The Gawain Poet By Lewis Putnam Turco
The Middle Ages are often called “the Dark Ages,” even by people who should know better. One of the reasons they seem dark, perhaps, is that we know very little about certain seminal figures of the period. In English literature, for instance, many people would recognize the name of Geoffrey Chaucer, even if they have not struggled to read the works he wrote in a language form that seems a good deal more foreign to speakers of modern English than it actually is.
As a teacher of literature I have often wondered if the lack of biographical detail about certain writers has not had more to do than it should with the fact that they are often ignored in the classroom. Do we teach great literature, or are we rather teachers of “historical” literary figures — of periods and trends rather than of poems, plays, and fiction?
We know a good deal about Chaucer, but what do we know of William Langland? How many even recognize the name of the author of the piece commonly known as Piers Plowman? When was the last time that someone other than a scholar or graduate student read the work of John Gower or of John Lydgate, both better poets than many currently studied?
There were other writers, some of them contemporaries of Chaucer, whose work may be as important, of whom we know very little. Information about these men and women, such as Marie de France, a Norman English poet, is hard to come by sometimes. This is so partly owing to a paucity of certain records; but it is so also because artists of the Middle Ages did not create in hopes of being known to posterity. Rather, they created for particular contemporary audiences — their leige-lords, perhaps, or the church. And Medieval writers did not write for publication, as we do, because publication as we know it had not yet been invented.
William Dunbar, the Scottish post-Chaucerian poet who thrived circa 1460 to 1520, wrote a great poem that one might perhaps call a “chronicle elegy.” Its title is “Lament for the Makars [makers, poets],” and in it he wrote at one point,
Clark of Tranent, too, [Death has] slain,
Who wrote The Adventures of Gawain;…
Tranent is situated in the Scottish county of East Lothian, approximately a mile from the seacoast of the Firth of Forth. According to George Ellis in his Specimens of the Early English Poets (London: Henry Washbourne, 1845), a contemporary of Dunbar, the so-called “rhyming chronicler of Scotland” Andrew “Wyntown, in his account of king Arthur, mentions, among the historians of his Gests, an author who is totally unknown to our poetical antiquaries. He calls him ‘Huchown of the Awle Ryale,’ and tells us that
He made the great Gest of Arthur,
And the adventure of Sir Gawain;
The ‘Pistle [epistle, letter] als[o] of Sweet Susanne.
Mr. Macpherson seems to think that Huchown (Hugh) may be the Christian name of the Clark [clerk] of Tranent,
That made the aventures of Sir Gawain,
(Dunbar’s Lament, &c);…”
The largest problem with the candidacy of Hugh Clark of Tranent, if that was the name of Dunbar’s poet, or with any other putative Scottish author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is the fact that the form of English in which he wrote was not Scots but a Middle English dialect located in the Midlands around northwestern Staffordshire and southeastern Cheshire.
An often-suggested candidate for the authorship of the poem is John Massey who hailed from Cotton, Cheshire, believed by some scholars to have penned the poem St. Erkenwald that bears stylistic resemblances to Gawain and is written in a dialect similar to that of The Pearl, but not all scholars agree on the dating of Saint Erkenwald and the anonymity of the author(s) of all these poems continues in force.
The Gawain Poet has been called “Ricardian” by J. A. Burrow, author of Ricardian Poetry, Chaucer, Gower, Langland and the Gawain Poet, (New Haven: Yale University, 1971) because all four writers were more or less contemporary with one-another during the reign of the grandson of Edward III, Richard II of England (January 6, 1367 – c. February 14, 1400), but Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 25 October 1400) and John Gower (c. 1330 – October 1408), both court poets, wrote in a London-area dialect, whereas William Langland (c. 1332 – c. 1386) was, like the Gawain poet, a Midlands native. Both Gower and Chaucer, who knew each other personally, wrote poems in the system that would eventually be called “accentual-syllabics” and become the standard prosody of modern English verse, whereas Langland and the Gawain poet continued to practice versions of Anglo-Saxon prosody which will be discussed below.
In the Foreword of her great book of Medieval history titled A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) Barbara W. Tuchman wrote (pp. xiv-xv) that Enguerrand de Coucy VII, who lived from 1340-1397, “Through marriage to the eldest daughter of the King of England […] acquired a double allegiance bridging two countries at war,” that is to say, France and England. She wrote further that “…except for a single brief article published in 1939, nothing has been written about him in English, and no formal, reliable biography in French except for a doctoral thesis of 1890 that exists only in manuscript. I like finding my own way.”
Unfortunately, as she learned before her death in 1989, Ms. Tuchman was wrong, for a wonderful book that touched on her subject had been written by Henry Littleton Savage and published in 1956, thirty-three years earlier, The Gawain-Poet, Studies in His Personality and Background (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina). Savage’s treatise is the only book of literary scholarship I have ever run across that reads like a fine work of detective fiction, keeping one in suspense waiting for the ultimate revelation of the authorship of Gawain until the very last sentence which I will not give away any more than I would divulge the ending of a novel by Tony Hillerman.
How Ms. Tuchman missed this book is baffling to me, for her bibliography in A Distant Mirror has the appearance of being exhaustive. She comments on many poets, particularly those who were Continental, but she also treats at reasonable length of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and William Langland. Nowhere, however, does she discuss the Gawain poet, or even mention a single work attributed to that bard who is arguably of equal stature with Chaucer, the so-called “Father of English Poetry.” It was Savage’s thesis that the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a poet who was attached to the English estates of Enguerrand, Sire de Coucy, focus of Tuchman’s book and the spouse of Princess Isabella, eldest daughter and the second child of Edward III of England and his queen, Philippa.
