Purity and Fame


The idea of contrary, or better stated, complementary pieces was prevalent within the medieval tradition, dating back to (and before) the Roman de la Rose, a favorite piece to be borrowed from by Chaucer, and appropriately also a poem centered around a dream vision. Interestingly Jean de Meun’s observation is an apt summary of any comparison to be made between Chaucer and the Pearl poet, but also on the strategy used in Purity, and to a certain, and perhaps lesser extent, Fame: “Things go by contraries; one is the gloss of the other. If one wants to define one of the pair, he must remember the other, or he will never, by any intention, assign a definition to it.” While the quartets (as previously set up between selected Chaucerian works and the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript) are not necessarily absolute contraries to one another, they certainly gloss each other. The spirituality that is dramatically absent from Chaucer’s works is prevalent in the Pearl poems where the romance and material affairs are missing. In a slightly different vein, despite the title of Purity (or Cleanness, the other title given to this work), while reading the poem it soon becomes apparent that the poet intends to define this virtue primarily by means of its contrary-  filth.

In a cursory manner, the “contrare” distinctions take into account “bothe with-inne and with-outen” the countenance of a person. In the first exemplum, despite that the wedding guests are not of high birth, their apparel is indicative of their inner selves and therefore clean, while the one guest who attends the feast in rags is severely punished as “hit arn thy werkez yterly, that thou wrozt havez, / & lyved with the lyking that lyze in thyn hert.” Here the contradiction is not made in between what the man wears and how he conducts himself, but rather in between his garments and those of the other guests, functioning as a disclosure of their inner goodness, or lack thereof. The next example of cleanness depicts purity at its extreme where one who is good, is too good and overreaches. The fall of Satan is paralleled to that of Adam – both seem to overstep their bounds and consequently willfully participate in disobedience, as they were originally “in obedyent ordaynt to blysse.” Much like the wedding guest, they too are punished. The moral clearly demonstrates how cleanliness of heart and could cannot be reconciled with the idea of questioning the hierarchy of God. Thus, these two states of being – clean, yet questioning – are pitted against each other, becoming contradictions. The fourth example is perhaps the most clear juxtaposition of cleanliness and filth. Antedeluvian debauchery found “in the fylthe of the flesch” is literally cleansed by the flood, followed by God’s indictment against sin and wickedness. The remainder of the exemplums, as each one becomes longer than the one before, continue to focus on attempts at purifying the land and its inhabitants from the stories of Abraham and Lot to those of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and all that ensued. In each instance a selected group is either saved or preserved at God’s (often incomprehensible) discretion.

Nevertheless while the pure and soiled are neatly arranged within this dichotomy, by pairing these contraries another theme within the poem is also brought to mind, that of pairings in general that manifest themselves at various points: a wedding feast centers around the couple, the double fall of Lucifer and Adam, the pairings of animals onto Noah’s Ark,  Noah’s family comprised of him, his wife, along with their three sons and their wives, Abraham and Sarah with Lot and his wife, the two angels sent to Sodom, and lastly Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar that are paired through their polarity. As each pairing and contrary is crafted around the central theme of purity, the pair is first offered as pure and in accordance with natural procession, but as it becomes corrupt and falls, the inner depravity and degenerate notion of basic human (and non-human) nature is exposed. Yet while these pairings are not unintentional, and are used as allusions to the natural ordering of the world where pairs are seemingly favored and preserved, they are not overtly exposed either, only hinting at another creative purpose.

The exemplum of the flood mentioned above is concluded with God’s command to the survivors: “Bot waxez now and wendez forth and worthez to monye, /Multyplyez on this molde, and menske yow bytyde.” And this does not refer solely to the men, but to the animals and birds as well. The poem continues:

“Then watz a skylly skyualde, quen scaped alle the wylde,

Vche fowle to be flyezt that fytherez myezt serue,

Vche fysch to the flod that fynne couthe nayte,

Vche beste to the bent that bytes on erbez;

Wylde wormez to her won wrythez in the erthe,

the fox and the folmarde to the fryth wyndez

Herttes to hyeze hethe, harez to gorstez,

And lyounez and lebardez to the lake-ryftes;

Hernez and hauekez to the hyeze rochez,

the hole-foted fowle to the flod hyezez,

And vche best at a brayed ther hym best lykez.”

Such a description highlights the diversity of nature, and consequently the separation of the animals according to kind. It would appear that the poet wishes to stress adherence both to natural order and appropriate habitat, as the animals now are about to produce offspring to populate the new earth. During the flood the animals occupied unsuitable, or unnatural dwellings on the Ark, but once released, each animal would instinctively seek out its desired location. Similarly, the  depiction of the theme of pairing, and then finding proper dwelling is consistent through the other Pearl poems, and throughout Chaucer’s poems as well. The characters, after deliberation, all seem to either change dwellings, or return to ones they had before. The Black Knight returns to his “long castel with walles white,” the Dreamer “kaste of kythez that lastes,” Criseyde “moste out of the town,” the fowls all leave towards their nests “ech with his make,” Jonah travels from place to place, and “Gawayn on blonk ful bene / To the kynges burz buskez bolde.” Such a return to dwelling and the emphasis on pairing serve as a reminder of the human aspect of inhabitance on earth. The characters must find a place for themselves, and cope with the physical boundaries as either God has given them, or simply cope with life through finding comfort in each other. Either way, the primary principle is concerned with finding and filling the appropriate place.

