Authors: The Pearl-Poet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Author Works

Poetry:

Pearl

Patience

Cleanness (also known as Purity)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Saint Erkenwald (attributed by some to the Pearl-Poet)

Biography

The Pearl-Poet, or Gawain-Poet, is regarded as one of the most important and accomplished writers in medieval literature on the basis of the four long Middle English poems attributed to him. Among English poets of the period, he is ranked second only to Geoffrey Chaucer. Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exist in a single manuscript, MS Cotton Nero A.x, that provides no author’s name and no titles (the titles by which they are known have all been added by modern editors).{$I[A]Pearl-Poet, The[Pearl Poet, The]}{$S[A]Gawain-Poet[Gawain Poet];Pearl-Poet, The}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Pearl-Poet, The[Pearl Poet, The]}{$I[tim]late fourteenth century;Pearl-Poet, The[Pearl Poet, The]}

The poems were discovered in the British Museum in the 1830’s, bound in a volume with two unrelated Latin works, and no direct evidence survives regarding their reception before the nineteenth century. The poems themselves comprise the only source of information about the poet–indeed, his very existence is deduced from their existence. Despite this virtually perfect anonymity, a number of conclusions about the poet’s identity and biography have become widely accepted. While the poems differ dramatically in subject matter and genre–from elegy to homily to romance–their thematic, stylistic, and linguistic cohesiveness have led to general agreement that a single author wrote all four poems. The manuscript is dated to the later fourteenth century, usually close to the end of that century. The scribe who copied the texts was almost certainly not the author, but scholars believe that the poet composed the poems in the second half of the fourteenth century, not long before the copies were executed.

While the earliest students of the poems offered numerous speculations about the identity of the poet, modern criticism has given up the search for a specific individual and focused on more general characteristics that may be inferred from the works. Assuming that there are no significant differences between the dialects of the scribe and the author, the language of the poems suggests that they were written in the dialect of the northwest midland area of England, making that a likely place of origin for the author. The alliterative verse in which the poems are written is also characteristic of the northern and western parts of England, rather than the rhyming verse produced in London and the southeast. The geographical descriptions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are markedly more detailed for the region of North Wales, Anglesey, and Wirral, suggesting that either the poet or his audience (or both) had an interest in that area. The description of the embarkation of Jonah’s ship from the harbor in Patience and details of the voyage include enough specific technical references to contemporary nautical practices to convince some that the poet must have undertaken a sea voyage.

The literary sources of the four poems also provide significant information about the author’s reading and education, although the breadth of that learning has perhaps expanded rather than limited the range of speculation about his status. The poems all analyze serious moral issues, and three of the four poems are explicitly religious, demonstrating a thorough knowledge of biblical and theological matters, which led many early critics to assume the poet was a monk. The poems are also humanistic and often comical, and the poet seems to have been as widely read and expert in French romances as in the Bible. Especially in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet shows detailed knowledge of the etiquette of noble households, knightly armor and arms, castle architecture, music, and hunting, which has led other critics to assume that he must have been closely associated with a wealthy court. Even if one accepts that the poet belonged to a secular rather than a religious estate, as scholars are increasingly apt to do, there is little to help decide if he was a clerk or minstrel writing from observation of the aristocracy or was himself a nobleman.

BibliographyAndrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron, eds. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: “Pearl,” “Cleanness,” “Patience,” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Primarily a scholarly edition of the poems but includes a good bibliography and extensive introduction.Blanch, Robert J., and Julian N. Wasserman. From “Pearl” to “Gawain”: Forme to Fynisment. Wasserman. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. Presents the thesis that works within the Pearl manuscript not only share a common author but are connected and intersect in fundamental ways. Explores interrelated themes such as language, covenants, miracles, and the role of the intrusive narrator. Includes bibliography and index.Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Arthurian Studies 38. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 1999. A collection of original analysis by an international group of medievalists. Explores a range of topics including theories of authorship, the historical and social background to the poems, the role of chivalry, and the representation of women. Includes illustrations and maps, and bibliography and index.DeVries, David N. “Unde Dicitur: Observations on the Poetic Distinctions of the Pearl-Poet.” The Chaucer Review 35, no. 1 (2000): 115-132. DeVries explores the way that the Middle English poem “Pearl” happens and what it does to the language in which it happens. The Middle English poet was able to wrench out of the recalcitrant facts of grief and the limitations of language a difficult and marvelous “vineyard” of a poem whose power continues to resonate through the centuries.Gardner, John, ed. The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Gardner’s long introduction discusses what is known about the poet in question. Describes conventions and traditions in the poems, analyzes the poems themselves, and offers notes on versification and form. Gardner’s own modern verse translations of the poet’s works, including Saint Erkenwald, compose the body of this volume.Howard, Donald R., and Christian Zacher, eds. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. This collection of twenty-three essays includes two essays of introduction and background followed by discussions of critical issues, style and technique, characters and setting, and interpretations. Quotations are in Middle English with Middle English alphabet characters.Moorman, Charles. The Pearl-Poet. New York: Twayne, 1968. This volume is an excellent introduction to the anonymous writer of Pearl, Patience, Purity, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Biographical information is by necessity replaced by more general information about the fourteenth century. Includes a chapter that examines each poem in turn, a chronology, and an annotated bibliography.Spearing, A. C. The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. After a brief discussion of the Middle Ages, the alliterative tradition, and the question of authorship, this book devotes one chapter to each of the four poems attributed to the poet. The extensive quotations from the poetry have not been modernized, although only modern alphabet letters are used.
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