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Getting back to The Poem with Gawain and The Faerie Queene.

Due to a number of Bad Things occurring in my life in the last two years, I've decided to only do, as far as possible, the things that make me smile. For a surprisingly long time poetry hasn't had this effect and I've therefore left it alone, apart from a brief flick every now and then. I'm happy to report that this period of disenchantment appears to be coming to an end.

About two weeks ago, I picked up Gawain and found myself drawn in and smiling and I'd like to explain why. It's primarily about cleverness and exuberance. Edmund Spenser is my favourite poet and Faerie Queene is packed with both of these qualities. I'm discovering those same qualities in Gawain and am getting the same kind of pleasure, especially from dialogue.

As usual, what follows is entirely tentative and provisional, in this instance it's also inevitably subjective and personal.

Putting together clever verse is fraught with difficulty, most attempts miss the mark by either being too clever and presented with an air of smug self-satisfaction or by sounding clever on the surface but actually being quite banal and empty within. The Faerie Queene is Very Long Indeed and Spenser loved nothing better than to show off his skills, especially in his desire to 'overgo' Ariosto. He limits his subject matter to an allegorical consideration of six knightly virtues and this seems to prevent/limit any tendency to overshoot into smug pretension. The one exception to these limits is the brilliant refutation made at the end of the Mutabilitie Cantos:


I well consider all that ye have said
    And find that all things stedfastnes doe hate
    And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
    They are not changed from their first estate;
    But by their change their being do dilate;
    And turning to themselves at length againe;
    Doe work their owne perfection soe by fate;
    Then over them change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

I don't (ever) want to get overly Lit Crit but would simply draw attention to lines 5 and 6 as being Very Clever Indeed and a supreme example of all the things that poetry does best. FQ isn't by any means perfect but, on each reading, I find myself exulting in its self assured and intelligent élan.

I have to confess that I'm a relative Middle English newbie and a novice with regard to Gawain but I'm having fun paying attention to both. I decided to tackle ME because I was disappointed with the modernised versions and could see from glancing at the originals that they were missing a lot of the original verbal delights. So far Hoccleve has become a joy and Gawain is a revelation even the the dialect in which it is written presents an additional set of challenges. As with the FQ, the focus appears to be on chivalry and knightly virtue. This (l. 1511-1516) is from the Lady of the castle's second attempt to seduce our protagonist.


So cortayse, so knyȝtyly, as ȝe ar knowen oute-
And of alle cheualry to chose, þe chef þing alosed
is þe lel lake of luf, þe lettrure of armes;
for to telle of þis teuelyng of þis trwe knyȝtez
Hit is þe tytelet token and tyxt of her werkkez
How ledez for her lele luf hor lyuez han auntered,

This is our editors' gloss on the second and third line;

'and from the whole (code) of chivalry, the thing principally praised is the faithful practice of love'. The syntax of the speech effectively suggests the informality of conversation after this long parenthesis (1512-19) giving the lady's views on the importance of love in the code of chivalry, the construction begun at 1509 is loosely resumed. þe lettrure of armes 'the (very) doctrine of knighthood'; as 1515-1519 show, the rules of love are conceived as a set of guiding principles for active knighthood.

And this for the next two;

'for to speak of the striving (teuelyng) of true knights,.... it is the rubric written at the head of their works and the very works themselves.....', werkkez contains a pun on 'deeds' and '(literary) works- i.e. romances of chivalry.

I read this on a train and would have punched the air in delight had it not being for presence of my fellow passengers. Gawain, as with FQ, can be read as an extended commentary on or critique of the romance tradition. What we would appear to have here is a distillation of that tradition clearly expressed in what seems to be a 'romance of chivalry'. Although a newbie, I'd take issue with glossing 'telle' as 'speak' and keep it in the ordinary sense of to narrate- the oed informs me that this usage has been common since the Anglo Saxon period. I'd also argue with 'rubric written', esp as the oed uses this very line as the only example and defines 'tytelet' as 'titled'. My entirely subjective delight comes from the sheer intelligence and wit going on in these few lines. It's a jaw-droppingly brilliant example of how great poetry can do many things at once with very few words. I'm also, as a part-time cobbler-together of poems, jealous as hell because I could never be this good.

