- Pastoral Elegy into Romantic Lyric: Generic Transformation in Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis”
“The long history of English elegy is a pouring of fresh tears into ancient vessels.”— John D. Rosenberg, Elegy for an Age1
“It is a commonplace that Arnold is an elegiac poet, but not everyone would agree on what is meant by this phrase.”— A. Dwight Culler, Imaginative Reason2
What kind of a poem is Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis”? The answer has seemed self-evident ever since it was published in 1866: it is an elegy, more specifically a pastoral elegy, occasioned by the death of Arnold’s friend and fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough five years earlier in Florence. “Thyrsis” is the third of the three great pastoral elegies in English poetry, the other two being Milton’s “Lycidas” and Shelley’s “Adonais.” But is “Thyrsis” a pastoral elegy in quite the same way that “Lycidas” and “Adonais” are? Over forty years ago, Richard Giannone was not sure that it is: “‘Thyrsis’ is something of an anomaly among pastoral elegies,” he wrote. “One could justifiably call it a pastoral elegy manqué in so far as Arnold stops considerably short of the kind of complete shaping of the poem according to the pastoral conventions one finds, say, in Spenser’s November eclogue or Astrophel, or in ‘Lycidas.’”3 Yet no one has followed up on Giannone’s questioning of the poem’s genre, which continues to seem self-evident to critics. In his still influential study of Arnold’s poetry, A. Dwight Culler distinguishes “Thyrsis” from “The Scholar-Gipsy,” to which it is frequently compared, by stressing its different generic identity: “The Scholar-Gipsy,” he says, is “primarily a Romantic dream-vision which creates an ideal figure who lives outside of time, whereas [‘Thyrsis’] is an elegy about a human figure who lived in time and was thereby destroyed” (p. 250). David Riede discusses “Thyrsis” along with “The Scholar-Gipsy” under the heading “Pastoral and Elegy,”4 and in the most recent commentary on the poem, Patrick Connolly reiterates the poem’s dependence on the “long [End Page 173] ancestral line” of pastoral elegy: “As a poem ‘Thyrsis’ falls within the pastoral elegy form, though this may not be obvious at first reading. Consequently it is dependent on a long ancestral line of such poetry from Shelley and Milton to Moschus and Theocritus.”5 This unproblematic classification of “Thyrsis” as a pastoral elegy has ensured that critics, by never looking at the poem from an alternative generic perspective, see only what they habitually expect to find in pastoral elegies instead of seeing what Arnold actually wrote.
“We often think of genre designation as one of the last acts a reader performs—and to some extent it is true that a work’s precise generic placement is often unclear until we have finished reading it,” says Peter Rabinowitz in Before Reading. “But some preliminary generic judgment is always required even before we begin the process of reading. We can never interpret entirely outside generic structures: ‘reading’—even reading of a first paragraph—is always ‘reading as.’”6 No poem, least of all one assumed to belong to so conventional a form as the pastoral elegy, stands “entirely outside generic structures,” and so when we read “Thyrsis” as a pastoral elegy, it is difficult to avoid succumbing to the force of generic conventions, the recognition that it is one of a family of similar poems, and thus to be led very quickly from what the individual work is actually saying to what we assume the generic structure to which it belongs is saying through the work. On the other hand, there is no possibility of not reading intertextually, since no work exists entirely outside generic conventions. So the question “Thyrsis” presents, then, is not whether to read it intertextually—there is no choice other than to do so—but rather what poems constitute the most relevant and illuminating inter-texts? Or, to pose the question another way: what kind of poem is “Thyrsis” and in what generic tradition(s) does it participate? Without denying its indisputable affiliations with the pastoral elegy (with “Lycidas” as its...