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Escaping the “Strange Disease of Modern Life”: Matthew Arnold’s Two Wanderers in “The Scholar-Gipsy”

The Gothic Wanderer figure is closely related to the Romantic wanderer and the Byronic hero. While the Gothic is associated with the supernatural, at its heart is a deeper spiritual search for the meaning of life. While Matthew Arnold’s poetry is not Gothic, it is filled with attempts to understand what Wordsworth described as “the burden of the mystery” (Brown 86). This burden is living without knowing the meaning of life. Arnold continually questioned what life’s meaning might be and asked how it might be found. In this respect, he is at one with his Gothic predecessors and contemporaries, on a quest for the meaning of life, which is truthfully forbidden knowledge to mankind. He declares he is on this quest in “The Buried Life” (1852):

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracing out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us—to know

Whence our lives come and where they go. (47-54)

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), perhaps best known for his poem “Dover Beach”

Arnold was so concerned about what was the meaning of life and how he could find out its meaning that in “Self-Dependence” (1852), he declared he was “Weary of myself, and sick of asking/What I am, and what I ought to be” (1-2). Yet however weary this topic made Arnold, it also fascinated him so that he could not resist continually exploring it in numerous poems.

“The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853) is perhaps Arnold’s most thorough exploration of how one might find out the meaning of life. Although the Scholar-Gipsy is the title character, the poem’s primary concentration is upon the speaker’s reaction to the Scholar-Gipsy; therefore, the speaker is the poem’s protagonist whose actions form the plot, while the Scholar-Gipsy merely provokes the speaker into thought (Buckler, Matthew Arnold, 170). Arnold chooses the Scholar-Gipsy to provoke the speaker’s thoughts because the Gipsy is a wanderer, and wandering is synonymous with the actions of people upon earth as we wander both physically and mentally in our attempts to find meaning in life. The Scholar-Gipsy wanders while waiting for the spark from Heaven to fall, and the speaker wanders in his thoughts while trying to keep faith in the story of the Scholar-Gipsy, which symbolizes the speaker’s own search for an understanding of life. In the poem, Arnold uses these two wanderers to recreate the stages of innocence and experience in the Romantic myth of consciousness. By recreating the Romantic myth of consciousness, Arnold is also rejecting Carlyle’s own recreation of this myth in Teufelsdrockh, the wanderer of Sartor Resartus (1838). To understand how Arnold rejects Carlyle by recreating this myth, I will first treat Arnold’s depiction of the Scholar-Gipsy as a wanderer, and then I will discuss the speaker’s reaction to the Scholar-Gipsy.

The Scholar-Gipsy as Wanderer

Besides the poem’s short introduction and conclusion, “The Scholar-Gipsy” may be broken into two main sections, one focusing on the Scholar-Gipsy (31-130), and the second focusing on the speaker’s reactions to the Scholar-Gipsy (131-230). After the brief introduction to the pastoral setting and the speaker, the poem focuses on the Scholar-Gipsy, beginning with the speaker saying he will read from Glanvil’s book “the oft-read tale” (32) of the Scholar-Gipsy, which he then summarizes for us. During this summary, the speaker refers to the Gipsy as a wanderer (63, 180) or as wandering (134) and roaming (38), which reflects the speaker’s own wandering state of mind. The speaker begins summarizing by saying how in the seventeenth century, a scholar left Oxford to roam with the gipsies and learn their lore. Later, when two of the Scholar-Gipsy’s former classmates at Oxford met him, he told them that the gipsies “had arts to rule as they desired/The workings of men’s brains,/And they can bind them to what thoughts they will” (45-7). The Scholar-Gipsy said he intended to learn this art from the gipsies, and once he knew it, he would impart this knowledge to the world.

