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13.06.13, Bowers, Introduction to the Gawain Poet

13.06.13, Bowers, Introduction to the Gawain Poet

John M. Bowers' An Introduction to the 'Gawain' Poet is a consistently engaging and richly contextualized study of the four poems in Cotton Nero MS A.x (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and St. Erkenwald. Analyzing these texts as the output of a single poet, Bowers surveys relevant critical conversations, offers ample illustrations of historical and cultural contexts, and includes many canny observations drawn from his scholarly and pedagogical familiarity with these poems. As part of the University Press of Florida's series, New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions, Bowers' volume includes, besides individual studies of the works, a biographical analysis of the author, a rich survey of sources and influences, as well as an appendix that features extracts from sources, a glossary encompassing key critical and historical terms, and an extensive bibliography.

Bowers' book will be of great use to undergraduates, to graduate students, and to advanced scholars seeking a survey of this singular corpus of late-medieval poetry. With its roughly chronological summaries of each poem, into which Bowers intersperses a wealth of historical and cultural background discussion, the volume enables students to engage in a sustained and critical fashion with these challenging texts. By including a number of strong arguments about each work's, and by contributing significantly to the still open question of whether St. Erkenwald should be included in the Gawain Poet's canon, Bowers makes this much more than a student guide. Featuring a thoughtful selection of critical traditions and a fascinating overarching portrait of the Gawain Poet as a clerkly craftsman embedded in the royalist court culture of Richard II, Bowers' survey should be compelling reading for many advanced scholars.

In the introduction and opening chapter, Bowers provides a thorough analysis of how the evidence relevant to his project fits within any authorial investigation, as well as a sophisticated study of the anonymity that shrouds the Gawain Poet. Bowers highlights the lack of certainty surrounding the authorship of the four poems contained in Cotton Nero MS A.x, even as he makes clear that dialect data and thematic links have convinced the overwhelming majority of scholars that a single person authored these works. Moving beyond mere biographical description, Bowers does both students and scholars a service in meditating upon the "highly speculative" nature of any identification of authors (1). Presenting the Gawain Poet as an "amphibious cleric" whose success hinged on his balancing the worlds of the "chivalric gentry" and the "educated clergy" (8), Bowers builds on Michael J. Bennett's placement of this poet within the vibrant militarist culture of Cheshire that enabled careerist clerks to move to such places as Richard II's London. Bowers jettisons the "Romantic" image of a "rustic genius" confined to provincial Cheshire (2), imagining instead a sophisticated clerk whose attachment to the Ricardian metropolis did not sever his nostalgic affiliation with his Cheshire "homeland" (4). Closing with a stimulating analysis of the Gawain Poet's anonymity, Bowers suggests that a clerk's career that rose with Richard II "probably took a steep downturn" with the king's 1399 deposition--and that fears of becoming a victim of "retribution" by Lancastrian power-players led to the obscurity of both his name and poetic career (13).

In his chapter on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Bowers offers a rich assessment of the romance, and also introduces several identifying traits of the ambitious poet at the heart of his study. Bowers depicts the Gawain Poet as a "consummate craftsman" (15) with a special eye for spectacle, as seen in the "keen-eyed details" of Gawain's stance as he delivers his decapitating blow (26) or in a "great special-effect momen[t]" such as the Green Knight's bloodied head conversing with the denizens of Camelot (27). Through his systematic comparison of Sir Gawain with works of "detective fiction" (36), and through occasional references to modern films and books, Bowers nicely enlivens his study of a poetic past: the Gawain Poet's "gorgeous" landscapes are not only medieval rhetorical achievements, but also crucial influences on J. R. R. Tolkien's literary output (28), while the eerie Green Knight evokes the "stylish monster in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast" (22). Arguing that Gawain's solitary status departs from many quest romances that generically feature a "sidekick," Bowers holds that the "lone protagonist" is a recurring feature in the Gawain Poet's work (30–31). Considering that "murder" is the one "missing ingredient" in Sir Gawain as a mystery urging readers to "guess 'who done it'," Bowers makes a fascinating claim that "a preference for the anticlimax" runs throughout this poet's work (36). Bowers nicely surveys scholarship on Sir Gawain, offering especially intriguing studies about how militarist culture and rumors surrounding Richard II's sexuality explain homoerotic tensions in the poem (41) and about how the confession-saturated culture post-dating the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and the Gawain Poet's penchant for "omniscient" narration undermine any sense of privacy in the courtly milieu of Sir Gawain (43–44). Bowers cannily observes that Sir Gawain "works so well in the classroom" because it is about something "that students and teachers all understand--tests" (49), even as he sees Gawain himself as falling far short of a pedagogical ideal--for he joins "the Gawain Poet's characters" who "are not so much slow learners as non-learners" (52).

