for something that would make life meaningful and purposeful.
The next section of the poem begins with a verse paraphrase of Glanvil’s account of the Scholar-Gipsy. The poem’s indebtedness to Glanvil’s version is only nominal. For Arnold it is only a devise to initiate his elegiac meditation on the contemporary spiritual crisis, which is the real argument of the poem. While he seems merely to retell here in verse Clanvil’s prose account, he introduces some significant changes into it. Arnold makes his Scholar a person “of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain.” While he is allowed to retain his interest in magical powers, he has to wait for “heaven-sent moments” to acquire the gipsy art. Then, unlike Glanvil’s Scholar, who is accepted as one of the gipsy crew, Arnold’s Scholar is very much a solitary, isolated from his fellow human beings including the gipsies even from the start, and he is seen only “by rare glimpses pensive and tongue-tied”, his gipsy dress only emphasising his isolation. As the poem develops the image of the Scholar undergoes further and important changes, so that he becomes a wholly new creation. What Arnold does is to adopt and recreate Glanvil’s Scholar-Gipsy myth to suit his aesthetic and ethical needs. Therefore our understanding of the poem’s meaning depends mainly upon our grasp of Arnold’s fashioning of this myth, and his attitude to his creation, “The Scholar-Gipsy.”
Taking a very slender hint from Glanvil’s story, Arnold next makes his Scholar wander in the neighbourhood of Oxford, and follows him in a dream vision (which at once recall. Keats following the Nightingale in his “Nightingale Ode”) through all the seasons of the year. In his lone wanderings, David L. Eggenschwiler observes, the Scholar “is seen usually by maidens, shepherds, children, or mowers and his typical actions–trailing his fingers in a cool stream or listening to nightingales–are more appropriate to a pastoral character than to Glanvil’s Scholar...” What Arnold is attempting to do here is to fuse together, as a part of his poetic strategy, the arcadian world of classical pastoral poetry and the romantic dream vision. The idyllic countryside through which the Scholar wanders and quests is very vividly and feelingly described. As a participant in his own willed dream the poet follows eagerly every movement of the shy and elusive scholar. His eagerness in following the Scholar suggests that he not only feels a strong sense of kinship with him but even tends to identify himself with him. What impells him to do so is made clear in the immediately following sections of the poem. However, even before the poet is able to establish such an identity the dream vision snaps, and he is tolled back to the realisation that it is after all a day-dream deliberately indulged in, and that the Scholar-Gipsy as a mortal must have died long ago and been buried in an obscure grave.
The description of the pastoral landscape in the dream vision is universally and justly appreciated for its charm, its visual accuracy and fidelity to nature. Admiration of this section, almost to the exclusion of the rest of the poem, has been for long the stock response to the poem. Arnold’s idiom succeeds admirably in capturing and recreating authentically the unique beauty and feel of the countryside in the neigbbourhood of Oxford, which he knew intimately and loved. There is a view of the poem, based obviously on this section, that Arnold indulges here his nostalgic longings for his undergraduate days at Oxford, and that the poem offers only “a very delightful pastoral week-end.” This criticism implies that this section stands apart from the rest of the poem and is not integral to the poem’s total meaning. Arnold himself seems to lend support to such a view. For in a letter to his brother Tom in 1857 he says that the poem was “meant to fix the remembrance” of their “delightful wanderings” around Oxford “before they were quite effaced.” But, in truth, there is in the dream vision much more than mere nostalgia and indulgence in nature description. It presents one wing of the poem’s dialectic. Arnold presents here an idyllic world of innocence, simplicity, health and quiet, which is the extreme opposite of the oppressive world of actuality presented in the immediately following section, and thus establishes the poem’s dialectic. Even if one is tempted to view Arnold’s description of the pastoral world by itself, it cannot be imputed that Arnold is indulging in escapism. Because, as David L. Eggenschwiler points out, according to the established conventions of pastoral poetry, adopted partly in this poem, sequestered idyllic life represents not certainly a world of escape but ‘a continuingly valid ideal’.
