Annmarie Drury, “‘To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore’ (1849) and Matthew Arnold’s Poetic Questions”


In 1843 or 1844, Matthew Arnold saw a mother and child on a pier in Douglas, Isle of Man. This sighting connects to “To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore,” which appeared in 1849 in his first poetic collection, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems, where it is identified in the volume’s contents page under a slightly different title, “Stanzas on a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore, Douglas, Isle of Man.” This essay explores the poem from the perspective of lyric craft, beginning with its rhetorical strangeness and focusing on the young Arnold’s poetic experimentation. “Gipsy Child” is a lyric assay. It acknowledges Romantic antecedents while definitively diverging from them, particularly in how it deploys questions to transform the rhetorical identity of its speaker. Ultimately, the young Arnold asserts poetic authority through questioning – a gesture we can relate to the high value that Arnold later places on dialogue in other aspects of his work, as cultural critic and as inspector of schools. In terms of experience and representation, the rhetorical transformation in “Gipsy Child” raises questions about the relationship between real-world events and poetic fashioning.

Photo of Matthew Arnold

Photograph of Matthew Arnold

In 1843 or 1844, his brother Tom tells us, Matthew Arnold saw a mother and child on a pier in Douglas, Isle of Man, and this sighting became the basis for “To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore” (Tom Arnold 8): a venturesome poem, as I will argue, that diverges from the Romantic antecedents it acknowledges by deploying questions to destabilize and transform the rhetorical identity of its speaker. Tom Arnold’s mention of the poem in his brother’s obituary nearly forty years after it appeared in The Strayed Reveller (1849) suggests how “Gipsy Child” was admired in its time, but in modern scholarship the poem receives little attention. Some good critical discussion centers in its identity as one of a group of “Gypsy poems,” the others being “Resignation” (1849), “The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853), and “Thrysis” (1866). Lance Wilder, in an essay addressing all four poems, persuasively argues that “Gipsy Child” initiates a series that uses the alterity of the Gypsy, “a sort of wandering signifier,” to ponder questions about time and immortality (409). Such thematic interpretation illuminates the fluid value to Arnold of the Gypsies’ cultural foreignness, and yet a rhetorical strangeness in “Gipsy Child” remains unremarked. Antony Harrison understands the Gypsy to signify Arnold’s relationship with his readers, suggesting that the figure “develops as a proleptic metaphor for this relationship and for Arnold’s self-positioning in his prose works of cultural criticism” (122). I share Harrison’s interest in the Gypsy as a figure for audience, but my discussion focuses on how “Gipsy Child” operates as a lyric experiment. The poem’s questions mute its interlocutor, a “child” potentially in possession of his or her own human subjectivity, and turn its speaker into a lonely discourser. Pursuing a reading of “Gipsy Child” as a novel lyric experiment reveals a relationship between its dynamic interrogatory mode and the high value that the more mature Arnold assigns to dialogue in other aspects of his work, as cultural critic and as inspector of schools. It also discloses how “Gipsy Child” invites inquiry into the relationship between real-world events and poetic representation.

“Gipsy Child” begins with a question and values the confounding of an expectation of reply. Starting by asking is a loaded move, as John Hollander notes: “Opening questions in poetry can carry considerable figurative weight. At the very least, they may presuppose not the usual empty answer (for example, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or ‘Nobody’ or ‘Everybody’ or the like), but rather some hedged response, like ‘You may well ask!’” (Hollander 22). “Gipsy Child”’s interrogative opening—“Who taught this pleading to unpracticed eyes?”—places it within a nexus of poems extending well before and beyond the nineteenth century that begin by asking.[1] For such poems, the meaning of questioning matters very much. As Hollander remarks, “poetic questions” are always “tropes of interrogation and inquiry far more figurative than so-called rhetorical questions are” (64). In this opening-question mode, William Blake’s “The Tyger” is a Romantic antecedent for “Gipsy Child,” for not only does it begin with a query (“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night;/ What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”) that interrogates while inviting the reader to envision an addressee, but it also develops through questioning (1-4). Yet in addressing its “Tyger,” Blake’s poem insinuates from the start that the addressee—an animal, after all—will not reply, or that a response from the creature will propel us into otherworldliness. It also uses a phrase of its opening sentence to introduce its addressee before asking anything. “Gipsy Child,” on the other hand, articulates its question immediately, without the phrase of introduction characteristic of apostrophe (“O Wild West Wind!”; “Milton!”; “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”), and seems at its opening to adumbrate a real world—with its dateline-style indication of setting in “Douglas, Isle of Man”—and to address a figure, the “child” of the title, from whom a reply might reasonably be expected.

