Pastoral Elegies in Matthew Arnold's Poetry

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      The meaning of the word pastoral can be traced to the Latin word pastor, that means shepherd. From this meaning, Pastoral poetry may be considered that which deals with bucolic life, the life of the herdsmen. In its ongin Pastoral poetry is clearly Korean; especially Sicilian. Theocritus poet of Syracuse, who lived in the 3rd Century B. C. was its main Greek representative. His Idylls were short dramatic poems of great charm. In some of them he depicts the pastoral life of Sicily. They were the first examples of Greek pastoral poetry. Virgil (Ist B. C.) imitated Theocritus in his Lament for Daphnis which in turn is the prototype of Milton's Lycidas. Bion (1st B. C.) and Moschus (2nd B. C.) are other names associated with the Pastoral. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was developed in England, following Italian and Spanish works. Sidney's Arcadia and Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess are two examples. The essence of the pastoral is simplicity of thought and action in a rustic setting. Lodge's Rasalynde, Shakespeare's As You Like lt, Jonson's Sad Shepherd and Milton's Comus keep up the tradition.

      Pastoral Elegy as a separate literary form stick to certain conventions. The poet and the one lamented are shown as shepherds living in the nature. Nature is personified and is found taking part in the mourning. It starts with an invocation to the muse and contains plenty of classical allusions. Questions are put to flora and fauna concerning their inability to protect the lamented one from death. A procession of mourners is depicted or a catalogue of them given. The injustice of human and divine law is pointed out. The conclusion is a reconciliation portraying death as a union with God. Through the conventional form of the elegy, raw emotion reaches an ennoblement by ritualizing it. Theocritus, the father of the pastoral, mentions three kinds of pastoral elegies. First is a singing match between two shepherds to settle their differences. A third shepherd acts as the judge. Second is a single shepherd singing about his sweet heart and his own ill luck. The third type is one where a goatherd laments a dear one's death. The Lament for Daphnis of Theocritus is an example. Pastoral Elegy, as a literary form which exists in English Literature, belongs to the third type. Virgil initiated this type in his Eclogues where he consoles his friend who lost his mistress. In the Lament for Moschus, the Greek poet Bion depicted himself and his friends as Shepherds. Milton's Lycidas, Shelley's Adonais and Arnold's Thyrsis and The Scholar Gipsy follow that tradition.

      The two pastoral elegies of Arnold, are certainly classical. There are plenty of allusions to the classical myths and writings and the ancient form is kept true to the Latin and Greek conventions. However, like Milton and Shelley, Arnold too has deviated, from his ancient models, in certain ways.

      In The Scholar Gipsy, the poet asks the shepherd to go for other shepherds from the hill, call him. The poet himself is not presented as a shepherd, here. Further, once the poem starts the shepherd is not to be seen. The scenes that are presented are not at all idyllic, they are of the urban Oxford where none can expect to find a truly pastoral setting. Arnold possibly cannot give a fairy-land effect to the too well known Oxford countryside. Any one familiar with Oxford and its surroundings can identify the various places mentioned in the poem. In a pastoral poem, according to the conventions of old masters, an idealised rural setting is to be presented. Again there is no lament for the death of a dear one in The Scholar Gipsy What Arnold laments for is the vanished faith. Parallel to the Virgilian cry over the mournfulness of mortal destiny Arnold finds an outlet for his characteristic melancholy. It is the melancholy of an uncertain agnostic, who regrets the disappearance of religious faith which had its own beauty, its own promises.