Most literary critics are in agreement that when the Scholar-Gipsy abandons Oxford to follow the gipsy lore, he is really abandoning the intellectual world of Oxford to search for a knowledge that cannot be gained by intellectual means. Arnold uses the story of the Scholar-Gipsy fleeing Oxford as a commentary upon his own contemporary Victorian society. Dyson remarks, “The Victorian predicament, in so far as Arnold represents it, was a tragic one—to desire with the heart what was rejected by the head, to need for the spirit what was excluded by the mind” (262). Lionel Trilling declares that the poem “is a passionate indictment of the new dictatorship of the never-resting intellect over the soul of modern man” (112). For Arnold, the nineteenth century’s processes of rationalization and intellectualization could not completely satisfy mankind’s inner desires; all of science’s arguments could still not explain to him the meaning of life; because man cannot understand life’s mystery by the use of intellect, Arnold suggests that we must search elsewhere for the answer. Brown remarks that the Scholar-Gipsy, while a student at seventeenth century Oxford, already feels the headache caused by the development of modern intellectual debate; already his head feels overtaxed and he fears the loss of his mystical, spiritual side if he does not leave the university (45). Similarly, the speaker makes the same complaint about the present time, describing it as “this strange disease of modern life,/With its sick hurry, its divided aims,/Its heads oertax’d its palsied hearts” (203-5). Arnold also speaks out against the intellectual trends of the day, “For strong the infection of our mental strife,/Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest” (222-3). In joining the gipsies, the Scholar-Gipsy has rejected the instruments of the intellect and seeks to find the answers in intuition, but intuition will only work at chance moments rather than by purposely trying to find the answers (Brown 45). The Scholar-Gipsy tells his fellow scholars that he will impart the gipsies’ secret to the world, “But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill” (50). The Scholar-Gipsy himself comes to embody the idea that not by intellectual searching, but only at chance moments can insight and knowledge be arrived at. The Scholar-Gipsy becomes himself a rare sight, not seen by searching intellectuals, but only by simple or innocent people like children, maidens, and shepherds, who are closer to nature and live simpler lives; nor do these people see the Scholar-Gipsy while they work, but rather during their idle moments, when they are swimming, dancing, or roaming the countryside, they may catch a glimpse of him.

That the spark cannot be discovered by intellectual processes makes the spark just as mysterious as the Scholar-Gipsy himself. Arnold never tells us specifically what this spark is. The Scholar-Gipsy says it is the arts of the gipsies which “rule as they desired/The workings of men’s brains,/And they can bind them to what thoughts they will” (45-7). Several scholars have discussed how this spark is a type of mesmerism, or what today we call hypnotism, which we know Arnold was interested in (and is a frequent element in Gothic literature), for two of the poem’s working titles were “The first mesmerist” and “The wandering Mesmerist” (Culler 179). But since the poem’s final title and text contain no mention of mesmerism, Arnold apparently decided mesmerism was not adequate to describe what he wanted the spark to be, although he did retain from Glanvil the idea of the Scholar-Gipsy hearing and controlling his friends’ conversation.

An early edition of “The Scholar-Gipsy”

Whatever Arnold intended the spark to be, it is not easily defined. Madden states that the spark from heaven is a spiritual insight into life and an artistic skill (68) while Jump says the closest answer is that it is a form of mysterious wisdom (97). Culler may be closest to Arnold’s meaning when he says the spark represents lost knowledge from some ancient culture (192). This interpretation is based on the poem’s conclusion (231-50) where the Scholar-Gipsy is likened to a Tyrian trader who flees from the Greeks. The Greeks represent intellectualism, just as Oxford is an intellectual world from which the Scholar-Gipsy flees. The Tyrian leaves the Greeks to go to the “Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians” (249) for whom he undoes “his corded bales” (250). This passage suggests that life’s answers cannot be found in the knowledge of Western civilization. Because Greek culture came to dominate the ancient world, and thus influence Western culture, Greek philosophy and wisdom is the basis for much Western learning. In placing such a value upon Greek culture, Western civilization forgot the possible values of other cultures such as those of the Tyrians and Iberians, whose ancient wisdom and knowledge have now been largely lost (Knight 54). Arnold’s Tyrian trader refuses to impart his knowledge to the Greek intellectuals, but rather it is to the “shy” Iberians that he gives his knowledge. It is important that the Iberians are shy, for so also is the Scholar-Gipsy (Knight 54). The Scholar-Gipsy continually seeks his “solitude” (210), haunting “shy retreats” (70), and loving “retired ground” (71) and “shy fields” (79). The shy Iberians might be likened to the idle children, maidens, and shepherds who, like the Scholar-Gipsy, are outside the world of the intellect, and therefore, they have the occasional fortune to catch a glimpse of the Gipsy.

Culler interprets the final line of the poem where the Tyrian trader undoes his corded bales to mean that the Scholar-Gipsy is imparting his knowledge to the world (192). However, in the poem, the Gipsy himself never receives the spark from Heaven, so it is unlikely he can impart this knowledge to humanity. Instead, the Gipsy’s life becomes a continual searching for the spark, which makes him immortal because he has only “one aim, one business, one desire” (152). The speaker describes the Gipsy’s constant, unchanging life as,

–No, no, thou hast not felt the lapse of hours!

For what wears out the life of mortal men?

’Tis that from change to change their being rolls:

’Tis that repeated shocks, again, again,

Exhaust the energy of strongest souls

And numb the elastic powers.