“Gipsy Child” abrogates the expectation of an answer by metamorphosing its speaker from an apparent sharer in dialogue to an isolated figure discoursing to an unhearing audience—or, to a wholly fictive one. This transformation differentiates “Gipsy Child” from “Tyger,” from the Romantic conversation poem, and from the conventional poem of apostrophe, for the project of Arnold’s poem is to enact this particular dynamism in speakerly identity. To see this, it will help to recall the poem’s structure.

A generative alternation between query and reflection characterizes its seventeen stanzas, which we can schematically divide into four sections. The first section, comprising the opening five stanzas, begins with a quatrain of questions:

Who taught this pleading to unpracticed eyes?
Who hid such import in an infant’s gloom?
Who lent thee, child, this meditative guise?
Who mass’d, round that slight brow, these clouds of doom? (1-4)

The next four stanzas ponder the child’s situation, turning attention to the surrounding scene (stanza two), to the child (stanza three), and, in stanza four, to the speaker as an inadequate source of comparative experience (“Glooms that go deep as thine I have not known,” 17). Thus the first section creates a sense of setting, suggests the presence of an addressee, and establishes the speaker’s desire to understand the child’s condition. The poem’s title and dateline nurture a sense of setting and occasion. Another version of the title, “Stanzas on a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore, Douglas, Isle of Man,” which appears in the contents of The Strayed Reveller (but not, in that volume, above the poem itself), was abandoned between 1851 and Poems, Second Series (1854);[2] it implied, with “stanzas on,” that the poem intended more to call the child to mind than to speak to the child. Arnold settled instead on the “to” suggestive of direct address.

The point here is not that a revision in title was unique to Arnold—John Keats inversely changed his title for “Ode on Melancholy,” for example (Keats 374n)—or that Arnold departs from his Romantic predecessors simply by being preoccupied with problems of intersubjectivity. It is that “Gipsy Child” inhabits these problems and illuminates their meaning in a quite novel way. When the poem chooses an addressee who might conceivably hear and answer—a child rather than an animal, an urn, the wind, or a dead person—and opens directly with a question, it assigns itself a project of making the addressee not answer, of dimming a counter-subjectivity. This project has implications for the speaker’s identity and for the relationship between poet and audience, since the meaning of the child for the speaker influences the meaning of the speaker for readers. In Arnold’s later poems—for although the timeline with his poetry is short, there is an earlier and a later—a mode of meditative self-inquiry becomes more fully established, and it might be tempting to impute to “Gipsy Child” the steadier rhetorical keel of Arnold’s subsequent work, reading it as simply a poem of self-questioning, if a rather awkward one. I propose that we resist this revisionary temptation and read “Gipsy Child” as rhetorically unsettled, understanding its unsettledness as a poetic gateway: in Arnold’s work, a gateway to the steadier meditative mode of such a poem as “Dover Beach,” roughly a middle-period poem on the short timeline, and a transitioning towards a mode of self-questioning as lyric dialogism.[3]

The second section of “Gipsy Child” (stanzas six to ten) opens, like the first section, with four questions, but now these are interspersed with possible answers. The speaker begins to talk to himself, while alluding to the circumstance of awaiting his interlocutor’s answer. The basic query, which the poem seems to address to its “child,” is whose condition of quiet sadness is comparable to yours? In response, the poem recruits various imaginary figures: someone in the mountains listening to “battle break below” (23), “some exile’s” (25), “some angel’s” (26), “stoic souls” (29), “some gray-haired king” (33). Yet none offers a suitable comparison. Pacing gains a dynamic variability in this second section, where the questions first come fast as the poem rejects its own replies:

What mood wears like complexion to thy woe?
His, who in mountain glens, at noon of day,
Sits rapt, and hears the battle break below?
–Ah! thine was not the shelter but the fray.

