Penguins on Parade: The Gawain Poet!
Some Penguin Classics – including this, the final entrant in our little parade this time around – are eye-opening in a way that a single reprint of a single classic seldom is. Medievalists Ad Putter and Myra Stokes have taken one of keystone works of English literature – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, beloved by generations of students for its sex and gore but above all for its brevity – and built it into a mighty thousand-page volume that would have undergraduates muttering grimly while they popped their Hello Kitty-flavored grey market antidepressants. A thousand pages! This rapturous new Penguin Classic isn’t Sir Gawain and the Green Night – it’s The Works of the Gawain Poet.
The capstone of those works is of course still Sir Gawain and the Green Night, but this volume also includes the dreamy, haunting, oddly sad poems Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience (it doesn’t include the poem St. Erkenwald, because our editors declare “the evidence for common authorship is inconclusive” – but that evidence is a whole lot more conclusive in this case, on the linguistic and stylistic level, than it is for a quarter of the plays routinely ascribed to Shakespeare; I say it should be included in this volume – I think it’s virtually impossible that the Gawain poet didn’t have at the very least a preponderant hand in St.Erkenwald‘s composition – but I’ll count my blessings either way). Putter and Stokes positively load the texts with footnotes and endnotes pitched at such a perfect range that they will simultaneously help the student and intrigue the expert. And at every stage, they’re careful to illuminate the actual working time period of the Gawain poet a thousand years ago:
Of his personal life, he tells us two things, one probably, the other certainly, true. He indicates in Patience that he had known poverty, which would not be surprising for a cleric who could not progress beyond minor orders. The claim functions partly as a captatio benevolentiae [courting the good will of the hearer], for the poet does not want to dis-implicate himself from the patient endurance of adversity which he preaches. But the rhetorical stratagem would sadly backfire if he were known to be in comfortable circumstances. For things at this period were not as they are today, when a dust jacket can give information on an actual author, between whom and the ‘I’ of his fiction there can be wide discrepancies. Such inconsistencies at this time would have caused confusion to no artistic purpose.
All of the poems are presented, rather daringly, in their original Middle English (very slightly cleaned up), and the array of critical materials dart very nimbly around the Gawain poet’s wide reading – though anonymous, this poet was surely one of the best-read writers of his age – and the end-product effect is to provide readers with something very close to a fourteenth century First Folio. It’s a marvelous performance all around.