Bowers' chapters on the homiletic poems Cleanness and Patience offer rich analysis of narrative content and cultural context, while bolstering the case for the common authorship of the Cotton Nero poems. Linking the Gawain Poet's "super-clean God" with the "mania for personal cleanness" in Richard II's court (58), Bowers makes the further claim that the "almost obsessive compulsive urge for tidiness" in the poem derives from a formerly provincial poet's coming into contact with the intense filth and crowding of late-medieval London (59). Considering the "praise of wedlock's joys" in Cleanness in the light of the poet's apparently paternal self-presentation in Pearl, Bowers speculates that the Gawain Poet was a clerk who stayed in minor orders in order to pursue marriage and travel (62). After portraying "shock-and-awe spectacle" in Cleanness as the Gawain Poet's "literary signature" (65), Bowers reads the transition from Nebuchadnezzar to Belshazzar as mirroring the decline from Edward III to Richard II (70). Moving to the formally and thematically similar poem Patience, Bowers speculates that the prophet Jonah's frightening mission away from his "homeland" recalls the Gawain Poet's transplantation in the dangerous world of London (75–76). Pursuing further parallels between prophet and poet, Bowers conducts a fascinating analysis of Jonah's slothful rest in the Tarshish-bound ship as "acedia," which was the "signature sin of bookish men who appeared to 'do' nothing except sit at their reading and writing" (78). Bowers emphasizes that the Patience God's refusal to commit genocide would have had a special significance for a Richard II who pursued a "Byzantine" theory of the "conflation of divine and royal lordship" (84), before identifying the key lesson in Patience as the need to embrace both "joy" and "pain in an unpredictable world" (85).

Bowers begins his transition to St. Erkenwald and Pearl by making the surprising claim that the former poem, while not in the Cotton Nero manuscript, "fits better in the author's overall canon" than the latter work (87). Bowers ties Erkenwald to Sir Gawain through its featuring of a macabre "marvel" (88), its "nationalistic" emphasis on Britain's prominent Trojan origins (89–90), and its use of the "poet's signature special-effect" as the judge's corpse vanishes during the poem's "finale" (99). After describing the poem's portrait of a righteous pagan judge as specially significant to a Ricardian society plagued by legal corruption (97), Bowers reads Erkenwald as signaling the Gawain Poet's ambivalence about the royal court satirized in poems like Sir Gawain and Cleanness (101). Bowers closes this chapter with the intriguing speculation that the Gawain Poet's choice of the church over the royal court in Erkenwald may explain the poem's absence from a Cotton Nero manuscript aimed at a "well-off gentry household" (102).

Bowers offers exceptionally high praise for Pearl, calling it "our author's crowning achievement" and "perhaps the most brilliantly crafted poem in the English language" and "second only to Dante's Divine Comedy in European literature" (102). Bowers discusses the anomaly that Pearl not only differs metrically from the Gawain Poet's primarily alliterative output (105), but also moves "drastically, away from native English practices and in the direction of courtly French fashions" (106). Arguing against critical interpretations of Pearl as expressing a personal grief about the loss of a daughter, Bowers observes that the poem contains none of the "dwelling on the past" that we would expect in a case of "personal" mourning, and even speculates that the "narrator's inarticulate bereavement" reflects the "author's career-long evasiveness about Pearl truly personal" (109, author's emphasis). Despite the lesson about the transcendence of the spiritual world in Pearl, Bowers argues, the poem reveals the Gawain Poet's admiration for "sensual detail" in his "literature of courtly aggrandizement" (113). Analyzing cultural productions such as the Wilton Diptych and Ricardian portrayals of London as the New Jerusalem (134–135), Bowers suggests that Pearl responds to the 1394 death of Queen Anne of Bohemia, with whom Richard II may well have had a spiritual marriage analogous to the physical gap both binding and separating the interlocutors in Pearl (139–140). Turning to the juxtaposition of pearls and Alceste in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, Bowers argues that the "francophilia" evident in Pearl can be explained by Richard II's 1396 engagement to Isabelle, daughter of Charles VII of France (140–141). Bowers closes the chapter by reiterating his literary historical speculation that such Cheshiremen as the Gawain Poet who thrived in Ricardian times were severely marginalized in the Lancastrian era, which explains why the Cotton Nero poems and Erkenwald were seldom copied and indeed fell into obscurity until their modern resurrection (145–146).

Bowers closes the volume proper with a "Survey of Sources and Influences" (147), in which he demonstrates the Gawain Poet's considerable engagement with Biblical, Classical, and French sources. Bowers contrasts the Gawain Poet with the often pretentious Chaucer and the hyper-Latinate Langland, arguing that the Cotton Nero poet rarely "parade[s] the names of ancient authorities" and does not include "Latin quotations" or glosses (149). Bowers provides excellent analysis of our limited knowledge of contemporary libraries containing such French romances and Latin treatises with which the Gawain Poet was seemingly familiar (151–152). In discussing folkloric sources, Bowers usefully cautions analysts against letting speculation about mythical knowledge obscure the Gawain Poet's ability to "cast his own spell of enchantment" (155). Bowers then offers a thorough analysis of the nineteenth-century rediscovery of the Gawain Poet's works, as well as an engaging survey of the reception history of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Bowers emphasizes that the Gawain Poet's works have not only achieved canonical status as Middle English works in university curricula, but have also inspired first-rate translations by scholars such as Marie Borroff and have materially influenced original literary works such as Tolkien's neomedieval fantasy literature (159–160). With its exhaustive analysis of poetic narrative and its rich engagement with cultural and historical contexts, Bowers' Introduction to the 'Gawain' Poet will play a significant role in maintaining the intensity of such interest in the Gawain Poet at all academic levels.