Making a medieval masterpiece modern
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 …