Some exile’s, mindful how the past was glad?
Some angel’s, in an alien planet born?
–No exile’s dream was ever half so sad,
Nor any angel’s sorrow so forlorn. (21-28)

Then the questions themselves start to grow. Stanza eight consists entirely of a question, as does stanza nine, which alludes to how the speaker yet awaits a reply, his interlocutor’s sharing of personal “lore”:

Or do I wait, to hear some gray-hair’d king
Unravel all his many-colour’d lore;
Whose mind hath known all arts of governing,
Mused much, loved life a little, loathed it more? (29-36)

The notion of an answer coming from the child-addressee has not been abandoned, but the poem now identifies it as a fanciful possibility. This stanza insinuates that the poem may offer stories about how its interlocutor might reply but will not offer dialogue.

In its final two sections, stanzas 11-14 and 15-17, “Gipsy Child” enters the territory of conventional apostrophe; its speaker addresses an entity who (the poem has now decided) cannot hear or respond. Stanza eleven crosses into an apostrophic mode by dividing itself between a two-line exclamation to the child and two questions:

O meek anticipant of that sure pain
Whose sureness gray-hair’d scholars hardly learn!
What wonder shall time breed, to swell thy strain?
What heavens, what earth, what sun shalt thou discern? (41-44)

As the poem’s final three stanzas cryptically articulate a prediction about the inevitable persistence of the child’s sadness, a volley of second-person pronouns (“thou,” 57; “thy,” 60; “thee,” 61; “thine,” 62; “thou,” 65; “thy,” 66, “thou,” 67) insists on the presence of a child-addressee, while the lines articulate thought too abstract and cryptic to “really” be addressed to a child. Now, four-fifths complete, the poem finds apostrophe. As this scheme in four parts demonstrates, the action of “Gipsy Child,” in many ways a poem of stasis—without physical movement, exchange of words, or even convincing epiphany—lies in experiment with the pace and mechanics of questioning and answering. How quickly will the questions and the answers come, from whom, and from what (observation? deduction? reflection?) will they derive?

Questions and answers raise the specter of conversation, and “Gipsy Child” has affiliations with the Romantic poems that are often called “conversation poems” and that M. H. Abrams classifies (broadening the group somewhat) as “greater Romantic lyric.” In its revelation of a speakerly self in transition, “Gipsy Child” resembles such poems as Samuel Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” or “Eolian Harp,” or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection.” Coleridge in particular sometimes invokes a tenuously present addressee (his “Dear Babe” in the former poem, “pensive Sara” in the latter) in a way that resonates with Arnold’s treatment of his “child.” Yet “Gipsy Child” differs from such poems in categorical ways, as Abrams’s description of the type shows. The “greater Romantic lyric,” he says:

begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. (Abrams 77)

In the insignificance of landscape for its speaker, in its insistent invocation of a specific addressee, in how it holds open the possibility for dialogue at its beginning, in the unabating centrality of question and answer, and in its privileging of rhetorical transformation, “Gipsy Child” does not fit the type—although it might be recognized as an innovation upon it, a reflexive poem that meditates, through its questions, on the nature of a questioning identity. There are different kinds of questions, “Gipsy Child” says, and the “same” question can be first one sort and then another; the poem’s ending casts a new tenor over the opening “[w]ho taught this pleading to unpracticed eyes?” which retrospectively gestures towards an unrealized possibility for dialogue and towards a lyrical road not taken.

Susan Wolfson remarks that questioning is “an informing activity of Romantic language” (21) and suggests that establishing authority through questioning is a gesture characteristic of Romantic poems (20-1). Besides its use of questions to transform the rhetorical identity of its speaker, what complicates Romantic affiliations in “Gipsy Child”—becoming a very Victorian feature of the poem—is the vocational significance of its lyrical experiment: how its experiment with questions connects to Arnold’s preoccupations in his jobs. As Hollander remarks, “[p]oems talk to, and of, themselves not to evade discourse about the rest of the world . . . but to enable it” (15), and for Arnold, son of a Rugby headmaster, the question of questions, the experimental task of discovering productive forms of address, became central to extra-poetic undertakings as a critic and as inspector of schools. Here, answers start to matter, inside poems and out, and thus dialogue matters as well. What kind of answer might a particular question invite, and from whom?

