- “The Scholar-Gipsy” and the Continuous Life of Victorian Poetry
My title alludes to one of the most compelling volumes of poetry published in the last quarter century, Mark Strand's The Continuous Life (1990). Strand has in common with Matthew Arnold a fundamental preoccupation with the sheer presence and persistence of poetic discourse as a sign of the continuity of human culture even in periods where vertiginous change seems dominant. But trust in this continuity does not go unshaken in either poet. In Arnold's case—and also in Strand's—it is the very experience of shaken trust that seems to generate rehabilitated confidence in the poetic enterprise. The question I want to address in this essay is elementary: does Arnold's "The Scholar-Gipsy" constitute such a reaffirmation? Certainly, the critical commentary that has developed around the "The Scholar-Gipsy" sees the poem, at worst, as a defeat of the poetic spirit, or, at best, a deferral of its claims.1 These views seems to me to occlude much that is important in the poem and much that underscores its celebration of the continuous life of poetry. Though I do not mean to pursue any extended comparison of Arnold and Strand in the development of this essay there are some moments of focus and foregrounding in Strand's poetry that provide useful perspectives on how "The Scholar-Gipsy" envisages the life of poetry.
Strand's Continuous Life includes a poem called "The History of Poetry." Strand, of course, is not dealing with the academic subject but with whatever creative action, at some point, made language a tuned instrument and kept it in tune, according to our best knowledge, ever since. But, like Arnold, Strand can imagine calamity impending in the history of poetry:
Our masters are gone now and if they returned Who among us would hear them ?(ll. 1-2)2
Strand adopts a shimmering irony in his poem through his suggestion that our very performance as readers of the poem we are looking at retrieves the life of poetry even in the absence of our "masters." Strand's ultimate faith in poetry's continuous life is elaborated in one of his other brilliant books, A Blizzard of One (2001). There he recounts an evening when a "snowflake, [End Page 277] a blizzard of one," enters his room and makes him look up. "That's all / There was to it" (ll. 4-5), except "for the feeling" that this "piece of the storm," despite melting, is full of meaning. It intimates
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say: 'It's time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.'(ll. 10-11)3
The same volume, in an elegy for Joseph Brodsky, imagines a place "where the unsayable, / Finally, once more is uttered" (ll. 5-6). As with Arnold, Strand seems especially moved to affirm the continuous life of poetry in moments of mourning for a deceased poet. Though the poet in question might be a contemporary, there is always some suggestion that the elegiac words are also uttered in commemoration of poets whose words reach us from the far past. In what may be the single most powerful poem in The Continuous Life, Strand imagines the very origin of poetry in "Orpheus Alone." He pictures Orpheus sitting in "sunken silence," nearly felled by grief. He at last utters, like the tricked Tithonus, both the pain of his loss and the wonder of his beloved Eurydice as he remembers "The curve of her neck, the slope of her shoulders, everything / Down to her thighs and calves, letting the words come" (ll. 11-12). His words attempt to make the air
clear just enough for her, the lost bride, To step through the image of herself and be seen in the light. As everyone knows, this was the first great poem .(ll. 18-20)
The sense of poetic history conveyed by both Arnold and Strand suggests that the first great poem, whatever it was, echoes and re-echoes through all great poems in a continuous and imperishable utterance. No matter the unpoetic contingencies of a particular time or...