Thursday, May 14, 2009

Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side - sad sack Matthew Arnold finds a genuine hero

What's eating poor Matthew Arnold? Let's look at "The Scholar-Gipsy" (1853):

"the sick fatigue, the languid doubt" (164)
"we others pine \ And wish the long unhappy dream would end" (191-2)
"For strong the infection of our mental strife,\ Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest" (222-3)

So sad. Arnold retells a 17th century story about an Oxford student who abandoned the university to wander with the gypsies, and who has become a mythic figure, still encountered here and there near Oxford, "roaming the country-side, a truant boy, \ Nursing thy project in unclouded joy" (198-9), despite being dead for two hundred years.

What is that project? The scholar-gypsy is a spiritual seeker who has freed himself, somehow, from the sickness of the world that has infected everyone else. Why mince words - he's a hippie who lives in a "smoked tent" and "wait[s] for the spark from Heaven." It's not clear to me why Arnold can't simply join the scholar-gypsy, aside from family, money, responsibilities, and the general constraints of actual life.

The scholar-gypsy is another one of Arnold's borrowed heroes. This one, though, is fragile and elusive, but in some way more of a genuine alternative to Arnold's crisis of faith than are the Norse gods and mermen of his other poems, even if the poet is not sure how his hero can survive.

He's actually more worried about contaminating the scholar-gypsy. The last five stanzas of the poem urge him to "Fly hence, our contact fear!" (206), like Dido fleeing Aeneas in Hades, or, most strangely, like "shy traffickers, the dark Iberian" traders on a beach, buying "Green bursting figs, and tunnies steep'd in brine" from Greek traders without actually contacting each other. It's apparently something Arnold found in Herodotus, and it gives a visionary cast to the end of the poem. It pushes the scholar-gypsy back into antiquity, and perhaps ends the poem on the shores of the "Sea of Faith" of "Dover Beach." The ending is very complex - I think I'm just beginning to grasp it, writing about it now. It's sure not how I expected the poem to end.

The scholar-gypsy returned to Arnold's poetry in 1866, in "Thyrsis," Arnold's elegy for his friend Arthur Hugh Clough, who died in 1861. Where the pessimism of "The Scholar-Gipsy" seems unearned, "Thyrsis," about the death of an actual person, is surprisingly optimistic. Arnold describes the changes in the Oxford countryside since his and Clough's student days. Oh no, they cut down the giant elm - as long as the elm stood, the scholar-gypsy survives, we always said. No, wait, there it is!

It's not as silly as I make it sound, although it does have a bit too much pastoral nonsense for my tastes. Here's the end (Thyrsis is Clough):

"Too rare, too rare, grow now my visits here!
  'Mid city-noise, not, as with thee of yore,
    Thyrsis! in reach of sheep-bells is my home.
  --Then through the great town's harsh, heart-wearying roar,
    Let in thy voice a whisper often come,
      To chase fatigue and fear:
  Why faintest thou? I wander'd till I died.
    Roam on! The light we sought is shining still.
    Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
  Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side."

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