Pastoral elegies had its origin in the classical poets of ancient Greece, viz, Theocritus, Bion and Moschus. It was lyric in character and dealt with the simple life of shepherds and their day to day occupations, such as singing with their oaten pipes in the flowery meadows, piping as though they would never be old, tending their folk of sheep. The essence of pastoral poetry is simplicity of thought and action in a rustic setting.
Perhaps Arnold’s two best-known poems are “The Scholar Gipsy” and “Thyrsis”, which are generally labeled as pastoral elegies deeply steeping in classical lore. “The Scholar Gipsy”, ostensibly about a seventeenth-century Oxford student who disappeared among the Gypsies is really about the poet himself and his generation, the scholar gypsy becomes a symbol in the light of which Arnold can develop his own position and state his own problems. Drawing on his knowledge of rustic scenes around Oxford, he produced a meditative pastoral poem whose language owes something to Theocritus but whose tone and emotional coloring are very much Arnoldian.
One can not consider “The Scholar Gipsy” as a carbon copy of the traditional pastoral poems, for, though here Arnold casts his material in the pastoral mold and gives vent to his pensive reflection under the similitude of a shepherd, here there is no idealization of the rural setting which a pastoral poem must contain. Moreover, there is no lament here for the death of a shepherd but what the poet laments is the decay of an age or vanished age.
What the poem really offers is a very delightful pastoral week end. In structure the poem is no doubt pastoral; the fairly elaborate ten-line stanza helps to keep the movement of the poem slow and develop the note of introspection. But, the tone of the poem has a modern touch; the spirit permeating the poem is typically Victorian-the spirit of unrest seeking spiritual illumination.
“The Scholar Gipsy” is Arnold’s modification of the pastoral elegy, not in a strict sense. The pastoral elements are found in the first half of the poem [stanzas 1- 13] in the description of the Oxford countryside that is traveled by the Scholar- Gipsy; the criticism of Victorian life in the second half [stanzas 14- 25] where by a simple process of confrontation the scholar Gipsy’s happiness and singleness of mind are used to undermine what Arnold felt to be wrong in his own life and the life of his contemporaries. It is the figure of the Scholar- Gipsy, originally borrowed from Glanvil’s “Vanity of Dogmatizing” but transformed until he is almost an incarnation of youthful hope and energy and a type of the imagination, that unifies the poem. The idyllic picture of the countryside around Oxford compose the setting of this poem.
Again there is a contrast between the sophisticated life of the civilized men and the uneventful, simple life of the shepherds who catch rare glimpses of the Scholar-Gipsy, and this contrast is a mark of pastoral poetry. Arnold has filled the landscape with humanity and its work with shepherd and reaper, hunters and oarsmen, dancing maidens and wandering youths.
“Thyrsis”, a pastoral elegy, written to commemorate Arnold’s friend Arthur Hugh Clough, who had died in 1861, in closely linked to “The Scholar-Gipsy”, though written many years after it. It has the same stanza form, the same general tone, it is set in the same Cumner country South-west of Oxford where Arnold and Clough had often worked together and it contains actual reference to “The Scholar-Gipsy”, a favorite poem of Clough. Though the influence of the Greek pastoral poets is clearly discernable, i.e., written in the Theocritan pastoral convention, the poem is steeped in that same deep feeling for the English countryside that we find in “The Scholar-Gipsy” and as with the earlier poem, the theme is really Arnold himself, his doubts and problems, and introspective melancholy, developed indirectly in an elegiac context and in association with aspects of the English landscape, which are most appropriate to the contemplative mood.
In a pastoral elegy the mourner’s identification of himself with a shepherd lamenting the death of a fellow-shepherd against the background of rustic setting is the convention and maintaining the conventional flow, Arnold in “Thyrsis” appears in the name of Corydon, a shepherd, bewailing the death of his dear friend Thyrsis, Arthur Hugh Clough in heart-touching words:
“There though art gone, and me thou leavest here
Sole in these fields.”[Thyrsis: Matthew Arnold]
Clough receives much more attention in “Thyrsis” than does either Edward King in Milton’s “Lycidas” and Keats in Shelley’s “Adonias”. And while the whole setting in “Lycidas” or “Adonias” is feigned, it is very real in “Thyrsis”, “all from actual observations” as Arnold himself wrote to his mother.
Though, “Thyrsis” is written lamenting the death of Clough, nevertheless, the poem in not primarily a portrait of Clough. It is an expression of Arnold’s own persistent longing to relive those early days when he and Cough had rambled in the Cumner hills together.
“Thyrsis” differs from “The Scholar Gipsy” in expressing a hopeful acceptance of the obligation to participate in “modern life”. The poem ends on a note of optimism. At the end of the poem he recognizes that he is obliged to live amid “city-noise”. But he hopes that “through the great town’s harsh, heart-wearing roar” Thyrsis’s voice will come to him, driving away fatigue and fear:
“Let in thy voice a whisper often come;
To chase fatigue and fear,
‘Why fainest thou? I wandered till I died.
Roam on! The light we sough is shining still.
Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side.”[Thyrsis: Matthew Arnold]
For the English people Arnold professed contempt; for English scenery he had conceived a passionate love, which inspired him to write passages of descriptive verse in a manner peculiarly his own, and with a power, which, in the special and limited field of its exercise, is unrivalled. In his elegiac verse he allows free play to the two strongest feelings of which he was capable, and it is the union of both in the same compositions, which constitutes the affecting truth and simple charm of this class of his poetry. Here he is most nearly a great poet, because he is most simply himself.