Princess Isabella was senior to the Sire de Coucy by about eight years — an old maid, in fact, for several of her engagements to other French nobles had fallen through in one way or another. She had been jilted on several occasions, and she herself had done the jilting in one situation. Apparently, however, she was quite pleased, perhaps even overjoyed, to marry Coucy at long last. In any case, Tuchman wrote, “Whether to win over Enguerrand, or because he had taken a personal liking to him, Edward had already in 1363 restored him to full possession of the lands in Yorkshire, Lancaster, Westmoreland, and Cumberland inherited from his great-grandmother” (p. 207).
If the Gawain poet was a servant of one of the most powerful members of the English and French nobilities, he was a member in good standing of the society of his time, for every Medieval monarch or great nobleman was the patron of at least one bard. Bards were status symbols. As has elsewhere above been noted, both John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer were poets of the London court. The Gawain poet may have been as well, but perhaps it is more likely that he was the resident bard at one of the Sire de Coucy’s estates elsewhere in Britain, though without a doubt he spent time occasionally in London as well. He must have done if his mistress was the favorite daughter of King Edward III.
There have been many editions of the works of the Gawain poet, but the one I like best is, The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet, edited and translated by the late American poet John Gardner, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1965), which takes a giant step toward the rehabilitation of one of the greatest of Middle English authors. Because the 19th century admired his poem The Pearl, he has been known as the Pearl Poet; and because the 20th century admired another of his poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author is also known as the Gawain Poet. But whoever he was, he was a master.
Because the Gawain Poet wrote, unlike Chaucer, in a dialect that did not eventually turn into modern English, he or she is more difficult to read in the original. Again, unlike Chaucer, the Gawain poet wrote in the ancient (and often beautiful) alliterative tradition of Old English narrative poetry. This tradition, admittedly somewhat strange to our ears, gave way to the pattern, set by Chaucer and Gower, of accentual-syllabic verse, a tradition which until recently we considered to be “normal” for poetry, although at the present moment in the twenty-first century the hegemony of “free verse” —that is, lineated prose poems — threatens to obliterate not only such poems as Gawain but also the entire history of metrical verse, at least in America. Partly for these reasons, the several masterpieces of the Gawain Poet have languished.
In his book John Gardner gathered all the known and attributed work of the poet including — besides “Gawain” and “The Pearl” — “Purity,” “Patience,” and “St. Erkenwald.” He presented the pieces in brilliant contemporary translations and discussed the work of the poet and the period in a lucid and helpful introduction.
The major Medieval form of English verse before Chaucer was “Anglo-Saxon prosody” in which the oldest European epic written in a vernacular tongue (as distinguished from the classical tongues of Greek and Latin), Beowulf, was written, not to mention such later poems as The Vision of Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Anglo-Saxon prosody has continued to be written fitfully over the centuries, even in contemporary times, and there are other, more modern strong stress forms, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins' variable accentual "sprung rhythm" system and William Carlos Williams' triversen stanza.
What is the basis for accentual verse? — the counting of stressed (accented) syllables in a line of verse, paying no attention to the number of unstressed syllables. The features of this particular form of strong stress accentual verse are these: Each line (called a stich) of verse contains four stresses (it is therefore normative accentual verse); two or three of these syllables are overstressed by means of alliteration; this term means that the first syllable of a word is accented, first, by means of pronunciation (that is, the way in which we ordinarily pronounce the word — with the accent on the first syllable), and, second, by means of the repetition of initial consonant sounds (that is, in two or more words the stressed first syllable begins with a sound of the alphabet other than the vowels: a-e-i-o-u).
Besides the four strong stresses in the stich and the alliterations, each stich is broken in half by a pause called a “caesura.” This pause may be built into the poem by phrasing (there is usually a slight pause between the phrases of a sentence, often indicated by a comma or a semicolon or a dash), or by manipulating measures (meters) or sounds (if a word ends, let's say, in an ess, and the following word begins with the same letter, we often pause between them to indicate where one word ends and the next begins; i.e., "the gross[ ]swine).” Each half of the stich is called a hemistich.
The English “bob and wheel” is an accentual-syllabic quintet appended as a tail or coda to a stanza of Anglo-Saxon prosody in one Medieval romance in particular, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The “bob” is a one-or-two-foot line running on (enjambed) from the alliterative accentual stanza, and it is continued by the “wheel,” a quatrain of short lines, generally of three feet, rhyming baba. The whole quintet “bob and wheel” rhymes ababa, but rhyme does not necessarily appear anywhere in the part of the stanza that is made of Anglo-Saxon prosody. The bob rhymes with lines two and four of the wheel; lines one and three of the wheel rhyme with each other. Gawain is thus a clear example of the old alliterative verse system being deliberately linked to the new accentual-syllabic prosody invented by Chaucer and Gower. It is thus about as clear a transformational poem as anyone might hope to see coming out of the Middle Ages and linking with modernity.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is too long to quote here in its entirety, of course, but here is stanza 25 from the poem in a modern version:
From the deeps of dream Gawain mumbled,
Suffering stounds [moments] of sorrow and worry
That Weird [fate] that day would wield him death
At the Chapel Green where the green man
Would deal him death with a great dunt [knock, blow].
Anon our knight recalled his wits,
Fought his way from the fens [marshes] of slumber,
Rose fleetly to attend his fate.
The sweet carline [young woman] came laughing,
Kissed his face and fondled him;
Gawain gladly welcomed her kindness,
Admired her garb, her glorious hair,
Faultless features and radiant hue.
Gladness arose out of his heart.
He took her there in rapture rare,
In ecstasies of blissful song
and of delight. — bob
They shared this happy state
In loving talk and light!
What might have been his fateHad Mary not kept her knight?