Scholar Gipsy : Matthew Arnold

I’ve been reading up on Matthew Arnold’s work as a school inspector, and came across some of his poetic works. Having only thought of Arnold as a cultural critic, I was surprised to find his poetry to be so highly regarded as well. Stefan Collini has praised Arnold as ranking amongst Browing and Tennyson as being “one of the three pinnacles of Victorian Verse” (Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait 2).  His poems centre mainly around reflective thought, doubts and intellect.

The following extract is Arnold’s most lucid poetic interpretation of Victorian Higher Education. From the towers of an Oxford University Arnold demonstrates a disregard for logic in favour of free spirited knowledge. The Scholar Gipsy (1853) is a poem that tells the story of a Scholar who leaves the Oxford and formal education to live out in the wild and learn instead from gypsies. The poem tells how the gypsies “had a traditional kind of learning among them, and could do wonders by the power of imagination, their fancy binding that of others.”

F.R Leavis has argued “what the poem actually offers is a charm of relaxation, a holiday from serious aims and exacting business. And what the Scholar-Gipsy symbolizes is Victorian poetry, vehicle (so often) of explicit intellectual and moral intentions, but unable to be in essence anything but relaxed, relaxing and anodyne” (100).

I am unsure whether Leavis has given enough credit to Arnold’s poem, which rather than being relaxing is melancholy and essentially disturbed. The Scholar Gipsy may have a pastoral and gentle wrapping, but is nonetheless a clear cut criticism of regimented learning.

You can read the poem in its entirety here
G Wilson Knight gives a typically New Critical reading of the poem on JSTOR here

I was most struck however with lines 201 – 210 which bitterly talks of modern life as “sick hurry” (204). 

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
  And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
    Before this strange disease of modern life,
  With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
    Its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife—
      Fly hence, our contact fear!
  Still fly, plunge deeper in the bowering wood!
    Averse, as Dido did with gesture stern
    From her false friend’s approach in Hades turn,
  Wave us away, and keep thy solitude.
The poem is set whole action of the poem is within sight of “Oxford’s towers,” therefore Arnold leaves little doubt that the narrator’s first-person plural refers to the scholarly community of the university. Arnold attended Balliol College at Oxford himself from 1841 – 1853, graduating with a 2nd Class Honours degree in “Greats.” The poem was published ten years after this date and perhaps reflects a mature retrospective view of the university. 

Here are some images of Oxford University relating to 1853.

University College, 1853 from the Highstreet. From the Oxford Almanack 

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby was the Chancellor of the University in 1853

Drawing, “George James Drummond’s Room at Oxford, 1853″ by George Pyne – depiction of an undergraduate room at Oxford College (probably Christ Church). A Partial view of another building can be seen in the rightmost window.

Arnold, Matthew, The Scholar Gipsy 
Collini, Stefan, Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait. Oxford; Clarendon. 1994. Print. 
Leavis, F. R., The Common Pursuit, cited in Harold Bloom (ed.) The Art of the Critic: Literary Theory and Criticism from the Greeks to the Present (New York: Chelsea House, 1985-1990) vol. 9, p. 100.

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