Arnold routinely had forms of address in mind when he cast his sharply evaluative eye over poetry. Excluding Empedocles from Etna from his volume of 1853, he made his well-known formulation of the shortcoming in extant pieces of Empedocles, that they offer a sterile and hopeless dialogue, “the dialogue of the mind with itself,” instead of “the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity” of earlier Greek poetry (Arnold, “Preface” 185). The imperfect parallelism in the two sides of Arnold’s equation—his explicit celebration of a series of characteristics in the Greek versus the terse formulation on the other side—intimates how important and how problematic a subject “dialogue” was. As he continues—“modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and Faust” (186)—Arnold asserts a connection between an undesirable form of dialogue and the emotional and intellectual struggles that were for him the hallmark of contemporaneity.

Less commonly remarked is how, around the time he wrote “Gipsy Child,” Arnold was perusing philosophical dialogues that ponder forms of address. His reading lists for the mid-1840s suggest he read Plato’s Menexenus late in 1845 and probably read the Phaedrus around this time (Allott 258-61). Menexenus is unusual among Plato’s writings in that the “dialogue” becomes occasion for presentation of a funeral speech that comprises the entire piece; Plato’s purposes in appropriating this Periclean oration (and allowing it to transfigure his own form of address) are still a subject of debate,[4] but clearly Menexenus thinks about rhetorical transformations. In the Phaedrus, Socrates offers two discourses on love that differ not only in content but in mode.[5] Circulating in Arnold’s notebooks later in his life is a remark on the purpose of dialectic from The Republic, which Arnold probably also read at this time, in 1845 (Allott 259), copied there at least three separate times: in 1876, 1885, and in an undated entry (Arnold, Note-Books 258, 419, 504). It comes as Socrates wonders if “the just have a better life than the unjust and are happier.” This is an essential question, Socrates asserts in the sentence Arnold quotes again and again: “For it is no ordinary matter we are discussing, but the right conduct of life.”[6] This remark so valued by Arnold implies that the right mode of dialogue can answer fundamental questions about the right way to live.

Thinking about productive forms of dialogue became a vocation in Arnold’s undertakings as inspector of schools, the position that earned him a living from 1851 until 1886. How good was the “answering” in a particular classroom?7 Was there enough questioning and answering? What sort of exchange between teacher and student was most productive? David Russell argues that for Arnold an ideal pedagogy depended upon an instructor’s calculated suspension of certainty in conversation with students:

He proposed an alternative pedagogy, one that eschewed knowledge and the power relations that attend it. Communication, for Arnold, becomes a matter of giving someone something they can use, rather than transmitting knowledge, or information, to them. This requires an unknowing relation in one’s encounters with others, whether the knowledge relinquished is of the nature of the other, or of the truths to be transmitted. (Russell 137-38)

Good pedagogical posture, like a poem, is crafted. In “Gipsy Child,” the instability of the speaker’s relationship with the “child” centers in the question that informs Arnold’s later vision of effective pedagogy: what form of address is most productive?

Puzzles of intersubjectivity—and an inquiry into the dialogue that enacts intersubjectivity in poetry and in lived experience—lie at the core of all these undertakings. Writing to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough late in 1847 or early in 1848, Arnold remarks on the challenge posed to poets by the accumulations of history. “The what you have to say depends on your age,” Arnold tells his friend—that is, on the epoch in which one lives—and later poets must assimilate more human experience than earlier poets. The task is hard: “The poet’s matter being the hitherto experience of the world, & his own, increases with every century. . . . For me you may often hear my sinews cracking under the effort to unite matter” (Arnold, Letters 78). As the formal restlessness of Arnold’s poems around this time reveals—“Gipsy Child” was written soon after “Cromwell,” his “dutiful” Newdigate Prize poem in heroic couplets (Murray 49), and George Saintsbury (24) remarked on how in The Strayed Reveller Arnold “makes for, and flits about, half-a-dozen different forms of verse”—this synthesis of “matter” entailed intensive negotiations in form. The rhetorical transformation within “Gipsy Child” comprises such negotiation.

