Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
Author: J. J. Anderson

This book is an open-ended critical account of the Gawain-poems. The four poems of MS Cotton Nero A.x, Art. 3 are untitled in the manuscript, but titled by modern editors, in manuscript order: Pearl, Cleanness (or Purity), Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poems testify that he was cultivated, with an appreciation of the finer points of chivalric life, and also deeply religious - a cleric, no doubt, given his biblical knowledge, his interest in Christian doctrine, and his understanding of sermon style. Pearl is a religious dream-vision in which the dream is largely taken up by dialogue between the narrator or dreamer, as a figure in his dream, and a woman who is a fount of divine wisdom. Cleanness combines discussion of a religious virtue with retelling of stories from the Bible. Its three main stories are from the Old Testament, and they centre on Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Belshazzar's feast. Patience is a poem that combines discussion of a moral quality with biblical narrative, in the case of Patience, one narrative only, the story of Jonah.Sir Gawain is a record of, and tribute to, the beauties and pleasures of chivalric life. Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience suggest that for the poet national events may have merged with events in his own life to challenge his faith. With Gawain too it is possible that the public and the personal intermingle to shake his faith in chivalry and the feudal model of social order.

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J. J. Anderson

The four poems of MS Cotton Nero A.x, Art. 3, are untitled in the manuscript, but titled by modern editors, in manuscript order Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poems testify that he was cultivated, with an appreciation of the finer points of chivalric life, and also deeply religious - a cleric, no doubt, given the poet's biblical knowledge, his interest in Christian doctrine, and his understanding of sermon style. This chapter considers these poems, taking account of relevant literary and intellectual contexts where the poems signpost them, especially the Bible. Between them they see God, implicitly, in terms of the traditional opposition between his justice and his mercy, an opposition often expressed in literature by the motif of the debate of the four daughters of God, which has the personified Justice and Truth arguing for divine justice, Mercy and Peace for divine mercy.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems
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The last shall be first
J. J. Anderson

Pearl is a religious dream-vision in which the dream is largely taken up by dialogue between the narrator or dreamer, as a figure in his dream, and a woman who is a fount of divine wisdom. It does not engage significantly with the fourteenth century. Its interest lies rather in relating Christian doctrine to universal life-experience, and particularly in the problem that some of the basic tenets of that doctrine fly in the face of basic human instincts and attitudes. The narrative of Pearl is multi-layered, with the poet creating a dreamer-figure separate from himself whose attitudes differ significantly before, in, and after his dream. If the dreamer is to be taken as a representative figure for all humanity then the poem demonstrates that the ways of God can never be justified to men, for the distance between God and man is too great to be bridged.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems
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The wages of sin
J. J. Anderson

Cleanness combines discussion of a religious virtue with retelling of stories from the Bible. Its three main stories are from the Old Testament, and they centre on Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Belshazzar's feast. All three have a number of episodes. The overarching structure of the poem is based on the pattern of alternating passages of discussion and narrative. The discussions not only link the narratives to each other and reiterate the importance of cleanness; each also draws attention to a particular aspect of cleanness which the story it introduces highlights. Cleanness offers only an abstract discussion of penance, and a shadowy instance of it in action, showing it not as forestalling God's punishment but following it. It uses its considerable length not to develop its opening message, examine it, or move on from it, but to drive it home.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems
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The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away
J. J. Anderson

Patience is a poem that combines discussion of a moral quality with biblical narrative, in the case of Patience, one narrative only, the story of Jonah. It is reader-friendly and engaging. In both poems human beings are at odds with God, but the outcomes are very different. Patience sets out to explore the meaning of the virtue of its title. Through its God, the poem exemplifies and explains a more spiritual view of patience which the narrator gives no sign of understanding. The reader is led to suspect that his total lack of comment on Jonah's second lesson indicates that he is not only out of sympathy with Jonah but himself does not understand God's forgiveness of the Ninevites. Patience does not end with a prayer, a confirming sign, perhaps, that its narrator is meant to be seen as not attuned to spiritual matters.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems
The beautiful lie
J. J. Anderson

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a record of, and tribute to, the beauties and pleasures of chivalric life. Gawain tells the story of a fearsome green-skinned knight who rides into King Arthur's court, and issues a challenge: will one of them strike a blow at him with his axe, and agree to receive a return blow in a year's time? Chivalry is presented throughout as offering an attractive front to the world with nothing solid underpinning it. In life as well as in literature, chivalry emphasises the importance of polite and honourable behaviour and speech, lavish display, and other external manifestations. The confessions in the last part of the poem point to a fundamental difference between the secular chivalric and the Christian ethical systems. The games and the glamour end in Morgan, and the code of honour leaves Gawain, the pearl of knights, a broken man.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems
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The poet and his times
J. J. Anderson

This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the four poems discussed in this book. It indicates how often they convey a sense of urgency in the speeches, a sense of drama in the situations. Pearl is the test case. Of the four poems it is stylistically the most ornate, metrically the most complex, the one in which 'art' is most in evidence. Pearl combines a language of great expressive potential with a demanding poetic form. The language of Cleanness conveys an intense reaction against filth, in which physical and metaphysical notions of filth are inextricably mixed. The message of God's love is present in Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience too, but the poet shows no confidence that people can grasp it. With Gawain too it is possible that the public and the personal intermingle to shake his faith in chivalry and the feudal model of social order.

in Language and imagination in the Gawain-poems