The Scholar Gipsy Critical Analysis Essay

Matthew Arnold 1822–-1888

English poet, critic, and essayist. See also, criticism on Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism.

Arnold is considered one of the most significant writers of the late Victorian period in England. He initially established his reputation as a poet of elegiac verse, and such poems as “The Scholar-Gipsy” and “Dover Beach” are considered classics for their subtle, restrained style and compelling expression of spiritual malaise. However, it was through his prose writing that Arnold asserted his greatest influence on literature. His writings on the role of literary criticism in society advance classical ideals and advocate the adoption of universal aesthetic standards.

Biographical Information

Arnold was the eldest son of Thomas Arnold, an influential educator who served as headmaster of Rugby School for a number of years. Arnold himself attended Rugby from 1837 to 1841, and it was while he was a student there that he composed the prize-winning poem Alaric at Rome, which was published in 1840. After graduating from Balliol College at Oxford in 1844, Arnold accepted a teaching post at the university and continued to write verse, publishing The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems in 1849. Two years later he was appointed inspector of schools, a position he held until shortly before his death.

Arnold focused his energies on poetry until 1853, when he became critical of Romantic expressions of emotion in poetry. For the remaining thirty-five years of his literary career, Arnold wrote numerous essays and reviews on literary, educational, and cultural issues; his controversial perspective on Christianity provoked the outrage of conservative politicians and religious thinkers. He died of heart failure on April 15, 1888.

Major Works

In 1852, Arnold released a collection entitled Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. The following year, he reissued the collection without its title poem. Explaining his actions in his preface to the reissued collection, an essay that has become one of his most significant critical statements, Arnold denounced the emotional and stylistic excesses of late Romantic poetry and outlined a poetic theory derived from Aristotelian principles of unity and decorum. He also stated that some of his own works, most notably the dramatic poem “Empedocles on Etna,” were flawed by Romantic self-absorption, and that he had therefore decided to suppress those most affected. Critics suggest that Arnold's recognition of the pervasive Romantic tendencies of his poetry, which conflicted dramatically with his classicist critical temperament, ultimately led him to abandon poetry as a form of self-expression.

Arnold's first major prose works, On Translating Homer and The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland, both published in 1861, inaugurated his career as a highly visible and sometimes controversial literary and social critic. With the appearance of St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Essay on Puritanism and the Church of England in 1870, Arnold's focus shifted to theological issues, particularly what he viewed as a crisis of religious faith in Victorian society. Arnold attributed this crisis to the conflict between the prevailing influence of scientific rationalism and the intransigence of conservative theology. His solution was a liberal, symbolic interpretation of biblical scripture, presented in Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (1873), the publication of which caused an immediate uproar among conservative Church leaders and religious theorists. Two years later Arnold answered his critics in God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma” (1875), affirming his rejection of religious orthodoxy. During his final years, Arnold made two tours of the United States and recorded his overwhelmingly negative assessment of American culture in Civilization in the United States: First and Last Impressions of America (1888).

Arnold's prose writings articulate his desire to establish universal standards of taste and judgment. In his highly regarded Essays in Criticism (1865), he elaborates on this key principle, defining the role of critical inquiry as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideals.” For Arnold this endeavor should not be limited to literature, but should embrace theology, history, art history, science, sociology, and political theory, with pertinent standards drawn from all periods of world history. Arnold's approach was markedly eclectic, and in “The Literary Influence of the Academies,” the second of the Essays in Criticism, he pointedly contrasts the isolation of English intellectuals with European urbanity, hoping to foster in his own country the sophisticated cosmopolitanism enjoyed by writers and critics on the European continent. Similarly, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869), widely viewed as one of Arnold's most important works, was motivated by his desire to redress what he saw as the smug provincialism and arrogance of English society. The essay is a sociopolitical analysis of England's class structure in which Arnold identifies three major classes: Barbarians (the aristocracy), Philistines (the middle class), and the Populace (the lower class). While Arnold praised the aristocracy for their refined manners and social assurance, he also condemned them for their conservatism. “Philistines” Arnold considered hopelessly uncouth though innovative and energetic. The lower class he dismissed as an ineffectual, inchoate mass. Arnold argued that as the middle class gradually assumed control of English politics, they must be transformed from their unpolished state into a sensitive, sophisticated, intellectual community. The alternative, he contended, would be a dissolution of England's moral and cultural standards. Arnold also endorsed the eventual creation of a classless society in which every individual would subscribe to highly refined ideals based on the culture of ancient Greece.