Reading “Gipsy Child,” we might experiment ourselves by moving back in time and thinking about Arnold’s own conversations as a child with William Wordsworth, how Arnold first met the elder poet at the age of eight—coincidentally, the age of Wordsworth’s cottage child in “We are Seven”—and how encounters with him and Robert Southey were part of Arnold’s enjoyment of his family’s holiday home at Fox How (Murray 22, 31-2). Might that childhood experience of conversing with poets have complicated his reading of Wordsworth and his representation of the interlocutor in “Gypsy Child”? Did talking with poets as a child influence Arnold’s notions of poetic dialogue?

Arnold would have known Wordsworth’s poems of conversation with children, and to see a mode that “Gipsy Child” invokes but in which it does not share, we might read Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” (1798). Like Arnold’s poem, Wordsworth’s announces early an intent to address a “Child,” but Wordsworth’s interlocutor speaks, and her speech carries the poem. The opening stanzas pose a thematic problem (how can a child have any real understanding of the significance of death?) and communicate a sense of dramatic situation: the child’s age, her appearance, the rustic setting of the encounter:

– A Simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad. (1-12)

In the fourth stanza, dialogue gets under way, with a question from the poem’s speaker and an answer from the girl:

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said
And wondering looked at me. (13-16)

From here, the poem comprises dialogue between speaker and child. Repeatedly the speaker proposes to the girl that there are five children in her family, because two have died, and repeatedly the child asserts, “We are seven,” elaborating upon her argument until, near the end of the poem (stanzas 11-12), she tells how she knits and eats by the graves of her siblings and then (stanzas 13-15) narrates the death of a brother and sister.

Formally, “We Are Seven” has affinities with “Gipsy Child,” for while it is in ballad meter (alternating tetrameter and trimeter), its rhyme scheme (of a-b-a-b) and its length of seventeen stanzas are reiterated in Arnold’s poem. And Wordsworth also revised his poem to shift its form of address. In 1815, he changed the original opening line, “A simple child, dear brother Jim”—Coleridge’s line, as Wordsworth explained, from an opening that Coleridge “threw off” and that addressed their friend James Tobin (Wordsworth 947)—to the elliptically shortened line that makes the poem less occasional. These formal affinities give us a basis for comparing the two poems that extends beyond the presence in each of a child figure. Using U. C. Knoepflmacher’s terms, we can recognize the affinities as part of a “Wordsworthian matrix” in Arnold’s work that has the function of demurring: enabling “what essentially amounts to a denial of the vision of Arnold’s predecessor” (47). But the demurring here is centrally formal, rather than thematic.

Each poem has a basis in an actual encounter, Arnold’s in the occasion Tom relates and Wordsworth’s in a conversation in 1793 with a girl at Goodrich Castle (Wordsworth 947), but the artifice of the poems in representing lived experience differs. Wordsworth’s poem values the creation of a dramatic situation, and its description of the child—her age, her curls, her being “wildly dressed,” her eyes “fair, and very fair” and the impression of “beauty” made upon the speaker—serve this end. We are meant from the start to visualize the “Simple Child” and to carry an image of her into the conversation that ensues, in which the poem’s speaker has fewer (and less varied) words than the child. His remarks and questions elucidate her belief, and, as her responses grow more involved, the poem privileges the revelation of her experience.

“Gipsy Child” is quite different, both in what it values and how it communicates the valuation, and lying at the heart of the rhetorically strained impression the poem makes is its syntactically suspended penultimate sentence, which seals the speaker’s closing identity as a lonely discourser. Not only is there the situational problem (so different from the problem of “We Are Seven”) that a “child” would not be able to understand the abstractions addressed to it but there is also the way those very words sublimate the child figure: that is, how they switch the figure from a physically present auditor into a conceptual condition of the poem. The sentence’s repeated “though” becomes a lever propelling the poem away from its child figure, implying that the poem has something to say without the listener and forcing the reader into an uncomfortable syntactic and conceptual suspension:

And though thou glean, what strenuous gleaners may,
In the throng’d fields where winning comes by strife;
And though the just sun gild, as mortals pray,
Some reaches of thy storm-vext stream of life;

Though that blank sunshine blind thee; though the cloud
That sever’d the world’s march and thine, be gone;
Though ease dulls grace, and Wisdom be too proud
To halve a lodging that was all her own—

Once, ere the day decline, thou shalt discern,
Oh once, ere night, in thy success, thy chain! (57-66)

What success and what chain? a reader of this penultimate sentence might well ask. The poem has changed its rhetorical orientation towards the situation and scene with which it began, opening into a world without dialogue and into a figurative landscape where “Douglas, Isle of Man” has little relevance as a locale.

