In This Article The Gawain Poet

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Leading Editions
  • Translations
  • The Manuscript
  • Language and Meter
  • Scholarly Overviews and Interpretations Addressing All Four Poems
  • Cleanness
  • Patience

Medieval Studies The Gawain Poet
by
Murray McGillivray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0218

Introduction

The “Gawain Poet” (also the “Pearl Poet”) is the name commonly given to the presumed single author of four Middle English poems uniquely preserved in London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3), a small illustrated parchment manuscript of about 1400: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The four poems are all written in the same Northwest Midland dialect of Middle English and they share various formal and thematic features, including that three of them are written using the alliterative meter associated with what has been called the alliterative revival (the fourth, Pearl, is a rhyming poem that employs alliteration throughout). It has long been the dominant conjecture of scholarship that the four poems are by the same anonymous author (a fifth, Saint Erkenwald, not in the same manuscript, is no longer usually held to be by the same poet). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is widely considered the best Arthurian romance in English. The poem tells the story of the quest of Gawain to find the Knight of the Green Chapel, whom Gawain has beheaded in Arthur’s court and from whom he is to receive a return blow, and of Gawain’s temptation by the lady of a mysterious castle encountered on the way. Pearl is a dream vision in which the poem’s speaker converses with his lost daughter, now in heaven, who exhorts him to accept her loss. Cleanness, also known as Purity, retells the biblical stories of the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Belshazzar’s feast, while instructing in spiritual purity. Patience, the shortest of the poems, is a poetic retelling of the book of Jonah.

Introductory Works

Putter 1996, Burrow 2001, and Bowers 2012 provide recent and useful introductions to the works of the Gawain Poet, intended primarily for a student audience.

  • Bowers, John M. An Introduction to the Gawain Poet. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.

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    Bowers situates the poet within the culture, politics, and society of the court of Richard II, and he provides readings of the four poems (and Saint Erkenwald) largely informed by that historical background.

  • Burrow, J. A. The Gawain-Poet. Horndon, UK: Northcote House, 2001.

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    At a mere seventy pages (including notes, brief annotated bibliography, and index) the briefest of the introductions listed here, this is by no means an elementary work; rather, it is a clear and useful overview of the poems from a lively and knowledgeable interpreter. Separate chapters on each poem and a brief chapter on what can be deduced about the poet follow a discussion of the manuscript and afterlife of the poems.

  • Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. London: Longman, 1996.

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    Putter gives background to the poems in terms of literary sources and the poet’s use of them and investigates the author as probably both a cleric and a member of a noble household, and finally as a participant in the tradition of alliterative verse. Discussions of the poems respond to and are informed by previous scholarship but do not attempt to summarize it, instead presenting Putter’s own readings of and introductions to each of the poems.

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