      Thyrsis: Though the structure of the poem is pastoral, the spirit, and the tone is quite modern: It is typically Victorian, a tone that depicts the restlessness of an intellectual Victorian who craves for a spiritual illumination. Thyrsis is more of a conventional pastoral elegy than The Scholar Gipsy, its companion poem. It has a unique piace in English Literature, and compares favourably with Milton's Lycidas and Shelley's Adonais. Swinburne admiringly points out its quiet undertone, similar to that of Milton's poem. Thyrsis has no equal in beauty, delicacy, affluence of colour, fragrance and freedom. Swinburne uses the superlatives lavishly to say "No poem in any language can be more perfect as a model of style, unsurpassable certainly, it may be unattainable". Thyrsis was written to lament the death of Arnold's friend Arthur Hugh Clough who died in 1861. Clough was a favorite pupil of Arnold's father and was the poet's senior at Oxford. The tremendous regard he had for Clough is clear from his letter to his own sister, in 1859, "You and Clough are, I believe, the two people I in my heart care most to please by what I write". On Clough's death Arnold wrote to his mother, about the loss which I shall feel more and more as time goes on, for he is one of the few people who ever made a deep impression upon me". The exact date of the composition of the poem is not known. It appears, the poem formed itself in Arnold's mind for about two years before it appeared in Macmillan's Magazine in April 1866.

      There is a criticism against Thyrsis that there is very little of Clough in it. Arnold himself wrote about the poem to J. C. Sharp.

      Clough's resignation from Oxford is meant here. He was too noble to tolerate the "Shepherds and the silly sheep". He went away, but later "his piping took a troubled sound". Then he is dead and "The bloom is gone". Many stanzas are addressed directly to him and in others there are references to the one "gone". As professor Tinker Lousy says, There is perhaps as much about Clough in Thyrsis as there is about Edward King in Lycidas and John Keats in Adonais. It is true that Arnold expresses very little of his own feelings of sorrow at the death of his friend. Instead there is free expression of his characteristic melancholy in it. But then Arnold's aim does not appear to be to sing praises of the personal qualities of Clough.

      The poem ends with a regret for his inability to visit the Oxford countryside more often.

Too rare, too rare, grow now my visits here

      Still he longs for the voice of his friend

....through the great town's harsh, heart wearying roar,
Let in thy voice a whisper often come
To chase fatigue and fear.

      So the poem ends with an ennobling consolation. There is clear imitation of Moschus in some of the stanzas. The lines;

O easy access to the hearer's grace
When Dorian shepherds sang to Proserpine!
For she herself had trod Sicilian fields,
She knew the Dorian water's gush divine,
She knew each lily white which Enna yields,
Each rose with blushing face:
She loved the Dorian pipe, the Dorian strain.

      The idea of the poetic contest between Thyrsis and Lityersis too is borrowed from him. The names Thyrsis and Corydon are directly from Theocritus.

      In diction, style, rhythm and metre too, he modelled his palm on the classical masters. Arnold wrote to his mother,

The diction of the poem was modelled on that of Theocritus...
I meant the diction to be so artless as be almost heedless...

      The stanza pattern is the same as that of The Scholar Gypsy. Each stanza contains ten lines, nine of iambic pentameter, and the last iambic trimester. The abrupt shortening of the last line adds to the melancholic tone of the poem; critics have lavished the highest praise to the style and diction. Francis Bickley says,

Thyrsis has a quality of Sicilian grace and simplicity which is not quite paralleled by anything in English literature" except The Scholar Gipsy.

      Nostalgia for the past, affection for the dear Oxford countryside, cherished memories of the local flora, moors and hills, controlled and understated sorrow for the loss of a friend, tender emotion, remarkable pictorial descriptions, classical restraint and romantic grace fill the poem, making it an immortal poem. According to Carleton Stanley, even if Arnold had not written anything except Thyrsis, people of England would be indebted to him.

      The Scholar Gipsy: Some critics consider this to be the best of Arnold. True, it has stood successfully the test of time and is one of the finest poems in English. It works as some kind of an introduction to its companion piece Thyrsis: Arnold got the sketchy story - rather a myth - of The Gipsy Scholar found in the book Vanity of Dogmatising, written by one Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680).

      From 1853 when the poem was first published the poem was a favourite of the critics, and considered it his masterpiece. However, Arnold himself rated it below his Sohrab and Rustum. In November, after the publication, Arnold wrote to Clough: "I am glad you like the Gipsy Scholar-but what does it do for you? Homer animates - Shakespeare animates - in its poor way I think Sohrab and Rustum animates - The Gipsy Scholar at best awakes a pleasing melancholy. But this is not what we want.