Till having used our nerves with bliss and teen,

And tired upon a thousand schemes our wit,

To the just-pausing Genius we remit

Our worn-out life, and are—what we have been.

 

Thou hast not lived, why should’st thou perish, so?

Thou hadst one aim, one business, one desire;

Else wert thou long since number’d with the dead!

Else hadst thou spent, like other men, thy fire! (141-54)

The world’s troubles and changes make men age and grow old, but the Scholar-Gipsy’s one goal and his isolation from civilization grant him perpetual youth. Because the Scholar-Gipsy never does find the spark, his life and his quest are both perpetual (Madden 68).

Perpetual youth and a never-ending quest are what most equate the Scholar-Gipsy with the traditional image of the wanderer. Honan remarks that the continual wanderings of the Gipsy and the mythical mantle that he takes on might suggest the reappearances of some type of deity (276). If not a deity, the Gipsy is certainly immortal, and this immortality and continual wandering seem reminiscent of the Wandering Jew, a popular theme and character among the Romantics and Gothic novelists. The Wandering Jew was also the inspiration for Carlyle’s creation of Diogenes Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus (1838), a work that heavily influenced Arnold’s poem. (For a full discussion of the Romantic period’s treatment of the Wandering Jew, and how Carlyle transformed the Wandering Jew from a Romantic into a Victorian figure, see my chapter on Sartor Resartus in my book The Gothic Wander.)

Traditionally, the Wandering Jew’s life is one of unhappiness and eternal wandering as he yearns for death and rest; however, the Scholar-Gipsy appears contented, if not happy. Carlyle, in the character of Teufelsdrockh, transformed the image of the Wandering Jew from a forlorn character into a Christ-figure who passes from being an aimless wanderer into becoming a prophet and guide to humanity, reminding us of our heavenly home and the eternal life awaiting us. Arnold, like Carlyle, also transforms the wanderer figure; however, while Carlyle’s wanderer becomes a prophet who reminds mankind of the eternal life awaiting them in Heaven, Arnold’s wandering Gipsy achieves eternal life upon earth. Arnold’s wanderer is also different from Carlyle’s because the Scholar-Gipsy’s wandering is not aimless, but rather, he has “one aim” (152). To understand why Arnold chose to differ from Carlyle, we must now look at the psychological effect of the Scholar-Gipsy as a myth and symbol upon the speaker.

The Speaker’s Reaction

The speaker, the poem’s true protagonist, is similar to the Scholar-Gipsy for he also fears the modern, intellectual world of Oxford. The speaker states that he is well aware of the “strange disease of modern life, / With its sick hurry, its divided aims, / Its heads o’ertax’d its palsied hearts” (203-5). Compared to the unhappy modern world, the Scholar-Gipsy’s seventeenth century was a much simpler time. However, even in those distant days, the Gipsy felt the encroaching threats of intellectualism and the modern world, so he fled from Oxford. In Blakean terms, the Scholar-Gipsy fled to preserve his innocence; in contrast, the speaker already feels a personal loss of innocence, for he is experienced enough to realize the pains and disease of modern life. The speaker longs to escape the modern world and return to the state of innocence, which the Scholar-Gipsy has preserved for himself. The speaker begins this search to regain his innocence by calling upon the shepherd to come and “again begin the quest!” (10). To regain his innocence, the speaker seeks to make his life similar to that of the Scholar-Gipsy. The speaker is already aware of his similarities to the Gipsy, for like him, the speaker has fled from Oxford into a secluded, pastoral scene: “Screen’d in this nook o’er the high, half-reap’d field,/And here till sun-down, shepherd! will I be” (21-2). From this secluded spot, the speaker can only catch a glimpse of Oxford’s towers in the distance (30). Once segregated from the modern world, the speaker says he will read again “the oft-read tale” (32) of the Scholar-Gipsy. After summarizing this tale for the reader, the speaker comments upon how rare it is to see the Gipsy, and the necessity of being an innocent and idle person to catch a glimpse of him. The speaker concludes these remarks by mentioning his own chance encounter with the Gipsy.

And once, in winter, on the causeway chill

Where home through flooded fields foot-travellers go,

Have I not pass’d thee on the wooden bridge,

Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow,

Thy face tow’rd Hinksey and its wintry ridge? (121-125)

That the speaker has seen the Gipsy shows that he once also had the childlike innocence the Gipsy retains. Now the speaker hopes to regain this innocence or reassure himself that it still exists within him. He feels he can be reassured of his innocence if he can once again catch a glimpse of the Gipsy. Yet the speaker knows he cannot see the Scholar-Gipsy when purposely looking for him, so he tries to see the Gipsy mentally by reading Glanvil’s tale and transporting himself back to the simpler world of the seventeenth century which represents for him the simpler stage of his own now lost innocence (Madden 67). The speaker is suffering from displacement, realizing he is no longer capable of innocence because he is conscious of unhappiness, yet he is also unable to participate in the modern world because his longing for a return to innocence alienates him from modern life (Madden 51). Johnson states that the Scholar-Gipsy, and later the Tyrian trader, have become “images for the speaker’s lost self,” which he mourns and wishes to regain (60).

