Middle English Romances: The Gawain Poet

Out of the northwestern wilds, from Lancashire or western Yorkshire, emerged the unnamed figure of another great poet, one whose masterpiece, Gawain and the Green Knight, is the most exquisitely wrought and proportioned, in some respects the greatest, poem in Middle English. Three other poems–Patience, Purity, The Pearl – are ostensibly from the same hand, and perhaps a fourth, the charming saint’s legend of St. Erken-wald. In spite of much guessing, conjecture, and research, the poet’s name and identity are still unknown; he is usually called “the Gawain poet.” His language is difficult for the modern reader on account of his dialect, which, though it is touched with artificial modifications, is essentially the obscure language of fourteenth-century Yorkshire or Lancashire. Yet in his work, the poet unconsciously gives the reader a most intimate sense of his personal quality.

What seem to be his earlier poems, Patience and Purity, are homiletic works. But the good medieval preacher had invariably to be a good storyteller. Hence Patience is chiefly occupied with a lively version of the story of Jonah (oddly enough not Job, as one would expect) full of vivid details. In the storm passengers in a panic throw overboard Her [their] bagges, & her fether beddes, & her bryht wedges, together with chests, coffers, and chains; and the whale rises to Jonah while the folk still hold him by the feet. Into the huge throat, he slips, “like a mote in a minster door.”

Purity is a longer poem of the same sort, urging not only chastity but purity in the larger sense of general sinlessness, on the text, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” But sincere as is the poet’s suasion, the poem is really a cluster of Bible stories–the parable of the wedding of the King’s son, the stories of the Flood, of the burning of Sodom, and of Belshazzar’s feast and the writing on the wall. The poet’s range has broadened, his stroke is more dexterous and effective. The terrible storm of the flood is set forth true to English tradition from the Old English Exodus down; but we find also a charming idyll of Abraham in the shade of an oak at his “house-door,” and a resplendent spectacle of the Temple and its fittings, all in ornate Gothic style, glittering with metal and precious stones.

More moving, and more mysterious, is The Pearl. The poet possessed a rarely beautiful pearl which one day slipped down into the grass of a fair garden and was lost. In agony day after day, he visited the flowery spot and mourned at the mound where she sank into the dark mould. Worn out at last with grief and self-pity, he fell into a deep slumber, and his soul was borne in a dream to the fair summer country of the Earthly Paradise. As he hurried in his excitement along the turfy bank of a river, he caught sight, on the farther bank, of his lost Pearl, dearer to him “than aunt or niece,” a maiden arrayed all in white and pearls. Dismay, shame, fear, joy struck him dumb, till she smilingly made as if to speak. Then his incoherent feelings burst forth in a torrent, until she gently rebuked him, and showed him the way of peace in forgetting himself and accepting God’s way.

As his soul clears, she directs him up along the river till he gains a little hilltop. There the gleaming City of God bursts upon his sight, and, like the full moon rising at twilight, emerges the vast procession of the redeemed, the Pearl rejoicing among them.

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They walked with joy beyond compare
The golden road that shone like glass;
A hundred thousand I thought they were,
And all alike their raiment was.
Hard to tell the happiest there.
In front the Lamb with stately pace
His seven golden horns doth bear;
And priceless pearls his garments grace.
Thus to the throne, they move apace,
Not thronged but ranked in even plight,
And mild as maidens seem at mass;
So walk they forth in great delight.

Transported with the vision the poet plunges forward to cross the river but is thrust back, and wakes with his head on the very mound where he had lost his Pearl. But his life is now transformed into patient service and expectation of reunion with her in eternal joy.

Some have maintained that this poem is a mere allegorical fiction to convey certain theological ideas or various phases of religious experience. But the very intense and impassioned quality of the poem, reflecting as it does the type of mind deeply preoccupied with its own state and experience, are more than a mere conventional literary fiction can contain.

Impassioned as the poet was, his poem is so symmetrical in form and so conventional in its elements that, without his intensity to fill it and make it real, it would seem purely artificial. The metre is a rigid twelve-line stanza, one hundred and one of them, strictly and elaborately rhymed, in groups of five, and linked together with a common phrase or cadence. The poem is a composite of medieval literary device–the dream, the debate, the allegorical disguise of the pearl, homiletic and theological exposition, insistence on chivalric virtues, and adorations in chivalric terms. Clearly, the author was highly sophisticated in literature. He may indeed have known the New Life in which Dante mourns his lost lady or Boccaccio’s lament for his little daughter in his eclogue called Olympias.

But, in Gawain and the Green Knight he attains his full stature. Here the seasoned and sophisticated poet has taken popular matter and the common popular form of the romance as composers select folk songs and has transformed them into a great work of art.

The story opens with a New Year festival at Camelot, when in rides a huge green knight, all in gorgeous green trappings, on a green horse. “Who will chop off my head with this green axe, and let me chop off his, at the green chapel, a year hence?” All are dismayed and silent.

Then young Gawain accepts the challenge and swings a great blow. Across the floor leaps the head; the body strides after it, vaults to the saddle, and with a laughing reminder of the contract, is gone.

In their fair courses, the seasons pass and the year wears on till November and All Saints. Then Gawain makes ready for his journey to keep the New Year tryst. Long, lonely, and cheerless it is, into the wild mountains of north Wales along the Menai Straits and into the desolation of Wirral. Homesick he is plodding through the driving sleet on Christmas Eve when he comes upon a fair castle.