The complaining millions of men
Darken in labour and pain -

      What they want is something to animate and ennoble them - not merely to add zest to their melancholy or grace to their dreams.

      It is not clear how Arnold had the notion that The Scholar Gipsy does not animate or ennoble. It does both. The poem is an inspiring one that leaves us ennobled and animated. True, there is a passionate indictment of the dictatorial rule of the intellect of modern man over his soul visible in the poem. Despite Arnold's own disparaging opinion Clough found it excellent.

      What exactly is the quest is a moot point. Is it the search to find out the elusive scholar? Or is the quest similar to that of the Gipsy Scholar? Or is it symbolic of the quest spiritual of a contemplative soul? Whatever it is, the pastoral atmosphere is created and its magical spell binds the reader. But almost abruptly the author leaves the conventional form of the pastoral and starts describing the beautiful scenery of the Oxford countryside.

The story of that Oxford Scholar poor
Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,
Who, tir'd of knocking at Preferment's door,

      Then he mentions Glanvil's book and describes; forsook his friends and went to learn the Gipsy lore. Years later two Oxonians found him in a Gipsy camp. The scholar told them that he is trying to learn from the Gipsies the art of controlling the "Working of men's brains". Once he learnt it fully, he would return and impart the knowledge to all. He added that.

It needs heaven sent moments for this skill.

      The story is about a scholar of the 17th century or earlier times. But in Arnold's poem people have got occasional glimpses of the scholar wandering the Oxford countryside ever afterwards. Sometimes in a tavern, but suddenly vanishing; sometimes near the ferry but disappearing before the boat nears the shore; sometimes giving,

Dark blue-bells drench'd with dews of summer eves
And purple orchises with spotted leaves

      To maidens who come from distant hamlets to dance around the May-pole. Many others too have seen him, but always he was pensive and mute. Arnold himself fancies that he saw him once. He asks,

Have I not pass'd thee on the wooden bridge
Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow,
Thy face towards Hinksey and its wintry ridge?
And thou hast climb'd the hill
And gaind the white brow of the Cumner range,
Turn'd once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall,
The line of festal lights in Christ-Church hall-

      But Arnold admits it was only a dream or his fantasy. The scholar should be long dead and "in some quiet churchyard laid". Then the poet abruptly changes his line of thinking and says the scholar is immortal. He is longing and searching eternally for the "spark from Heaven". Then the poet says that the Scholar was lucky that he was,

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;

      Towards the end the Scholar becomes a symbol of escape and fulfilment. He becomes our guide and guardian helping us realise our own aspirations. He encourages us to move onwards to a place of peace and calm where the music of Nightingales fill the atmosphere. Surely the poem leaves us animated and ennobled.

      The poem as a whole is like a fine symphony, with its description of the lovely Oxford countryside, with the domed towers of the university in the distance, and the line of festal light in Christ-Church hall, the narration of Glanvil's legend and the story of the shadowy, scholar's mysterious appearances before various people, climaxing in the poet's own fancied meeting, and the final philosophising over the moral issues and the ending with a Homeric extended simile. The whole poem is full of beauty of thought and phrase and image and to all these adds the metrical excellence.

      Some critics are irritated, perhaps annoyed, over the detailed description of the Oxford countryside. Here professor Saintsbury comes to defend Arnold. He says one need not be an Italian to appreciate Divine Comedy of Dante where vivid description of Italian, especially Florentine, landscape is given. According to some other critics, the background depicted in the poem is an appropriate setting for the reflections of the poem. G. C. Macaulay says that "the tranquility of the rural life and the comparative permanence of its features as compared with those of "each spot makes or fills' is a guarantee to him that the clear aim and the unconquerable hope of his Scholar Gipsy still live in the world and the peacefulness of those loved hills is contrasted with the feverish life from which not even that sweet city with her dreaming spires is altogether free, the life of turmoil and controversy, of knocking at Preferment's door, successfully or in vain, of half beliefs and casual creeds, of vague resolves never fulfilled, of insight which have never borne fruit indeed",

