‘The Gypsy’ by Edward Thomas is a twenty-eight line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines conform to a specific rhyme scheme that follows the pattern of AABBCCDD, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. There is not a specific metrical pattern to the poem though. The lines vary slightly, stretching from ten to around thirteen or fourteen syllables each. This gives them a fairly uniform look on the page, but also allows Thomas a little more freedom in his narrative while also giving the poem a loose structure.
The poem begins with the speaker talking to one gypsy woman. He ends up giving her some tobacco, but wishes he had given her more, especially after hearing her brother play. The majority of the poem is focused on the sights and sounds around the woman’s brother. He stamps his feet and sings and plays the “mouth-organ.” The speaker describes the festivities in the camp as “Bacchanal.”
In the last lines, the speaker wishes that he could’ve thanked the family sufficiently for the way he was transported out of his life and into an emotional, dark, and intense mental landscape. This experience has given him something to write about, and he can’t pay them back for that.
One interesting technique used by Thomas in ‘The Gypsy’ is caesura. This is a way of increasing the rhythm of a text by dividing a line into two equal sections. These are usually separated by a comma, but not necessarily so. One example is in line three, “’Over the hills and far away.”’ Another is in line thirteen with, “Gratitude for her grace. And I paid nothing then.” These moments are especially important when there is not one standard metrical pattern.
Alliteration is also present in the text. There are a few isolated examples that add poignancy to those particular moments. A few interesting examples are “wastes, women” in the second line, “Christmas corpses” in line twenty-one, and “fair, farmer” in line nineteen.
Analysis of The Gypsy
A fortnight before Christmas Gypsies were everywhere:
Vans were drawn up on wastes, women trailed to the fair.
‘My gentleman,’ said one, ‘you’ve got a lucky face.’
‘And you’ve a luckier,’ I thought, ‘if such grace
And impudence in rags are lucky.’ ‘Give a penny
For the poor baby’s sake.’ ‘Indeed I have not any
Unless you can give change for a sovereign, my dear.’
In the first lines of ‘The Gypsy’ the speaker begins by stating a simple fact, that two weeks before Christmas there were Gypsies everywhere. The next lines take the reader through lines of conversation that the speaker has with a woman, and the sights he takes in while watching the group.
When he passed by, one woman addressed him as “gentleman.” She told him that he had a “lucky face.” The speaker returned the comment but added onto the end that he isn’t sure that the luck is real considering that it exists within “rags.” This tells the reader something about both the speaker and the gypsy addressing him.
The woman, undeterred asks if he could give a penny for “the poor baby’s sake.” These lines show that the men and women traveling in this caravan are quite poor. They need to beg to make ends meet. The man declines to make a donation to the woman and her child. He says he only has a “sovereign” and would need change, something he can’t provide.
‘Then just half a pipeful of tobacco can you spare?’
I gave it. With that much victory she laughed content.
I should have given more, but off and away she went
With her baby and her pink sham flowers to rejoin
The rest before I could translate to its proper coin
Gratitude for her grace. And I paid nothing then,
As I pay nothing now with the dipping of my pen
The next question is about tobacco. The woman hopes that he might have “half a pipeful.” When he gave it over, she laughed. This was a simple victory for her and develops the character of the man further. He is clearly not without sympathy.
He thinks to himself that he would’ve liked to have given the woman more but she went off with her baby after this brief exchange. The woman is described as wearing “pink sham,” or fake, flowers.
The speaker took something from this encounter, an experience he found to be valuable. He was unable to pay her properly for what he learned from her and from her “grace.” This is seen through the metaphor of translating to “coin.” He did not pay her anything then, and moving to the present as he writes this poem, he pays nothing “now.”
For her brother’s music when he drummed the tambourine
And stamped his feet, which made the workmen passing grin,
While his mouth-organ changed to a rascally Bacchanal dance
‘Over the hills and far away.’ This and his glance
Outlasted all the fair, farmer, and auctioneer,
Cheap-jack, balloon-man, drover with crooked stick, and steer,
Pig, turkey, goose, and duck, Christmas corpses to be.
The lines which follow speak to the music that the gypsies played in the camp. From afar he saw the woman’s brother and heard him drum his “tambourine.” He stamped his feet and caught the attention of passing “workmen.” There is an interesting contrast within these lines between the speaker, or those passing by the scene, and the gypsy group. Everyone on the outside takes pleasure from seeing these men and women who are “rascally.”
In line three the speaker describes the man who has played his “mouth-organ.” This is a reference to a whole family of instruments, of which a harmonica is one. The dance the brother is playing is described as “Bacchanal.” This is a term that fits perfectly into the scene, but also stands out. It could only have come from someone on the outside looking in. It refers to the god Bacchus who is well-known for his wild and drunken state. The word speaks to revelry and celebration. Line four contains a phrase from the song.
Within lines 19-21 a reader gets a clear image of how much the speaker got from the encounter with the gypsy family. When he looked at the brother he saw so much more than one man. There was something about him, embodied through the dance, song, and most importantly his eyes, that caught the speaker’s attention. When he tries to think of someone similar, he is unable. The man “Outlasted all the fair,” or beautiful. He also surpassed every other kind of person one might think of. Including the “balloon-man” and “Cheap-jack.”
The speaker’s comparison moves beyond people, and into the Christmas season. There is something more vibrant and real about the man than any of the “Christmas corpses” which are soon to be present throughout the city.
Not even the kneeling ox had eyes like the Romany.
That night he peopled for me the hollow wooded land,
More dark and wild than the stormiest heavens, that I searched and scanned
Like a ghost new-arrived. The gradations of the dark
Were like an underworld of death, but for the spark
In the Gypsy boy’s black eyes as he played and stamped his tune,
‘Over the hills and far away,’ and a crescent moon.
In the final seven lines, the speaker moves onto another animal, the “kneeling ox.” It has interesting eyes, but not like “the Romany.” Romany refers to an ethnic group, usually of South Asian origin. The word “Gypsy” is generally to the speaker about this segment of the population.
The speaker finally clears up what exactly it was that so moved him about this encounter. It was not the brother himself, but the way he was able to transport the speaker out of his mundane world and into one that was “More dark and wild than the stormiest heavens.” For a time, he could visit, like “a ghost new-arrived” a dark, and perhaps perilous place. The “spark” in the gypsy’s eyes was one of only two lights in the darkness. It, along with the “crescent moon,” guided the speaker and kept him anchored as he was emotionally transported.
Now, the speaker is able to write on this experience and what it meant to him to feel the “hollow wooded land” become “peopled.” The only regret he has is that he couldn’t pay the group sufficiently for this experience. It isn’t exactly money he wishes for, but something of equivalent value.