When the poet says in stanza 14 (which marks a transition) after the dream vision, that the Scholar-Gipsy must have gone the way of all flesh, it seems as though he is repudiating the dream vision, its protagonist and its substance. It is on a similar note that Keat’s “Nightingale Ode.” closes. But in Arnold’s poem, whose objective is different, the Scholar, after a fleeting return to mortality, is resurrected and given not just a new lease of life but immortality. This is done by recreating him on a different plane, without rejecting the essence of the dream vision. In this new phase of the Scholar-Gipsy’s career, some new traits are introduced into his personality without any loss to his essential pastoral character already established. The shy, wandering Scholar is now viewed at close quarters by the poet. From now on he is seen in complete contrast to the men of the “modern” world. As a representative of his times and spokesman for his society, the poet presents an elaborate account of their predicament. He sees his society as spiritually sick and debilitated, his contemporaries and himself as benumbed and paralysed creatures, incapable of any decision or action or even strong feelings, yet fluctuating “idly without term or scope”, and feebly striving not knowing “for what”. In total contrast the Scholar-Gipsy and his world appear healthy and vigorous. Unlike the vacillating Victorians, who in spite of their anxiety to believe in something are only “light half-believers” of “casual creeds,” the Scholar is now seen to have “one aim, one business, one desire” and “unconquerable hope” which is the reason for his “immortal lot.” He is now endowed with “unclouded joy” and “glad perennial youth.” Whereas in the dream vision he appears very much of a passive quester, patiently awaiting the “spark from heaven” to fall, now he becomes an active seeker, and a symbol of spiritual health and activity, not affected by place and time.
At this stage in his meditation it becomes poignantly clear to the poet that his desire to become the Scholar-Gipsy and his efforts in that direction are of no avail. For such single-eyed devotion and steadfastness of purpose as possessed by the Scholar seems well-nigh impossible of achievement in the poet’s milieu. As his contemplation of the Scholar sharpens his awareness of the predicament of his own times, it also drives home to him that he and the Scholar have to part ways lest “this strange disease of modern life” should incurably infect the Gipsy-Scholar too. This two-fold awareness makes him appeal to the Scholar to flee all contact from men like him. Commenting on this situation in the poem, A. E. Dyson says:.....Arnold never commits himself’ to the gipsy…..but…..he is aware of him all the time as the embodiment of an illusion.” His argument implies that in asking the Scholar to flee, Arnold in effect rejects him, But, in his attempt to impose a Positivist interpretation on the poem Dyson disregards totally the evolution of the image of the Scholar-Gipsy in the poem, how from a quasi-legendary figure he grows into an enduring and valid symbol of necessary qualities, which are difficult of achievement in modern times and therefore all the more desirable. Had Arnold really regarded the Scholar as the “embodiment of an illusion,” he would not certainly have used the same symbolic figure in his later poem “Thyrsis,” which begins where “The Scholar-Gipsy” ends. It is to be noticed that the Scholar and the poet remain distinct from each other.
This section, which presents the poet’s encounter with his own times, is far from satisfactory as poetry. In his searching analysis of the poem, A. Dwight Culler draws attention to the “remarkable alteration in the language” of this section, to the fact that it is starkly, almost bleakly, abstract” in contrast to the “beautifully imaginative” language or the pastoral section of the poem. Conceding that “poetically it is a debasement”, he still rather strangely maintains that one ought not to expect “poetic language” and “lush imagery of nature” from an account of life which is itself colourless and sick, arid and barren. That Arnold cannot indulge his fancy here and that an appropriate change or idiom is necessary consistent with the dialectic of the poem should be readily obvious. But the relevant question here is not whether the language used is “poetic” or not, but whether it is adequate to Arnold’s poetic purpose, that is, to present a convincing picture of his society in terms of appropriate image and metaphor and to enable the reader to get a feel of its complex spiritual condition so that he can share the poet’s sense of urgency, anguish and helplessness regarding it. Even though Arnold does employ images of ill-health and disease in this long section, and some of the memorable phrases of the poem such as “this strange disease of modern life” and “light half-believers or casual creeds” come from it, he seems unequal to his task. To appreciate the point made here, one may contrast this section with the relevant portions of The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot, which also explores a similar territory of experience as Arnold’s poem does. By juxtaposing the contrasted worlds, the Scholar’s and his own, Arnold seems to have hoped that the reader would make the best of it.