      There appears a close relationship between The Scholar Gipsy and the Ode to Autumn and the Ode to the Nightingale of Keats. According to F. R. Leaves the thought content of the Autumn Ode, especially that in the lines:

      Edmund Blunden traces the parallelism between the Gipsy poem and the Nightingale Ode of Keats. He says "The Nightingale is the symbol of fulfilment and freedom in contrast with;

The weariness, the fever and the fret
Here where men sit and hear each other groan.

      As the Scholar is our lucky exception beyond our "sick fatigue"..Many circumstances and turns of expression or tune in Arnold's piece are apparently harmonious with those in the Ode". Even the "perilous seas" of Keats seem to flow into the others "cloudy cliffs and "sheets of foam". The dream of the Nightingale's ecstatic conquest over time and mutability fades into a "plaintive anthem" as the feigned Scholar Gipsy falls into dust.

Long since, and in some quiet churchyard laid
Some country nook where over thy laid unknown grave
Tall grasses and white flowering mettles wave
Under a dark, red fruited yew tree's shade

      The lines where Arnold attributes immortality to his Gipsy.

But thou possest an immortal lot
And we imagine thee exempt from age

      Express almost the same idea, where Keats addresses his bird, as follows:

Thou wast not born for death immortal Bird
No hungry generation tread thee down.

      It does not, however, follow that Arnold was bluntly imitating Keats. But there is clear parallels that can be noticed.

      The Homeric or Epic simile simile that extends over several lines and, incidents-found in the last two stanzas is unnecessarily thrust into the poem, according to some critics. They say the extended simile only mars the beauty of the poem. Arnold the avowed classicist was fascinated by the simile and often it is the Epic Simile, he indulges in. In Sohrab and Rustum there are several, but then it is a miniature epic poem. Does it fit well in a contemplative poem like the elegy is the question. One has to admit that it is a too long drawn out one for a pastoral elegy.

      This is what Professor Saintsbury has to say "No ingenuity can work out the parallel between the "uncloudedly joyous" scholar who in a bid to avoid the palsied diseased enfants du siecle and the grave Tyrian who was indignant at the competition of the merry Greek and shook out more sail to seck fresh markets". However, to call it inartistic, is doing injustice to Arnold and the poem. Prof. E. K. Chambers defends Arnold's use of the simile. He says that

"Unclouded joyousness is not however the kernel of the Gipsy's character; nor is he contrasted merely, or even mainly, with the palsied diseased enfants du siecle. The Tyrian trader's flight before the clamorous-spirited Greeks is exactly analogous to the Scholar Gipsy's flight before the drink and clatter of the smock - frocked boors or before the bathers in the abandoned lasher or before the Oxford riders blithe. Both flights express a desire for calm, a desire for aloofness. And little ingenuity is required to discover a similarity between the Gipsies and those 'shy traffickers, the dark Iberians' to whom the Tyrian trader flies".

      The simile, on the whole appears appropriate and imparts precision and picturesqueness. It also contrasts the simplicity of the old with the shallow views and divided desires of modern scheming age. The Phoenician who carries corded bales of merchandise beyond the western straits stands for the ancient culture, while the merry Grecian coaster howevering in the Aegean sea with its perishable cargo stands for modern life. Certainly the simile suddenly lifts the poem into an unanticipated glory of romance.

      Conclusion: The twin elegies The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis are among the chief glories of Arnold's poetry. In those two the poet avoids his habitual method of fashioning poems with rough hewn stones and corrugated iron and instead uses polished marble and other colourful stones. And there arises a poetical mausoleum of magnificence and elegance that does proud to any language in any age. Pastoral in form and elegiac in tone the two do possess a charm embellished with a veil of sadness, the vividness and beauty of Nature, pictures and the magic spell cast by the haunting lines expressing the poets nostalgia for Oxford countryside.

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