At the castle of Bercilak de Hautdesert, he finds a hearty welcome and luxurious comfort. In the late afternoon it rises before him out of its moat, a square mass of cut stone, breaking, above its corbels, into countless battlements, towers, loop-holes, chimneys, and pinnacles. At the bridge, he is greeted courteously by knights and squires, and brought into the great hall, where a fire blazes on the hearth; and then to his “bower.” His bed is hung and covered with pure silk, hemmed with gold, and bordered with fur. French and Turkish carpets adorn the walls and cover the floor. Wrapped snugly in an ermine-lined mantle he sinks into a richly cushioned chair before the fire, until his bath is ready. Then he sits down to a supper of many courses and highly spiced sauces, graced with white linen, silver service, and courteous badinage. After evensong in the chancel, he meets the lady of the castle, lovelier than Guinevere; salutes her with a well-bred kiss, and speaks with knightly courtesy, asking that he may be her servant; and so to a long evening of games, and spiced wine, and pleasantries in hall.

The bluff and brawny Lord of the Castle, rejoicing to have so distinguished a guest, makes a playful contract with Gawain. Each day he goes hunting, while Gawain rests in bed. At night each is to give the other his day’s quarry. On successive days the man brings home a deer, a boar, a fox. On successive days, in his absence, his Lady comes to Gawain’s bed and tempts him. He parries her, at first timidly like the deer, next day fiercely like the boar at bay, the third day with fox-like wiles. Each day she kisses him. Each night Gawain gives his host hearty busses in exchange for the quarry. But the third day he is weak enough to accept the lady’s gift of a wound-proof girdle.

The New Year is at hand, and he must now be off for his tryst with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel. On the very day he is led to a desolate snow-filled .hollow among the cliffs; and deserted by all, he comes at last upon a chapel of turf. Out strides the Green Knight, axe in hand; Gawain kneels, and the blow falls, but it stayed. Poor Gawain flinches. A second time the falling axe is stayed, but this time he does not waver. The third blow wounds him slightly, and he springs, with nerves overwrought, to defence. But the Green Knight coolly explains that he was Gawain’s recent host, Bercilak de Hautdesert; that Morgan the enchantress, Arthur’s half-sister, had devised the whole plot; that Gawain’s one error in accepting the lady’s protecting girdle had cost him the little wound. Gawain, with mingled shame and happy relief, refuses to return as Bercilak’s guest and makes his long, lonely way back to Camelot.

Such in brief is the story. It employs various traditional elements of old romance, quest and adventure, courtesy, love; but two old themes of chivalry the poet has wrought into a close-fitting whole–the challenge and the temptation–and has united them by many logical bonds of character and action. These motives seem to have come to the poet through his knowledge of French romance, which in turn derived them from older Celtic legend. Some scholars go so far as to assume a lost French original from which Gawain and the Green Knight was adapted. But if such an original were discovered, it would probably not impair the credit of the Gawain poet any more than Holinshed impairs that of Shakespeare.

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Not only is the poem closely coherent, but it shows the same nice symmetry as The Pearl. The 2500 lines fall into four “fits” or acts, the first and fourth devoted to the challenge, and enclosing the two devoted to the temptation. The third act includes three skilfully varied scenes in which each day’s temptation is enveloped in the story of the day’s hunt. And the whole poem is neatly brought round at the end to the point of beginning.

In metre it is less rigid than The Pearl–in varied unrhymed long stanzas of alliterative verse, each rounded off with “bob and wheel,” a short quatrain attached to the stanza by a three-syllable phrase.

Alliterative verse is usually beset with sins of prolixity and tortured artificial phrase; but this poet’s energy of imagination rises above these faults, and fills his line with natural music in unison with his thought and feeling. For he delights in many things–in good cheer, fair raiment, rich furnishings, fine manners, in the change of seasons, in all details of the hunt, in the moss-green Welsh winter forest of oak and hawthorn, in lonely mountain glades muffled in snow, in the delicate parry of playful talk. He well understands certain issues of warfare in the human soul; to him, sin is extraneous filth; and its opposite is steadfast, active endurance, as adorable to him as it was to Milton. These issues he has wrought into the highly dramatic and very human scenes of the romance, particularly in the closing scene between Bercilak and Gawain.

Who was this great poet? We may never know, yet his greatness will ever tease the curiosity of scholars till he may someday be found. Meanwhile, conjectures are not wanting. If, as seems likely, he wrote The Pearl, he may, as some reason, have been a secular clerk in broke, son of Edward III, and The Pearl may have been an elegy for the Earl’s dead little daughter Margaret (a pearl). Or he may have been John Erghome, an Augustinian friar in Yorkshire. Nothing is proved.

Unlike his contemporaries, the Gawain poet is neither satirist nor reformer. Clearly, he knows and loves the church; possibly he served in a lower clerical rank as some great man’s chaplain, for the details of courtly life in various aspects, are matters of course to him. He could not have been unaware of the time’s abuses; indeed, like many sensitive folk, may have felt helpless and paralysed by them. He avoided public strife and contention, cared little for fame, and was preoccupied rather with the warfare of the individual soul. Amid the abuses about him, he found his nurture in the surviving beauty of old ritual, architecture, music, literature, in Nature and the pure human heart. Nor is his a fugitive and cloistered virtue, for all his work, is unmistakably charged with a certain hearty, cheerful, winning gentleness that identifies him far more than a knowledge of his name could ever do.


  • Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.

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