After the speaker recalls the story and his own encounter with the Scholar-Gipsy, he suddenly feels he cannot regain the past nor again feel a connection to the Scholar-Gipsy. He exclaims:

But what—I dream! Two hundred years are flown

Since first thy story ran through Oxford halls,

And the grave Glanvil did the tale inscribe

That thou wert wander’d from the studious walls

To learn strange arts, and join a gipsy-tribe;

And thou from earth art gone

Long since, and in some quiet churchyard laid— (131-7)

Here, the speaker has woken from his dreams of hope that innocence can be restored or that he can see or be like the Scholar-Gipsy. Numerous critics have marked the similarity between this passage and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and the dream vision poems of Coleridge (Bush 78, Culler 183). Like Arnold’s speaker, the speaker in Keats’s poem is tired of the world, remarking how the nightingale has never known, “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/Here, where men sit and hear each other groan” (23-4). As Arnold’s speaker wants to lose himself in the dream of being like the Scholar-Gipsy, so Keats’s speaker wishes to abandon himself to the beauty of the nightingale’s song; he is even willing to die listening to this song. However, Keats’s speaker awakes from his revery to ask, “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?” (79-80). Arnold’s speaker also awakes from his daydream, believing his desire to see the Scholar-Gipsy can never become real, for the Gipsy lived two hundred years ago and must now be dead. Culler remarks that at this point, if Keats, Shelley, or Coleridge had been the poet, “The Scholar-Gipsy” would have ended, as does Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” However, Arnold allows his poem to continue exploring the Romantic myth of consciousness (184).

For this one stanza, Arnold’s speaker is almost in despair, feeling it impossible that the Scholar-Gipsy still lives, and so symbolically, it is impossible for the speaker to regain that state of innocence. But he quickly recovers from this despair by realizing the Scholar-Gipsy cannot be dead; death is caused by the weariness of life, but the Gipsy has not been wearied by life’s troubles because he flees from intimacy with mankind, thereby escaping the change and modern life that cause men to grow old and die (141-150). Next the speaker makes a connection between the past and the present by realizing that like the Scholar-Gipsy, modern people also wait for something, although they are less aware of what they wait for, so they have a tendency to despair. The speaker, imagining that he addresses the Gipsy, states that all people “wait like thee, but not, like thee, in hope” (170), because we are “Light half-believers of our casual creeds,/Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will’d” (172-3). “For whom each year we see/Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new” (176-7). Yet, in all our misery, “Ah! do not we, wanderer! await it too?” (180). Like the Scholar-Gipsy, Arnold’s speaker says all people wait for a spark from Heaven to fall, and this spark will reveal to us the meaning of life, which, until we understand it, remains a burdensome mystery.

Among all those who suffer from the modern disease of life, the speaker focuses on one person who has had more success than others in dealing with suffering:

And then we suffer!  and amongst us one,

Who most has suffer’d, takes dejectedly

His seat upon the intellectual throne;

And all his store of sad experience he

Lays bare of wretched days;

Tells us his misery’s birth and growth and signs,

And how the dying spark of hope was fed,

And how the breast was soothed, and how the head,

And all his hourly varied anodynes. (182-90)

The poem does not state the identity of this person. Arnold later said he had Goethe in mind as the one on the intellectual throne (Honan 277); however, some critics have suggested that this reference is to Carlyle (Buckler, “Scholar-Gipsy”, 683). It may be a mixture of both, for Goethe heavily influenced Carlyle, who then influenced Arnold, so it is difficult to make a clear-cut distinction. Arnold knew Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, which was itself influenced by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both works have heroes who wander about in despair seeking some meaning in life that will help them escape their depression. However, Goethe’s Werther ultimately commits suicide, while Carlyle’s Teufelsdrockh emerges from his despair into a state of enlightenment. This enlightenment consists of realizing that questing after knowledge will not explain life’s mysteries, and instead, people should work to make the world a better place. Certainly, Sartor Resartus was in Arnold’s mind while writing “The Scholar-Gipsy,” for like Carlyle’s Teufelsdrockh, both the Scholar-Gipsy and the speaker are also searching for ways to stay in or return to a state of innocence and escape from despair. We know Arnold had a great admiration for Carlyle’s writing that eventually changed into an equally great dislike. In 1848, the year Arnold began working upon “The Scholar-Gipsy,” he referred to Carlyle’s writing as “the style and feeling by which the beloved man appears,” but eleven and a half years later, he remarked upon “that regular Carlylean strain which we all know by heart and which the clear-headed among us have so utter a contempt for” (Honan 22-3). Perhaps Arnold was so tired of Carlyle’s writing and intellectualization of man’s state that he later refused to admit that Carlyle was the one he intended to be upon the intellectual throne, so he instead named Goethe.

