Critical appreciation of “The Scholar Gipsy” by Matthew Arnold
“The Scholar Gipsy”, based on the legend of the Scholar Gipsy as found in Glanvil’s Vanity of Dogmatizing, is regarded as the best and the most characteristic poem of Matthew Arnold. It is expressive of his wistful melancholy, his disappointment at the loss of faith, his yearning for a spiritual calm and his love of the quiet beauties of nature. It is an escapist poem. Here the poet expresses his deep desire to escape the dangers he feels to threaten him-the tyranny of the intellect over the emotions. In form it is a pastoral elegy like Milton’s Lycidas and Shelley’s Adonais. Melancholy pervades the whole poem as the poet laments the loss of the old value in human society which is dominated by the light of science and the impact of the commercialization of every human activity. Thus a sort of moral vacuum has been created in man. Here the poet implies several condemnations of the age in which he lives by contrasting it with the poetic world of the pastoral.
The Scholar stands for singleness of aim, clear faith and unconquerable hope. Arnold represents him as a symbol of steadfast constancy to an ideal The Scholar Gipsy’s aim is to learn the secret of gipsy art and give the world an account of what he had learned”. For the fulfilment of this ideal world early, with his energies fresh, firm to the mark, not spent on other things” He awaited the spark from Heaven with unflinching hope. He was born in days when wits were clear and fresh and life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames He was a perfect stranger to the “strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims, its heads overtaxed and palnied fears” Hence with a pathetic cry the poet asks the Scholar Gipsy to “fly hence our contact fear,” Thus the steadfast ideal of the Scholar Gipsy is held up as an anodyne to the strange disease of modern life. This is Amold’s message to the Victorians, which has come to acquire a universal significance.
The poem is highly pessimistic. It is a severe condemnation of the poet’s age. It depicts the age as one of spiritual unrest. Modern men are uncertain, unpurposive, unclear as to the meaning or the end of life. The whole poem is pervaded by the single idea of criticising the whole limitations of the modem age and of giving it something that may correct these limitations. Using the Scholar Gipsy as the symbol of that which he believed to be the one thing needful in the present age, Arnold suggests through the Scholar the absolute need of having a pessimism from which we are suffering to day a spirit of hopefulness. Idealism brings into life a joy that lifts the clouds from the mind.
In the form “The Scholar Gipsy” is a pastoral elegy after the original Greek model. Pastoral poetry is a form of poetry dealing with outdoor life. Here the poet imagines himself as a shepherd, who with another fellow shepherd had spent the night in quest of the Scholar Gipsy who was supposed to be still living and straying about the fields and hills of Oxford. The introduction of shepherds, village maidens, house-wife, Oxford riders returning from the market helps to create the illusion of genuine pastoral poetry. Thus the poem transports us into the poetic world of the pastoral. The elegiac mood of the poet is expressed as he condemns the modern age which is devoid of aim, principle, purpose and moral values. It is an elegy because it is a lament over, not a friend of the poet, but a seventeenth-century Oxford Scholar, whom Amold idealized.
The poem strikes a deeply personal note. The life of the Scholar Gipsy is brought here into intimate contact with the life of the poet. The poet was disgusted with the life of the modern world and sought to escape from it. The Scholar Gipsy is shy, reserved and pensive; he is a great lover of nature. He always shunned the company of curious men. In all this, the Scholar Gipsy is a portrait of Arnold himself.
“The Scholar Gipsy” is a criticism of life. The criticism of life that Amold has set forth in this poem is highly pessimistic. His criticism of Victorian life strikes a universal note. Aimlessness, restlessness, lack of faith, stoicism, suicidal dissipation of mental and moral energies are found in all ages and societies and these have been clearly reflected in this poem. The poet’s interpretation of modern life “with its strange disease, its sick hurry and divided aims” is deeply imaginative and poetic. Throughout the poem rings a “Virgilian cry” the voice of a spirit almost crushed beneath the burden of life.
The poem is unique in its artistic qualities. The metre of the poem is an adaptation of Keats’s Odes. The poem is written in stanzas of ten iambic lines with an intricate rhyme scheme. The slow movement of the verse and the deep thought are expressive of the poet’s philosophical mood. The language is simple and lucid, and the style has classical dignity, grace and polish. The elaborate simile at the end is in the classical tradition of Homer and Milton, Philosophy and poetry are perfectly wedded here.