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Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold

Thyrsis was written by Matthew Arnold to offer tribute to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough who had died at the age of 42 in 1861 and left him all alone.

Summary of Thyrsis

The poem begins with Arnold’s description of the pictorial beauty of Oxford where he and his friend Clough spent their earlier days.

Thyrsis The dreaming spires of Oxford
Thyrsis The dreaming spires of Oxford

As an adult when he roams around the countryside, he is amazed by the beauty and calmness the surrounding still carries. But he is also concerned about the changes that he sees in it, mainly the absence of Clough.

While wandering he looks for the “elm tree” which he and his friend Clough used to connect during their youth and linked that to “Scholar Gipsy”, who according to an old legend left Oxford in order to search for mystical powers among the gypsies and he believed as long as the tree is visible it is a sign that Scholar Gipsy is still questing.

Thyrsis Matthew Arnold Cover
Thyrsis Matthew Arnold Cover

It is a sign of their eternal devotion.

As Arnold failed to see the elm-tree in front of him he laments about the departure of him and Clough from Oxford leaving behind the beauty and rustic purity that it holds, explaining that he left due to the economic need and Clough due to the philosophical and moral doubts.

Clough has been contrasted with Thyrsis who left the “shepherds and silly ships” and died due to his own mistake as he got driven by the modernity of the world and perished amidst the “storms that rage outside our happy grounds”.

Like the cuckoo bird who flies away in despair as spring passes by, Thyrsis also flutters leaving Arnold alone, who is framed as Corydon, the former lost a singing match against Corydon.

Thyrsis Cuckoo Bird
Thyrsis Cuckoo Bird

Arnold speaks of the fact “when Sicilian shepherds lost a mate” they sang of their loss lamenting on death.

While wandering he recalls a woman who helped them with their boat but gets saddened as she left too, depicting loneliness in Arnold’s life once again.

Nevertheless, Arnold decides not to lament over the death of Thrysis and instead go ahead with the quest that once he and Thrysis shared along with Scholar Gipsy.

He believes that the atmosphere has changed and the night is falling by making death more attractive. For a moment he wants to give up the quest but he suddenly sees the elm-tree in front of him, “lone, sky-pointing tree”.

Although the tree cannot change the reality that Clough is dead but it will prompt the quest that he is in search for along with Scholar Gipsy.

Thus, the end of the poem depicts that Arnold must carry on with the quest that will bind their unity and the bond once shared with Clough despite the fragmented world, “harsh, heart-wearying roar”.

Thyrsis Poem Analysis

Thyrsis is an extended illusion from Virgil’s poetry and also in Arnold’s life. Thyrsis lost a singing match with Corydon and died. There is a deeper meaning in this entire formation.

On one hand, Virgil blames the god for Thrysis’s death whereas Arnold blames the latter himself for the cause of his own demise.

Thrysis Corydon Singing Sketch
Thrysis Corydon Singing Sketch

The poem is totally based on Arnold’s life where he dedicated the poem to his dear friend Arthur Hugh Clough who died in 1861 during their earlier days when they left Oxford.

The entire poem is based on the walkthrough of Arnold in Oxford and looking back on the times when the two friends spend their adolescence in the countryside and their relationship.

Arnold roams around in the entire countryside and looks at the befitting beauty of Oxford that it still carries.

He looks for the elm-tree that he and Clough used to look at and relate it to Scholar Gipsy, the one who is in search of the quest. The countryside beauty represented truth and transparency.

Thyrsis Work of Virgil Painting
Thyrsis Work of Virgil Painting

But now that he cannot find the elm-tree he feels that the search for truth is lost and ended with Clough’s death. Here the speaker represented Thyrsis as Clough. In literature, most authors criticize Clough and his death rather than cherishing his memory.

They feel that Clough has given up on life and thirst for the hunt. And now that he died, Arnold has also lost the meaning and there is no chance of getting it back as Clough will not return ever.

Arnold feels completely let down. Many criticize the Scholar Gipsy for its quest for truth as for the world it was artificial but for Arnold the bond was eternal.

Clough’s death makes him feel the sense of betrayal and it will take time for him to come in terms with his expiration.

The entire poem is based on the discovery of the elm-tree as it was the symbol of their friendship and love for each other. It also showed the search for truth which was constant.

But later, Arnold realizes the fact that Clough did not betray him but rather his form of search has changed.

He finally visualizes the elm-tree and perceives that Clough should not be blamed for his death whereas the world should be responsible for the same.

He understands that the meaning of quest has changed and he needs to start the search in a different way.

In a larger symbolic sense, the elm-tree stand for the quest for truth that Scholar Gipsy was in search of, and here Arnold will continue for himself and Clough.

The poem is an epic. The sudden change in the mood of the poem depicts that Clough’s unusual death has created an impact in Arnold’s life.

But it also proved that no matter how bad a relationship becomes if it is true in a deep sense then it will revive back and become one.

Thyrsis Poem Themes

The theme of the poem is that the deep fraternal love between Arnold and Clough as in Victorian England the brotherhood was extremely important for women were not educated to offer intellectual companionship to men.

Arnold was left all alone after Clough’s death and that the quest had to end which they were in search for. He felt betrayed.

The elm-tree was a symbol of their eternal friendship and their journey in search of the truth.

Thyrsis Matthew Arnold Elm Tree Oil Painting
Thyrsis Matthew Arnold Elm Tree Oil Painting

But later faced by the factual ground Arnold believed that Clough was not completely to be blamed for his death and that he needs to continue with the quest as a sign in a different way, and turn into a wanderer as the planet would not allow him otherwise.

Thyrsis as a Pastoral Elegy

The poem is a pastoral elegy.

Thyrsis Matthew Arnold Pastoral Elegy Painting

The character Thyrsis was a shepherd in Virgil’s Seventh Eclogue who lost a singing match against Corydon.

Arnold compares the character of Thyrsis with his friend Clough while he associates himself with Corydon.

He also showcases all his love for Oxford which he admired along with his friend during his college days and connects it with pastoral beauty – showing unity while his musing with the Victorian era that portrays barbarian act, insanity, and futility.