Accomplishing this re-orientation, the poem destabilizes itself. Virginia Jackson remarks that “where or who ‘you’ are makes a difference in, among other things, historical questions of genre” (119), and as “Gipsy Child” thinks through forms of address, invoking a possible mode of dialogue that it then rejects, it discovers a project of changing its interlocutor from a character, a person in the poem, into a circumstance, a condition of it. Involved in a radical transformation of the where and who of its “you,” it becomes a difficult poem to classify.

This destabilization separates it from other poems and poetic modes that it invokes. Wordsworth’s “To H. C. Six Years Old,” for example, addresses a child, but is a conventional poem of apostrophe that lacks the rhetorical transformation of “Gipsy Child.” From its first lines, “To H. C.” offers an accumulation of apostrophic exclamations which communicate that its addressee will not answer:

O thou! whose fancies from afar are brought;
Who of thy words dost make a mock apparel,
And fittest to unutterable thought
The breeze-like motion and the self-born carol;
Thou faery voyager! (1-5)

Further, while “To H. C.” bears a thematic resemblance to “Gipsy Child” in its pondering of a child’s future, it does not share Arnold’s interrogative mode. Wordsworth’s poem contains but one question, three-quarters of the way through, of a simple variety: “What hast thou to do with sorrow,/ Or the injuries of tomorrow?/ Thou art a dew-drop, which the morn brings forth” (25-7). This is a rhetorical question embedded in a poem; we see at once that the answer is very little.

Perhaps we might attempt to identify “Gipsy Child” as a poem of apostrophe based on its late movement into that mode. But if we accept the definition of apostrophe as “[p]oetic address, especially to unhearing entities, whether these be abstractions, inanimate objects, animals, infants, or absent or dead people” (Waters 61), its significant innovation upon the type becomes evident. The child as first addressed by the poem seems to be a hearing (and potentially speaking) entity; Arnold highlights the possibility of response by making this addressee pointedly a “child” (who might understand and answer), not an “infant” (who would not), although accounts suggest that his real-world encounter was with an infant too young for speech. Tom Arnold writes that the child seen on the Isle of Man was held in its mother’s arms “looking backwards over her shoulder” (Tom Arnold 8), as a baby might be, and Ian Hamilton identifies the child as a “baby girl” (Hamilton 90). It is interesting to note an apparent inconsistency—the poem’s use of “child” even as evidence suggests “infant” may have been the more accurate Victorian designation—in light of Arnold’s eventual work as inspector of schools, where he scrupulously drew a distinction between those terms.[8] In choosing “child,” Arnold entertains the possibility that this addressee might listen and reply.

How old was the child, and how old is the child? As Tom Arnold’s account reminds us, “Gipsy Child” raises questions about the relationship between events and poetic representation. His remarks provide the clearest evidence we have of a relationship between the poem and his brother’s real-world experience. Yet uncertainty inheres even here: over when the encounter happened, over how long after it he began to write, over precisely what he saw. The poem’s rhetorical shift from an opening suggestion of situation and dialogue toward a climax centered in interiority and lonely discourse asks us to think about the relationship between outside and inside, posing a query about how and how much encounters in the external world matter for a poet. We do not have to put the remark in its crudest form (he tries to talk to a child, and all he can do is think his own thoughts) to see the problem the poem ponders: in what sense will the poem make the encounter matter? And, corollary to that: in what sense is poetic “encounter” an encounter at all? These inquiries lie within the “You may well ask!” that Hollander imputes to an opening question. With Arnold’s predecessors in mind, we can frame the inquiry another way. What, for “Gypsy Child,” is the “event” that Coleridge and Wordsworth made so central to lyric poetry? We have some evidence that Arnold at some point noticed a child in Douglas, Isle of Man. Is that sighting the event? Is the event the conversion of such a sighting into poetic encounter? How does the rhetorical transformation within the poem relate to “real-world” happenings?

