Is there any feeling on earth so striking as the feeling of hopelessness? The internal kind of anguish, doubt, depression, and lingering impression of being completely out of the realm of helping are awful emotions that mix to create an impression of hopelessness. It is easy to debate the fact that there is a single cause for these emotions, but if there were to be a primary kind of cause, it isn’t hard to argue that it is being restricted in some way. Whether your world is kept small by an inability to travel, have your ideal job, a lack of money, or to pursue passions and hobbies that fulfill you, restriction is common in our world. Mostly, social conventions dictate what is and is not acceptable. Matthew Arnold explores social convention in the Scholar-Gipsy, and he only leaves an aftertaste of hopelessness which is mixed in and swirling with other emotions. While those emotions are dependent on the reader, I personally had a mixture of hope, elation, a profound sadness, melancholy; and most importantly, a distant feeling of untapped potential. Arnold is speaking to a feeling of hopelessness and is countering with the potential lived out in “The Scholar-Gipsy”.
One interpretation to draw your attention to is the impression that the Scholar-Gipsy has achieved his potential by defying social norms. Gypsies in this time are a social pariah, where scholars are academically inclined and are likely to be positively viewed in society; the combination of a scholar with a gypsy would be absurd. The only reason for this absurdity is based in social norms. If gypsies were not so hated, the idea of an academic gypsy would not be so unheard of.
Arnold explains the Scholar-Gipsy as having achieved virtually impossible feats. These feats would be especially confusing to the Victorian reader, who associates the title with irony, and would exclude the Scholar-Gipsy from such positive emotions. Arnold says of the Scholar-Gipsy, “For early didst thou leave the world, with powers / Fresh, undiverted to the world without, / … Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt / Which much to have tried, in much been / baffled, brings. / O life unlike to ours!” (161-167). In this series of lines it is clear that the Scholar-Gipsy has ‘powers’, is ‘free’, and has a ‘life unlike to ours’: he has basically achieved a level of unburdened freedom that we commonly aspire to, and with relative ease. By simply defying what was expected of him, the hopelessness he could’ve felt by perpetually “knocking at preferment’s door” (35) was negated and replaced with a potential for something better, which he accomplished.
On re-reading “The Scholar-Gipsy”, consider the thought that Arnold presented a reason to dislike social norms; in fact, he allows the Scholar-Gipsy to escape a world of hopelessness by actively avoiding the ‘right’ life. Oxford would certainly be considered a good life under other circumstances, with a future of academics and comfort. Arnold objects and offers the Scholar-Gipsy as the unheard-of alternative. It is a strong statement opposing traditional values, and uplifts a different life entirely. Instead of making a joke of the man who leaves his studies, the Scholar-Gipsy becomes legend. Perhaps the only negative association is the aftertaste, when we wake up from the spell of poetry and realize that we are still here, restricted by convention, unable to achieve what the Scholar-Gipsy has. And perhaps Arnold issued a challenge to us all.