Critical Reception

Critics generally view Arnold's poetry as a reflection of a spiritual dilemma that was innately Victorian, experienced by people who, in the words of Arnold's “Scholar-Gipsy,” “were caught” between “two worlds, one dead / the other powerless to be born.” The “dead” world is widely interpreted as a metaphoric evocation of the early Romantic movement, during which Western culture was reinvigorated by newly developed humanist and democratic ideals, while the “unborn” world is considered to be a not-yet-realized society in which the scientific materialism of industrialized nations would be tempered by a highly developed state of cultural enlightenment. Although Arnold strove to imitate classical Greek and Roman models in his poetry, critics agree that his work manifests Romantic subjectivism. Many of his poems assume the form of a soliloquy or confession in which the narrator communicates feelings of melancholy or regret. However, Arnold's essentially Romantic sentiments are praised for the precisely wrought and measured manner in which they are expressed.

Critical scholarship attests to Arnold's prescience in his prose writings, in forecasting the problems and possibilities that would arise with the transition from an aristocratic society to a democratic one. Arnold's conception of culture, frequently read as strongly conservative, has recently been reevaluated as suggesting a model of critical and “imaginative reason” that continues to guide literary theory. In discussing Arnold's place in modern literature studies, Timothy Peltason notes that although Arnold's name has long been considered “shorthand … for … cultural conservatism,” there is a misunderstanding among many scholars and critics regarding what Arnold actually wrote and said. According to Peltason, Arnold did not endorse “received cultural values,” nor did he passively accept the value of accredited masterpieces. Instead, contends Peltason, Arnold focused his writing and scholarship on an examination of how things “work for us here and now.” This interest in maintaining the value of culture and using criticism to stress that value to society was a central theme in Arnold's prose works. In an essay comparing Arnold's “The Function of Criticism” to T. S. Eliot's essay of the same name, critic Terence Hawkes notes that both writers consider criticism a seminal tool in helping society objectively examine its failures and successes. Hawkes relates that the role of criticism as described by Arnold and his contemporaries is often haunted by the notion that it is secondary to the actual happening. Instead, says Hawkes, Arnold himself viewed criticism as a necessary and complementary act to the primary text or idea it was examining, often serving to illustrate uncanny and noteworthy aspects not inherent in the original text or incident. Recent scholarship on Arnold has acknowledged that Arnold's writing reflects the tensions of modern literature, particularly his remarks on aesthetic judgment, and his attempts to formulate a theory of the role of criticism in culture. His integration of social criticism and literary analysis, says Stefan Collini, is acknowledged as his most significant and lasting achievement. In Collini's words, Arnold “characterized in unforgettable ways the role that criticism—that kind of literary criticism that is also cultural criticism, and thus … a sort of informal political theory—can and must play in modern societies.”

Arnold's poem is about the story of a 17th century Oxford scholar who, sensing the useless toil of school, leaves to travel with the Gypsies and learn their secrets. In a larger sense, his poem is about "modernity" in general and the relationship of the individual to society, or more particularly, individual genius to social expectation. That is, the "scholar Gipsy" inspires the poet because he has chosen to abandon the "shocks" of society and...

Arnold's poem is about the story of a 17th century Oxford scholar who, sensing the useless toil of school, leaves to travel with the Gypsies and learn their secrets. In a larger sense, his poem is about "modernity" in general and the relationship of the individual to society, or more particularly, individual genius to social expectation. That is, the "scholar Gipsy" inspires the poet because he has chosen to abandon the "shocks" of society and embraces a life of the imagination. In so doing, the scholar Gipsy has attained a kind of immortality: exempt from the pressures of "this strange disease of modern life, / With its sick hurry, its divided aims," his spirit endures, both in the pages of the book the poet is reading and also in the collective imagination of society ("Thou hast not lived, why should'st thou perish, so?")

The poem is written in the form of a pastoral elegy, a form that celebrates rustic life but also mourns a lost time of simplicity. However, Arnold subverts this genre by calling into question what is being mourned. To the extent that the poem describes the poet's own inability to make the same choice the scholar Gipsy made to abandon Oxford, perhaps what is being called into question is the Victorian emphasis on work, achievement, and, above all, conformity.

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