Jackson’s observation that over-determined narratives of lyric development obscure a complex process of poetic contention with the problems of addressing others suggests how we might value “Gipsy Child” as a poem of lyric transition: “What has been left out of most thinking about the process of lyricization is that it is an uneven series of negotiations of many different forms of circulation and address,” she writes (Jackson 8). “Gipsy Child” inhabits precisely such complexity and might be envisioned, if not as a point on a timeline, then as one among a nexus of lyric gateways. If we say that the poem participates in a recurring “theme of conscious tragedy” (Trilling 96), or that it uses the culturally foreign figure of the Gypsy to ponder problems of estrangement, then considering the poem’s constitutive formal problem and action—its struggle with intersubjectivity and its consequent assay in lyric practice—can only enlarge our understanding. For Arnold, the formal struggle and experiment relate to the conditions of tragedy and alienation: to his conviction that an ideal relationship among author, text, and audience had been lost and to a growing sense that English poets could no longer speak to their society in germane ways, that practice of the art assured their status as ineffectual outsiders. “Gipsy Child” discovers an idiosyncratic mode as it transforms its questioning speaker into a lonely discourser. “By ‘lyric’ I mean the illusion in an artwork of a singular voice or viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own,” writes T. J. Clark. In the poetic metamorphoses it fashions out of a seaside experience of (perhaps) 1843, “Gipsy Child” directs our attention to the illusion of “a singular voice. . . laying claim to a world,” and so it becomes a poem in which we hear “sinews cracking.”

Annmarie Drury is Assistant Professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, where she specializes in Victorian literature and culture. She is the author of Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry, forthcoming in 2015 from Cambridge University Press, and the translator of Stray Truths: Selected Poems of Euphrase Kezilahabi, forthcoming in 2015 from Michigan State University Press. Many of her own poems appear in The Paris Review, Raritan, and other publications.


Drury, Annmarie. “‘To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore’ (1849) and Matthew Arnold’s Poetic Questions.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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—. “Notes made in Arnold’s capacity as Inspector of Schools.” Matthew Arnold Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University=. GEN MSS 867, box 2.

—. “Preface to Poems, Edition of 1853.” The Portable Matthew Arnold. Ed. Lionel Trilling. New York: Viking, 1949. 185-202. Print.

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[1] Among the poems that Hollander (23-40) enumerates are many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, canto 4, book 3 of Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene (“Where is the Antique glory now become,/ That whilome wont in women to appeare?”), and the young George Herbert’s sonnet that opens, “My God, where is that ancient heat towards Thee/ Wherewith whole shoals of martyrs once did burn/ Besides their other flames?”

[2] First editions bear the date 1855, but the volume actually appeared in December 1854 (Murray 146). Murray identifies August 1843 as the probable date of composition for “Gipsy Child” but suggests 1845 would also be possible (49, 50).

[3] The relatively short chronology for Arnold’s writing (as distinct from publication) of poetry runs from the early 1840s until about 1860, from which year he scarcely wrote poems. While the date of composition for “Dover Beach” is not known with certainty, 1851 is generally accepted as likely, situating the poem near the middle of the timeline.

[4] Ekaterina V. Haskins writes that “many agree that Menexenus serves as both a condemnation of Athenian democracy in its current state and an indictment of the very language that perpetuates the vanity and insolence of Athenian citizens and the Athenian foreign policy.” She argues, further, that Plato employs conventions of the funeral speech as part of a project to “construct the identity of a philosopher” (26, 27).

[5] At first, under the influence of a speech repeated to him by Phaedrus, he compares the value of the “lover” and the “nonlover” to find the lover lacking. His second speech, a “recantation” (Socrates 502) of the first, enters into a metaphorical mode (his figure of the soul as two horses and a charioteer is important here) to extol love.

[6] Arnold quotes in Greek. I use the translation of Paul Shorey (602-3); the passage is from Book I, 352d.

[7] The term appears in Arnold’s papers in the Beinecke Library, Yale University, in autograph notes (GEN MSS 867, box 2). It seems here to be used by a colleague of Arnold’s, who remarks on the quality of the “answering in History” at a school in Bethnal Green.

[8] Arnold drew the distinction between “infant” and “child,” for example, in a letter to the Daily News in March of 1862. Objecting to the Revised Code that aimed to make school funding dependent upon examination results, he writes: “In London, in a school filled with the children (not infants) of poor weavers of Spitalfields, every child will under the Revised Code be examined by the Inspector” (Arnold, Collected Prose 246).