With the long-tailed simile with which the poem concludes, an altogether new element is introduced into the poem. However, as the earlier lines on Dido (St. 21) anticipate this long passage or classical allusion and myth, the reader is not altogether taken by surprise. It is not only one of the most sustained of epic similes ever attempted by Arnold, but it is one of the most poetic passages in the entire range of his poetry. His creative powers, which seemed to flag and falter in the preceding section, now are energetically restored. As he conjures up in the simile a panoramic view of the ancient world, there is a triumphant return to the earlier sensuously rich and expressive idiom. Yet this simile has remained the most controversial part of the poem. A good deal of scholarly ingenuity has gone into its explication, It raises many questions regarding its meaning and significance, and its relation to the rest of the poem. The surface meaning of the simile, however, is clear. The Scholar-Gipsy is asked to flee al the “Tyrian trader” did as soon as he espied the new “masters of the waves” intruding “on his ancient home.” The similarity between the Scholar and the Tyrian is at once apparent. But it is equally apparent that there is only a contrast between the confident, energetic, and enterprising young Greeks who master the seas and the “timorous” and “unfixed” Victorians “who hesitate and falter life away.” It will not help to see an analogy between the young Greeks and the “smock-frocked boors” from whom the Scholar flees (St. 6). For it also implies a parallel between the “boors” and the sick and fatigued Victorians. There seems to be nothing in the poem to establish a one-to-one correspondence with all the details of this long-tailed simile. Further, like all such similes, this one too develops into an elaborate and autonomous world-picture which has to be contemplated initially for its own sake before its meaning and function in the poem can be thought of.
According to Andrew Farmer, the simile merely repeats “the feelings of the first section in different terms: something ‘fresh’ to set against the ‘strange disease of modern life.’ Arnold, it is contended, allows himself the “indulgence” of an elaborate picture; but as it yields “good poetry” one hardly regrets it. However, Wilson Knight and Dwight Culler, among others, see in the simile a resolution of the tension generated earlier in the poem. They also find that Arnold here suggests a cure for the contemporary malaise. For Wilson Knight, the Tyrian trader symbolizes “oriental powers,” and such “qualities” are to be found in the Scholar-Gipsy himself. The critic sees the poem’s total meaning as striving “towards a fusion of the two traditions, Western and Eastern.” Dwight Culler”s exegesis of the simile is rather elaborate, and one can only refer to some of his conclusions here. He finds rich allusiveness in the passage, and discovers in it the transmission of the traditional spiritual wisdom of the East to the spiritually sick West. For him Dido’s conflict with Aeneas, alluded to earlier in the poem, “represents the heroic conflict between East and West, of which the Scholar-Gipsy’s conflict with the world is a modern variant.” Pointing out that Arnold was interested in the role of the Phoenician “as a transmitter of ancient culture,” he maintains that Arnold “makes this point in terms of this smile.” Finally he assents that, contrary to the complaint in some quarters, Arnold’s hero does impart his knowledge to the world and “this is what is meant by the last line of the poem.”
