The speaker of "The Scholar-Gipsy" describes a beautiful rural setting in the pastures, with the town of Oxford lying in the distance. He watches the shepherd and reapers working amongst the field, and then tells the shepherd that he will remain out there until sundown, enjoying the scenery and studying the towers of Oxford. All the while, he will keep his book beside him.
His book tells the famous story by Joseph Glanvill, about an impoverished Oxford student who leaves his studies to join a band of gypsies. Once he was immersed within their community, he learned the secrets of their trade.
After a while, two of the Scholar-Gipsy's Oxford associates found him, and he told them about the traditional gypsy style of learning, which emphasizes powerful imagination. His plan was to remain with the gypsies until he learned everything he could, and then to tell their secrets to the world.
Regularly interjecting his own wonder into the telling, the speaker continues the scholar-gipsy's story. Every once in a while, people would claim to have seen him in the Berkshire moors. The speaker imagines him as a shadowy figure who is waiting for the "spark from heaven," just like everyone else on Earth is. The speaker even claims to have seen the scholar-gipsy himself once, even though it has been over two hundred years since his story first resonated through the halls of Oxford.
Despite that length of time, the speaker does not believe the scholar-gipsy could have died, since he had renounced the life of mortal man, including those things that wear men out to death: "repeated shocks, again, again/exhaust the energy of strongest souls." Having chosen to repudiate this style of life, the scholar-gipsy does not suffer from such "shocks," but instead is "free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt." He has escaped the perils of modern life, which are slowly creeping up and destroying men like a "strange disease."
The speaker finishes by imploring that the scholar-gipsy avoid everyone who suffers from this "disease," lest he become infected as well.
Though this poem explores one of Arnold's signature themes - the depressing monotony and toil of modern life - it is unique in that it works through a narrative. There are in fact two levels of storytelling at work in the poem: that of the scholar-gipsy, and that of the speaker who is grappling with the ideas poised by that singular figure.
Both levels of story relay the same message: the scholar-gipsy has transcended life by escaping modern life. As he usually does, Arnold here criticizes modern life as wearing down even the strongest of men. His choice of the word "disease" is telling, since it implies that this lifestyle is contagious. Even those who try to avoid modern life will eventually become infected.
In this way, the poem makes a comment on the perils of conformity, as other poems in this collection do. What make the scholar-gipsy so powerful is not only that he wishes to avoid modern life - many wish to do that. More importantly, he is willing to entirely repudiate normal society for the sake of his transcendence. There is a slightly pessimistic worldview implicit in that idea, since it is clearly not possible to revel in true individuality and still be a part of society. The scholar-gipsy has had to turn his back entirely on Oxford, which represents learning and modernity here, in order to become this great figure. And yet the poem overall is much more optimistic than many of Arnold's works, precisely because it suggests that we can transcend if we are willing to pay that cost. This makes it different from a poem like "A Summer Night," which explores the same theme but laments the cost of separation that individuality requires.
For all his admiration, the speaker clearly has not yet mustered the strength to repudiate the world. The setting helps establish his contradictory feelings. The poem begins with images of peaceful, serene rural life, a place where men act as they always have. They have been untouched by the perils of modernity. Pastoral imagery has always been associated in poetry with a type of innocence and purity, unfiltered humanity in touch with nature. The speaker is out in the field contemplating this type of life, the possibility of acting as the scholar-gipsy did.
And yet he is also studying the towers of Oxford, which (as mentioned above) represents the rapidly changing, strictly structured world that the scholar-gipsy renounced. Arnold deftly expresses the speaker's split priorities through this juxtaposition. At the same time that he admires the scholar-gipsy, he cannot fully turn his back on the modern world. It is the same contradiction that plagues the speaker of "A Summer Night."
Thus, the poem overall represents Arnold's inner conflict, his desire to live a transcendent life but inability to totally eschew society. At this point in his life, Arnold felt pulled in different directions by the world's demands. He was trying to resist the infection of modernization, but it was creeping up on him nevertheless, and the pressure to conform was negatively affecting his poetry. Undoubtedly, Arnold wished he could escape in the way the scholar-gipsy did; however, he was too tied down by responsibilities to ever dream of doing so.