Thursday, April 28, 2005
Givin’ it up to Gawain
What, you thought that this rarely-literary blog would forget all about National Poetry Month? Not a chance. We’re just getting around to it the way we get around to everything, namely, at the next-to-last possible minute.
OK, so I’m not posting a whole poem, just an excerpt that happens to contain some of my favorite lines ever written in English – even if it happens to be a kind of English you just don’t hear very often these days. The lines below are from the beginning of Book II of Gawain and the Green Knight, and there’s nothing very dramatic about them; all they do is narrate the passing of the year between the time Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in Arthur’s hall and the time he is compelled to ride to the Green Knight’s castle to receive a similar blow. But if you really want to get a sense of why these lines rock, you have to read ‘em out loud. Remember, the Great Vowel Shift hasn’t happened yet, all the g’s are hard, and words like “yeldes” and “foldes” are two syllables (not that this is syllabic verse, anyway). Also, the word “lyghten” is pronounced something like “licten,” just as “bryght” is pronounced something like “bricked.” Don’t forget to roll your r’s, too.
Oh yeah, one more thing. If you’re reading this at work, it helps to recite these lines really loud.
A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldes never lyke;
The forme to the fynisment foldes ful selden.
Forthi this Yol overyede, and the yere after,
And uche sesoun serlepes sued after other:
After Crystenmasse com the crabbed Lentoun,
That fraystes flesch wyth the fysche and fode more symple.
Bot thenne the weder of the worlde wyth wynter hit threpes,
Colde clenges adoun, cloudes uplyften,
Schyre schedes the rayn in schowres ful warme,
Falles upon fayre flat, flowres there schewen.
Bothe groundes and the greves grene ar her wedes,
Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of the softe somer that sues therafter
And blossumes bolne to blowe
Bi rawes rych and ronk,
Then notes noble innoghe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.
After, the sesoun of somer wyth the soft wyndes,
Quen Zeferus syfles hymself on sedes and erbes;
Wela wynne is the wort that waxes theroute,
When the donkande dewe dropes of the leves,
To bide a blysful blusch of the bryght sunne.
Bot then hyyes hervest, and hardenes hym sone,
Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype;
He dryves wyth droght the dust for to ryse,
Fro the face of the folde to flyye ful hyghe;
Wrothe wynde of the welken wrasteles with the sunne,
The leves laucen fro the lyne and lyghten on the grounde,
And al grayes the gres that grene was ere;
Thenne al rypes and rotes that ros upon fyrst.
And thus yirnes the yere in yisterdayes mony,
And wynter wyndes ayayn, as the worlde askes,
Til Meghelmas mone
Was cumen wyth wynter wage.
Then thenkkes Gawan ful sone
Of his anious vyage.
The whole passage is amazing, but I love it especially for its opening couplet, which the footnotes of my Cawley and Anderson edition render as “A year passes swiftly, and events never repeat themselves; the beginning is very seldom like the end” (178). Yeah, yeah, true enough, but that loses something in translation, you might say. For the couplet does not merely tell us that you can never tell what a year will bring; it couches this cliché in the language of the “forme” somehow folding to the fynisment, thus at once revivifying and literalizing our sense of how the events of our lives don’t quite fit our plans. The couplet renews our perception of the truism, making the stone stony, as Viktor Shklovsky would say. What’s more, the syntax makes the most of the potential relation of the forme to the fynisment, leaving the verb hanging for a moment – and leaving “seldom,” a discouraging word, for the very end of the sentence – while we imagine that maybe, just this once, the forme will fit the fynisment just fine. In other words, if you read the line really slowly, you get this: The forme to the fynisment foldes . . . without a hitch? like a hand in glove? if you give it a little English? Nope, ful selden. Damn. Ain’t that the truth.
Even if you’re familiar with Middle English, and are inclined to line up this sumptuous rendering of the seasons with the much more famous opening eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales in order to do a little compare-and-contrast on the topos of the passing year (you know, “Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote” and so forth), I think you’ll find that the language of Gawain is wilder, thicker, and more richly textured than Chaucer’s (and that’s saying something), from the exuberant bursting-and-burgeoning of “Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen” to the alien “wod so wlonk.” Of course, one poem is alliterative while the other is written in that five-iambs thing, so some of Gawain’s sound effects come with the territory. But still. Great stuff, all in all, even for a theory-addled postmodernist like me.
I can’t wait for National Prose Month!