Fascinating as all this is, it is pertinent to ask: whether all this really emerges poetically from the poetic context? Whether this complex meaning is really made actual to the reader? Does not the critic seem to read into the passage a meaning he would like to find in it? Is not such intricate allusiveness rather foreign to Arnold’s poetic practice? Judging by the poem as it is, it is very much doubtful whether Arnold ever suggests in it a way out of the spiritual crisis and thereby resolve the tension. For, the Scholar-Gipsy holds his attention, ultimately because he has “one aim, one business, one desire”, perennial youth and gladness, and not because he finds any “knowledge”, although it is very much time that he is sent on a “quest” for it. It is to be noted that Arnold is not able to be more specific than saying vaguely that the Scholar is waiting for the “heaven-sent” moment to catch “the spark from heaven.” Unable to find a tangible goal for the quest, his own as well as that of the Scholar–for nothing seems to be in sight–Arnold has to be content with finding the right temper and frame of mind to endure and live through the present difficulty and uncertainty. In other words, having set out to find an epistemological solution, the poet is able to find, in the context of the poem, only a psychological and moral solution. The pastoral machinery, as he uses it in the poem, enables him to suggest the validity of such a solution. To find, therefore, a place for the Bhagavad Gita in the concluding simile, as Dwight Culler seems to do, is rather farfetched. This is not to deny at all Arnold’s enthusiasm for this Indian philosophical classic, or his respect for oriental wisdom. He was so deeply impressed by the Gita that he even chose to recommend it to his friend Clough, who too was a troubled soul like him. One imagines that it could have certainly shown a possible way out of the Victorian spiritual crisis. Probably the spirit of simultaneous involvement and detachment in all actions that the Gita emphasizes, specially appealed to Arnold. But nevertheless, there is little warrant in “The Scholar-Gipsy” to induct the Gita into it. Very little of the robust spirit of the Gita gets assimilated into Arnold’s poem which is closer to the stoical.
If the concluding passage of the poem, then, does neither resolve tension created by the earlier sections, nor suggest a cure or “knowledge” or an integrated ideal even obliquely, as maintained in this paper, what then is its function, its justification in the poem? How does it fit into the imaginative scheme of the poem? At the end of his “criticism” of the contemporary crisis, the poet realises that there is no cure for it except a moral and psychological one for the present. His frantic appeal to the Scholar to flee amply shows how desperate his situation is. Had the poem been closed at this point, it would have been abrupt, and marred the poem’s construction, its structural integrity. Because it would have only a beginning and a middle, but no end. Therefore to give the poem an end, a formal close, so that it becomes an aesthetically satisfying whole, and to induce in himself and the reader a measure of calm of mind after so much of turbulence, the poet introduces this deliberately elaborate simile. (To appreciate its specific function one may contrast it with the much shorter simile with which “Dover Beach” concludes.) By pressing into service all his artistic resources and by an effort of his creative imagination Arnold conjures up a lovely and compelling picture of the world of classical antiquity, richly suggestive in its visual details, into which he transports himself and the reader. Since the situation in the simile has at its heart a conflict and a quest, it does not take away the reader’s attention from the central issues of the poem. There is also the consolation of hope implied, since the Tyrian in the simile reaches at long last the Iberian coast. By a deliberate change of mood, then, the tension of the poem is only temporarily resolved. And the poem ends on a note of objective calm. There is a certain obvious functional similarity between the opening and concluding sections of the poem, with this difference that the opening stanzas induce a mood of subjective withdrawal necessary for the poet’s meditation, while the concluding passage induces in him a mood of objective calm and thus enables him to pull himself away from the brink of suicidal despair.
1 To mention a few of them: G. Wilson Knight (Review of English Studies, n. s., VI (1955), pp. 53-62), A. E. Dyson (RES, n. s. VIII (1957), pp. 257-65), David L. Eggenschwiler (Victorian Poetry, V (1966), pp. 1–11), Andrew Farmer (Essays in Criticism, XXII 1972), pp. 64-73), Dwight Culler, (Imaginative Reason, Yale (1966) p.178-195). Indebtedness to these critics is gratefully acknowledged.