Mak­ing a me­dieval mas­ter­piece mod­ern

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

One of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for study­ing English lit­er­a­ture at univer­sity is that it un­cov­ers trea­sures. Think of Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde when the for­lorn hero cries, “clene out of your minde ye han me cast”.

Chaucer is the great­est poet in the lan­guage at a sort of po­etry of state­ment Mar­lowe achieved when he wrote, “The air is cold and sleep is sweet­est now.” It’s an ef­fect that in world lit­er­a­ture we as­so­ciate with Dante: “la bocca mi ba­cio tutto tre­mante” (He kissed my mouth all trem­bling) or “L’amore muove il sole e l’al­tre stelle” (The love that moves the sun and other stars).

Chaucer’s great peer in me­dieval lit­er­a­ture is known as the Gawain poet be­cause he is anony­mous and his best known work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This long poem of chivalry and ap­pari­tional en­coun­ters — a glow­er­ing foe who rides into the court­yard hold­ing his own head aloft — dates, like Chaucer, to the late 14th cen­tury.

The Gawain poet is north­ern — where Chaucer wrote a courtly, south­ern, es­tab­lish­ment English smooth as French — and he is rich, craggy and strange. The open­ing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is, “Sithen the sege and the as­saut was cesed at Troye, / The borgh brit­tened and brent to bron­des and askes” (Since the siege and the on­slaught came to an end in Troy and the city was set aflame and burnt to rub­ble and ashes).

Look at that al­lit­er­a­tion, “borgh” and “brent”. We hear in this lan­guage the im­memo­rial sound of an an­cient north­ern dis­pen­sa­tion, a lan­guage of Vik­ings and Sax­ons, and a po­etry that clangs like the clash of swords and has its own early mod­ernist echo in the po­etry of Hopkins or in the 20th cen­tury in Basil Bunting (“Brag, sweet tenor bull, / des­cant on Rawthey’s madri­gal, / each peb­ble its part / for the fells’ late spring”).

This is a po­etry of ex­treme ar­ti­fice, ex­tro­verted and elas­tic, but with a strong mem­ory of the smoke and fire­light and the clam­our and clan­gour of iron against iron.

The Gawain poet is a mas­ter and he is the au­thor of another mas­ter­piece — or so we think be­cause the man­u­script is in the same hand and a com­pa­ra­ble style — called Pearl and it is this poem that Si­mon Ar­mitage, the great pop­u­lariser of Homer with his dra­matic ver­sion of The Odyssey for the BBC and his ra­dio se­rial based on The Iliad, The Last Days of Troy.

Here’s the orig­i­nal of Pearl: To that Prynces paye hade I ay­bente … As the perle me prayed that was so thryv — As helde, drawen to God­des present, To mo of His mys­terys I hade ben dryven … And I kaste of kythes that lastes aye. Lorde, mad hit arn that agayn Thee stryven Other pro­feren thee oght agayn thy paye. And here is Ar­mitage: Had I put His plea­sure be­fore my own, … and done as my per­fect pearl had pleaded, then I might have lin­gered longer in His pres­ence And wit­nessed more of His mys­tery and won­der … and that glimpse of life in the land ev­er­last­ing was shat­tered in a mo­ment and the gates slammed shut. Lord, they are mad who med­dle with your laws or pro­pose to spoil a Prince’s plea­sure.

He’s do­ing his best to in­di­cate the grandeur of the Gawain poet’s vi­sion in Pearl and at­tempt­ing to do so us­ing some of the tech­niques of al­lit­er­a­tion, even if he can’t get the ef­fect of a bar­barous beauty — a bardic lan­guage so craggy that it’s like the poetic voice of the Danelaw — which is none­the­less in service to a re­li­gious vi­sion of ex­tra­or­di­nary el­e­va­tion.

Pearl is one of the great works of the me­die- val Bri­tish imag­i­na­tion and its elab­o­rate and a dy­nam­i­cally drama­tised al­le­gory is in ten­sion with its tech­nique, a lit­tle like the ex­tra­or­di­nary Celtic ecri­t­ure of the Lind­is­farne Gospels or the Book of Kells, where a prin­ci­ple of dec­o­ra­tion trans­fig­ures the ob­ject pre­sented like a par­al­lel vi­sion of truth.

The Gawain poet is an in­com­pa­ra­ble poetic tech­ni­cian and the de­tail of his lan­guage is un­trans­lat­able, though this does not di­min­ish Ar­mitage’s endeavour be­cause Pearl is as lit­tle like a merely aes­thetic ob­ject as the Gospel story was to those monks who wrote it out with such daz­zling lines and curlicue-like vari­a­tions with a tech­nique that seemed to an­tic­i­pate and tran­scend art nou­veau. And, of course, we get the same thing in the Sut­ton Hoo trea­sures.

So­ci­eties that go off on long­ships or stalk in north­ern fast­nesses are ca­pa­ble of art of ex­cep­tional re­fine­ment.

But while that’s true of all the sur­face mag­nif­i­cence of Pearl, it is also a poem of pow­er­fully ar­tic­u­lated feel­ing and vi­sion.

It’s the story of a girl who dies and of the way her bereft fa­ther comes to see her as a bright shin­ing thing that can lead him to his vi­sion of the most high. Sud­denly my spirit rose from that spot, While in body I re­mained asleep on the mound …

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