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Looking at a Poem

Gawain the Goude: looking at a poem



(previously on Poettext and in Troglodyte 


Even now, after many seasons passing,
as he passes through the seasons,
I am mazed by this gentlyest knyght.

I see him spurn the lady's cors,
forsake the lel layk of luf,
to cross the freezing fells,
for his lamb at Cristes Masse.

Yet I do forgive him that,
so clene in his courte.
But when he takes the green girdle,
the luf lace of the lady,
and casts it to the ground,
I know him to be mad.

      I have long been fascinated by Middle English poetry. I like Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and early Welsh poetry, too, but that's a different story. One that for most people, certainly including me, has to be read whilst balancing a glossary on the other knee.

      It was inevitable that I would write something on the alliterative poem we call Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my favourite piece of all Middle English writing, not excluding that by Chaucer, who was probably too 'modern' to be grouped with the other writers of Middle English anyway. In fact I have written more than one thing, though Gawain the Goude is the only poem.

      The general outlines of the original poem are well enough known. The Green Knight appears in Camelot one New Year's Day and offers to take an axe-blow, on condition that he can strike one in return. Gawain, to save the honour of the court, accepts the challenge and decapitates him. There is horror on the part of all watchers when the Knight lifts up his severed head and tells Gawain that he will claim his prize in exactly one year's time.


      After a seasonal interlude, Gawain goes in search of the Knight on All Saints' Day (1 November). Following a series of adventures, he meets him at the Green Chapel on New Year's Day to pay his forfeit. But instead of beheading him the Knight only gives a light 'tap', which doesn't do much more than stain the snow with blood. Honour is satisfied. The poem has a dramatic start and conclusion, then, but it is the 'middle' which I have always seen as its heart. This is especially true of Gawain's relationship with 'the lady' who offers herself ('her cors') to him in the 'lel layk of luf' (the game of love) while her husband, Bercilak de Hautdesert - later revealed as the Green Knight in another guise - is out hunting. 'So clene in his court', he spurns her. But he accepts the gift of a green girdle, 'the luf lace of the lady'. This is forever fused in my own mind with the blue garter dropped by the Countess of Salisbury at a court ball and retrieved by King Edward III. The King does this under the suspicious eyes of all, saying as he straps the garter on his own leg 'honi soit qui mal y pense' (shame to him who thinks evil of it). This is the legendary origin of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, revived in more modern times.

      Even without my idiosyncratic (well, all right, wrong) interpretation of 'luf lace', few would argue that the interchanges between Gawain and the lady are not delicately but intensely erotic. This is in direct contrast to the final encounter with the Knight, in which accepted chivalric behaviour is restored. Gawain, seeing his earlier acceptance of the girdle as a small triumph of the yearnings of the flesh over more courtly ideals, flings the hidden girdle to the ground. It is little wonder that I should have set down my own reaction to this manifestation of nobility in Gawain the Goude!

      Kingsley Amis (known as a novelist but also a very fine poet) wrote a poem called Beowulf, in which he mixed Anglo-Saxon and modern English, and this must have influenced me. Amis' poem, though, was essentially a railing against the study and teaching of Anglo-Saxon. Mine is rather more basic than that!


Burrow, J.A., ed., English Verse 1300-1500 (London, 1971)
Burrow, J.A., ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Harmondsworth, 1972).
Conran, T. Welsh Verse, Third Edition (Seren, 1992).

Everett, D., Essays on Middle English Literature (Oxford, 1955).
Hamer, R., ed., A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (Faber and Faber, 1970)
Scattergood, V.J. and Sherbourne, J.W., eds. English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1983)

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