Anomalous First Lines: Arnold’s ‘Scholar-Gypsy’

“Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;”

The first line of ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’, one of Matthew Arnold’s best-known poems, is anomalous in two ways: first by the introduction of a shepherd whose identity and purpose are never detailed, and secondly by the use of the word “you”.

The shepherd is, according to various pieces of literary analysis, an evocation of the pastoral spirit. All well and good, but what is he doing? The poet summons him to get to his morning work, and then asks him to “again begin the quest” in the evening – the quest being (presumably) the search for the Scholar Gypsy. The first stanza reads in full:

Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;
Go, shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes!
No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed,
Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats,
Nor the cropp’d herbage shoot another head.
But when the fields are still,
And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest,
And only the white sheep are sometimes seen
Cross and recross the strips of moon-blanch’d green,
Come, shepherd, and again begin the quest!

The poet will wait for the shepherd all day in the shady corner of a half-reaped field, rereading Glanville’s ancient account of the Oxford student who dropped out to join a band of gypsies. It is a slow start to a rambling poem, and though shepherds are mentioned again they prove unnecessary in the 24 stanzas that follow. The poet is determined to track down the scholar-gypsy who is a) seen from time to time, b) over 200 years old, and c) ageless because he is untainted by modern life (Matthew Arnold wasn’t that big on science or history, apparently). The purpose of tracking the scholar-gypsy down turns out to be to tell him:

But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,

And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade and grow old at last, and die like ours.

Thanks a lot, Matthew Arnold! You want to track down someone who is hard to find, in order to warn him not to make contact because it will be fatal? Not sure you’re thinking clearly here…

The other anomaly in the first line of the poem is the use of the word “you”. It is natural enough, until you realise that the remaining 249 lines are purely “thee” and “thou”. If Arnold wanted to write in the artificial language that was still (barely) normal for poetry in his day, why didn’t he do so in the first line of the poem? I can’t think of any reason, and assume it was unintentional – perhaps the first line of the poem just came to him as it is, and he accepted it; but as he worked on the rest of the poem in more deliberate fashion he adopted the style he felt appropriate. A pity. He stood on the cusp of contemporary language, but didn’t quite get there.

Photo: “sheep at hillside” by christophercjensen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

2 thoughts on “Anomalous First Lines: Arnold’s ‘Scholar-Gypsy’

  1. Geoffrey A. Landis

    “You’ and “Thou” refer to different people in the poem. “You” in the first stanza is the shepherd. “Thou” in the later stanzas is the Scholar-gypsy. By using the different forms, he kept the two distinct.
    –why he picked the formal for the shepherd, and the familiar (but archaic) for the scholar-gypsy… that’s a mystery.

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  2. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

    That’s an interesting suggestion, but the problem is that the whole of that first stanza is addressed to the shepherd: “No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed, / Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats.” It is only that first line that uses the “you” of normal 19th century speech, instead of the poetic “thee” that would be in keeping with the rest of the stanza, all directed to the shepherd.

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