Arnold felt he could not accept Carlyle’s philosophy that it is work, not happiness, that is man’s purpose in life. For Arnold, happiness depended upon understanding life’s mystery, which Carlyle said man was not meant to understand. Arnold tried to make Carlyle’s philosophy his own in his poem “Self-Dependence” (1852), where he suggests that by working, we may arrive at understanding. The speaker of “Self-Dependence” looks up at the stars and sees them performing their functions without worrying about the greater universe, which leads them to greatness:

‘Bounded by themselves and unregardful

In what state God’s other works may be,

In their own tasks all their powers pouring,

These attain the mighty life you see.’ (25-8)

Yet in the next year, when Arnold wrote “The Scholar-Gipsy,” he felt this solution was not sufficient. Therefore, just as Carlyle transformed the Romantic image of the wanderer into a prophet who preaches what became the Victorian Gospel of Work, so Arnold transformed the wanderer image by rejecting Carlyle’s depiction to create his own. While Carlyle says we are selfish to worry about our own happiness and should instead work selflessly to make the universe better because we can never know the meaning of life, Arnold says there may be some people who can learn life’s mystery. However, these people are not those who search intellectually, but people who have found another means for arriving at this knowledge. Unfortunately, Arnold’s speaker feels he can never be one of these fortunate people.

As the “Scholar-Gipsy” ends, the speaker imagines himself telling the Scholar-Gipsy to “But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!” (221), and “Then fly our greetings, fly our speech and smiles!” (231). The speaker no longer wishes to see the Scholar-Gipsy because he knows the Gipsy will die if he has contact with the speaker who is no longer innocent. The speaker would prefer that the Gipsy continue his search so someday, someone may understand life’s mystery and find happiness, even if it cannot be himself. In forsaking his chance to regain his innocence by seeing the Scholar-Gipsy, the speaker has performed a selfless act, as does Carlyle’s Teufelsdrockh, but unlike Teufelsdrockh, the speaker does not find a task to replace his search. The poem ends on a note of false resolution, for while the speaker may be resolved that he can never see the Scholar-Gipsy, regain his innocence, or understand life’s meaning, Arnold could not resign himself to such a possibility. He would continue to search for an answer to life’s mystery in later poems, including “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1855), and in “Thyrsis” (1866), he would once more try to find the Scholar-Gipsy.

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Buried Life.” 1852. Ed. William E. Buckler. The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. 575-77.

Arnold, Matthew. “The Scholar-Gipsy.” 1853. Ed. William E. Buckler. The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. 580-6.

Arnold, Matthew. “Self-Dependence”. 1852. Ed. William E. Buckler. The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. 577-8.

Brown, E. K. Matthew Arnold: A Study in Conflict. 1948. n.p.: Archon Books, 1966.

Buckler, William E. On the Poetry of Matthew Arnold: Essays in Critical Reconstruction. New York: New York UP, 1982.

Buckler, William E. “The Scholar-Gipsy and Thrysis.” Ed. William E. Buckler. The Major Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Arnold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. 681-3.

Bush, Douglas. Matthew Arnold: A Survey of His Poetry and Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh. 1838. New York: Odyssey Press, 1937.

Culler, A. Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1966.

Dyson, A.E. “The Last Enchantments.” Review of English Studies. 8 (1957): 256-65.

Goethe, Johann. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Ed. David E. Welbery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995. Vol. 11 of Goethe: The Collected Works. 12 Vols.

Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Johnson, W. Stacy. The Voices of Matthew Arnold: An Essay in Criticism. New Haven, CT.: Yale UP, 1961.

Jump, J. D. Matthew Arnold. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1965.

Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967. 1184-5.

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Scholar Gipsy: An Interpretation.” Review of English Studies. 6 (1955): 53-62.

Madden, William A. Matthew Arnold: A Study of the Aesthetic Temperament in Victorian England. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1967.

Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. New York: W.W. Norton, 1939.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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