Discuss “The Scholar Gipsy” as a pastoral elegy
Elegy may be defined as a poem or a song expressing sorrow or lament. It is primarily a lyric pervaded merely by a tone of pensive sadness and dealing with a theme of mournful nature. The ‘pastoral elegy’ is one of the types of elegy. In it, the poet laments as a shepherd for the dead companion. In a pastoral elegy, “the poet” writes Hudson, “expresses his sorrow under the similitude of a shepherd mourning for a dead companion”. This form of elegy arose among the Sicilian Greeks and Theocritus employed this pastoral convention for the first time. This convention passed into modern European literature at the time of the Renaissance(Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar Gipsy” is cast in the pastoral mould. The poet represents himself as a shepherd tending his flock on the hill along with other shepherds In it, he regrets the vanished faith and its beauty.
An elegiac note is the dominant feature of Arnold’s poetry and this poem is suffused with mournfulness. It is not an elegy of a keen personal sorrow;(it is a lament over a seventeenth century Oxford scholar, who left the university and came back no more. The theme of the poem is elegiac; it is the loss of values related to ideal life, which characterize the modern society. Everything is uncertain; people have no fixed aims nor steadfast principles. Life is detached from or totally devoid of spiritual value. In the early part of the poem, the pastoral atmosphere is created and sustained with admirable art. The introduction of shepherds, village maidens, house-wife, Oxford riders returning from market, help to create the illusion of a genuine pastoral poetry.
The poet laments that the age to which he belongs is one of spiritual unrest and dissolving faiths. Life is vacant and almost barren. The poet finds nothing in life to sustain and cheer his soul. The discoveries of material sciences have given a rude shock to age-old beliefs. People are cut adrift from the anchor and floating aimlessly in the sea of faith. They cannot stick to “one aim, one business, one desire.” Thus modern life is a diseased one and the symptoms of the disease are “sick hurry, divided aims, overtaxed heads and palsied hearts.
The criticism of life that the poet has set forth in this poem is highly pessimistic. The inconstancy of aims in modern men shocks him. The aimlessness and lack of principles exhaust their energies and destroy their vitality. They have no clarity of vision, thought or purpose. They struggle hard with no aim and purpose. Sick fatigue and languid doubt mark them as their victims. Hope and faith have faded away. The commercial enterprise of the Victorian age has caused a sharp fall of the old values, that gives birth to moral vaccum in the minds of people in the European society. They like the poet, feels bewildered to notice the rejection of age-old ideals as useless and meaningless. It is to him pathetic bewilderment that the poet gives poignant expression in this poem. He voices the agony of his distressed soul when he speaks of the “sick hurry and divided aims” of modern times – its heads “overtaxed” and its hearts “palsied”.
The poem is a condemnation of modern society where prevails the uncertainity of life which is the outcome of people’s rejection of old values and lack of morality and principles. People grow sick of life very soon and pine away. Life ceases to have any interest for them. They only wish that this long restless life might end soon, and death is welcome as a relief from the torments of life. They have no hope of peace and happiness and try to bear the miseries of life with patience and without complaining. Their feelings and emotions are dulled and paralysed. This painful picture of modern life dejects and depresses the poet. He laments that he does not find anyone to bring relief to people from this torturing situation of the modern society. He derives consolation from his hope that people can be spared from the frustration of modern life only if they emulate the Scholar Gipsy who stands as the symbol of an ideal which is undying. It is that he stands for a singleness of aim, clear faith and unconquerable hope. The steadfast ideal of the Scholar Gipsy is held up as an anodyne to the strange disease of modern life.
“The Scholar Gipsy” is suffused with mournfulness, for the theme of the poem is characterized by ‘nothingness of life’ and ‘cheerlessness of the soul” – it is the philosophical observation of a lamenting shepherd. The mingling of the pastoral framework with modern philosophical elements appears rather inconsistent because the pastoral dream criticizes the reality of life. The criticism of modern life has weakened the charm and atmosphere of the pastoral. The poetic world of the pastoral as depicted here deserves high admiration of the poet’s wonderful poetic imaginative power. The poet’s elegiac mood beautifully expressed here.