For my fourth and final blog post for 19th Century Literature, I wanted to discuss Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ (1853) because it perfectly summarises the problems of 19th Century England and indeed is still very relevant today. Inspired by Joseph Glanvill’s 17th Century tale of an Oxford scholar who one day absconds from his intellectual life to live with the mystical gypsies, Arnold’s narrator daydreams about this Scholar Gypsy’s life until he remembers that “Two hundred years are flown / Since thy story ran through Oxford halls” (131-2). The stanzas that follow juxtapose the life of the Scholar Gypsy with the narrator’s life and the lives of ordinary men and women who live in Arnold’s industrialised era.
Arnold interrupts his lengthy description of how the Scholar Gypsy is now long dead, imagining his body “in some quiet churchyard laid” (137), with a startling dash: “—No, no, thou hast not felt the lapse of hours!” (141). Here the exclamation mark and repeated “no” interrupts the idyllic flow of the poem, and the narrator corrects his previous statements about the Scholar Gypsy being dead. This self-correction, also known rhetorically as ‘metanoia’, is the beginning of Arnold’s thesis in ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, expressing to us that those who live like the Scholar Gypsy will never truly feel “the lapse of hours” and have death slowly consume us. Arnold then contrasts the Scholar Gypsy’s inability to feel the passing of time with the lives “of mortal men” (142), asking what “wears out” our lives. Instead of posing a rhetorical question, the narrator answers himself hypophorically, explaining that mortal humans are worn out from “change to change” and “repeated shocks, again, again” (143-4). Here Arnold’s form mirrors his content, the repetition of words creating the image of a human life wearing out over and over, like a cog spinning in a machine.
The poet continues to juxtapose the Scholar Gypsy with Victorian men and women, describing the Scholar Gypsy as possessing “powers / Fresh, undiverted to the world without, / Firm to their mark, not spent on other things; / Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt” (161-4). Arnold’s use of the alliterative ‘F’ sound emphasises the Scholar Gypsy’s freshness, firmness and freedom of spirit, and his ability to devote himself to his life with the gypsies because he truly values their lifestyle and spirit over the lifestyle of academia and intellect. By contrast, all of these qualities are what Arnold’s contemporary English men and women lack entirely: they are “spent on other things” like material goods, and their lack of decision and spirit causes “sick fatigue” and “languid doubt.” Arnold’s use of a multitude of phrases that connote indecision and emptiness over the next two stanzas, such as “fluctuate idly”, “half-believers”, “casual creeds”, “vague resolves” and “hesitate and falter”, clearly express what the poet believes is wrong with Victorian society: the lifestyle of utilitarianism and fast-paced industrialisation in which everyone is working and spending creates meaningless lives.
Indeed, reading these stanzas from Arnold’s poem reminded me of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, which would be published 70 years later. To me ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ evokes some of the same themes in Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) in which he describes the same inability of modern humans to live life to the fullest, and instead lead empty, meaningless, fragmentary half-lives of indecision:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Evidently, what Arnold describes in ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ wasn’t a one-time phenomenon. Humans in the western world continue to lack spirit, meaning and conviction, unable to connect to matters of the heart and enjoy life for what it really is because of materialism and conformity. Unlike Eliot, however, Arnold gives us hope. He presents us with the life of the Scholar Gypsy as inspiration, as a way out of “this strange disease of modern life” (203), and encourages us to flee the conventions and pressures of the world we live in. Arnold dares us to escape the deathly infection of modernity and live entirely for ourselves.
So, what do you think? Are you ready to drop out of uni like the Scholar Gypsy and live in a caravan for the rest of your life, never doing an essay again? It definitely seems tempting at this time in the semester.