I have an entirely bonkers and half-baked theory that Spenser used Gawain as a template for FQ. Of course, this flies in the face of all the evidence we have but it does seem remarkable that the same theme and skills should be inherent to both works. This is also the case with exuberance, both poets revel in language and invite this reader at least to join in with the revelry. I want to distinguish between this and other aspects of verbal skill. These are often inventive and can be quite startling when deployed skillfully but they miss out on what I think of as confident showing off. Exuberance in this sense embodies complete confidence in these poets' skill and a desire to put it on display.

As my first example, here's a brief bit of dialogue between Una and Arthur from Canto VII, Book I of FQ;


41
O but (quoth she) great griefe will not be tould,
  And can more easily be thought, then said.
  Right so (quoth he) but he, that never wouuld.
  Could never: will to might giues greatest aid.
  But griefe (quoth she) does greater grow displaid,
  If then it find not help, and breeds despaire.
  Despaire breeds not (quoth he) where faith is staid.
  No faith so fast (quoth she) but flesh does paire.
Flesh may empaire (quoth he) but reason can repaire.

And this is from the Lady's first attempt (1230 -1244);


And now ȝe ar here, iwysse, and we bot oure one;
My lorde and his ledez ar on lenþe faren,
Oþer burnez on her bedde, and my burdez als,
þe dor drawen and dit with a derfe haspe;
And syþen I haue in 6is hous hym þat al lykez,
I schal ware my whyle wel, quyl it lastez,
        With tale.
      ȝe ar welcum to my cors,
      Yowre awene won to wale,
      Me behouez of fyne force
      Your seruaunt be, and schale.

'In god fayth' quoþ Gawayn, 'gain hit me þynkkez
þaȝ I be not now he þat ȝe of speken-
to reche to such reuerence as ȝe reherce here 
I am wyȝe unworþy, I wot wel myseluen-

I've decided not to provide a modernised version of the Gawain extracts because any such version inevitably loses the strength and vigour of the language. However, this is what the editors have to say about lines 1237 and 8;

The lady's declaration is not as unequivocal as it appears to the modern reader: my cors is used in ME as a periphrasis for 'me'.....; the line can therefore be understood as 'I am pleased to have you here', and this is how Gawain (cf 1241) chooses to take it. The bolder suggestion is, however, apparent in the next line 'to take your own pleasure'.

I could witter on for a Very Long Time on the brilliance of the Spenserian stanza but will instead point out how this very tricky form is here combined with language in a way that enables both to 'see' the exchange and put ourselves in the minds of both protagonists. Arthur's increasingly persuasive arguments lead Una to eventually tell him of the cause of her woe but this complex exchange is done with such brevity and verbal joy that I'm left speechless with pleasure and admiration. The argument is essentially about what we ex-social work types might think of as the value or otherwise of disclosure and I'm sure that we've all occupied both sides of the fence. What this does is encapsulates the main points with a razor-sharp choice of words and a rhythm that carries this reader along with a sense of exhilaration and unabashed delight.

Spenser's brought me back to poetry before and I'm not surprised that the FQ has played a part in bringing me back on this occasion. What does surprise me is that Gawain has been the 'trigger' this time around, mainly because I'm lazy and it does require much brow furrowing effort. It turns out that the draw is what I'm thinking of as the grin factor. The GF is an unusually objective and surprisingly accurate critical tool of my very own invention. It sits alongside the arduity obscurity scale in the negotiation of Tricky Material. The GF is simply based on the ratio between successive lines and the amount of grins. For example, the second Gawain extract brings about three grins (the derf haspe, won to wale and wot wel lines) which gives a factor of 20%. This is very high, most GFs in work that I really enjoy work out at 3-5% ish.

I have no doubt that eventually I will be able to enjoy recent work but at the moment I've only advanced to the George Herbert Problem which may well need to be scrawled about....