The natural ordering of the universe is emphasized throughout the manuscript not only because of the preoccupation with the concept during the Middle Ages, but also to better evidence the backbone of Purity that is a different kind of natural order in the form of numerical design. In other words, what is found in nature is here recreated in words. If the poem is to be divided into twelve-line stanzas, it would total 151, or the 35 prime number. First, this would once again signal the higher order of the poem (as was discussed in an earlier part of this project in regards to the significance of prime numbers), and second, if taken into consideration with Pearl, the ratio would be 35 to 25, or simplified, 7 to 5, also known as the Golden Ratio of the diagonal to the side of a square measuring one on each side as D. Thompson discusses its importance in “Excess and Defect: Or the Little More and the Little Less.” According to E. Condren, architects relied on this ratio when building cathedrals and churches, places of devotion to God. Granted there are several debates as to whether the Golden Ratio was given the same measurement of importance prior to Euclidean geometry, with the underlying assumption that structures predating Euclid only coincidentally resembled an aesthetic that was later enshrined with meaning. However, such an assertion would only strengthen the significant influence such a ratio held in nature – before comprehending the ratio with numbers and concepts it functioned as a guiding principle to craftsmanship, inherent within creation. Further, this would draw a comparison between structural forms of worship and this manuscript that was used for the same purpose. Much like the Parson’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, here the Peal poet creates a “how not to” manual for obedience and essentially subjugation, in which questioning God on any level, entails a leveling of the land and eternal punishment. Keeping in mind the Pearl poet’s assumed background within monastic dwelling, his recreation of  such structures within his writing would be an ultimate act of devotion.

Chaucer discusses a comparable tendency for separation of kind in Fame:

“… every kyndely thyng that is

Hath a kyndely sted ther he

May best in hyt conserved by;

Unto which place every thyng,

Thorgh his kyndely enclynyng,

Moveth for to come to,

What that hyt is awey therfro…

And for this cause mayst thoug see

That every ryver to the see

Enclyned ys to goo by ynde,

And by these skilles, as I fynde,

Hath fyssh duellynge in flood and see,

And trees eke in erthe bee.

Thus every thyng, by thys reson,

Hath his popre mansion,

To which hit seketh to repaire,

Ther- as hit shuld not apaire.”

However, here these words describe a different natural order that eventually leads to a focus on fame, or in other words, an extension of pride, far from the spiritual realm. Thus for Chaucer the natural order is human nature, not God, and even that is difficult to understand, as is illustrated by the narrator’s inability to fully define fame despite numerous attempts, bringing to mind the Dreamer in Duchess who could not comprehend any higher meaning than the literal. Chaucerian characters are concerned with discerning their immediate temporal surroundings that are often times confusing enough without delving deeper into the spiritual matters of their existence. However, this does not negate the nature of their existence where they occupy a micro and macrocosm arranged with a sense of equilibrium where each has a distinct role to play, not unlike members of a court who adhere to rules of decorum and propriety, basically behaving by the book.

Appropriately, Book I of Fame begins with a proem, and a recognition of limits in human understanding. Most of the proem is a long sentence about kinds, causes, and effects of dreams, aligning the poem with Duchess within the realm of the dream vision. The poem then begins to extend towards the title that indicates fame as the subject. However, fame can be equated with reputation, which in turn can be either positive or negative, and its presence or absence is quite arbitrary. Fame can also refer to rumor, of which usually nothing good comes, and Chaucer combines these two basic meanings as is best summed up by V. Richmond: “Attitudes towards fame are, then, variable… This is especially true of views of poetry, a way of achieving fame for the poet and the community…” Fame can be viewed in direct relation to pride, and from a Christian perspective, it is filthy, and a result of human folly, highlighting the parallel that can be drawn with Purity that also deals with human folly. Yet in the latter work, such folly, or spiritual falling from the ways of God is punished and remedied. Here Chaucer does not wish to necessarily alleviate mankind of fame, but perhaps better explain it, treating it as a fact of life (and when applied to poetry, perhaps a fact of his own life). In his attempt to understand fame, Chaucer’s narrator describes it in multiple ways, exhausting all possible meanings of the word, much like the Knight in Duchess who wished to describe the affect of White’s death, calling upon every available metaphor. In the end, the reader is left with quite a detailed catalog that neither lauds nor impugns the title concept. Purity, on the other hand, describes and defines its title notion in a different sense – concretely, but in another sense carelessly. Certainly the biblical stories define purity in contrast to filth, but the stories themselves are chosen somewhat haphazardly. They do not seem to altogether connect under any sort of overarching theme, and it can easily be argued that most biblical stories, arbitrarily plucked out of the Old Testament, would achieve more or less the same affect: human folly depicted as unclean, and remedied through spiritual renewal, or purity. Thus, once again the numbers that are the backbone of the poem must serve as guides for its shape, compensating for a perhaps lacking thematic effect.

Purity is based on a duodecimal system which would suggest that the total number of thematic divisions, to use the term loosely, should be twelve. However, the poet enriches the numerical aspect even further by playing with the numbers and alluding to the divisors of twelve while making the poem thirteen sections long, with thirteen representing the fifth prime number. Aside from the aforementioned importance of prime numbers, five bears an extra significance; the cross is usually associated with the number four, but if the intersection is included, P. Carter points out that it would become associated with five, connecting it to another symbol in Christianity, namely the number of wounds, or stigmata received by St. Francis of Assisi. Geometrically, the five is symbolic of the pentangle that is in a later work prominently displayed on Sir Gawain’s shield, and thus also representative of man within the infinite structure of the universe. Here, in Purity, this ties in directly to the theme as each exemplum explores man’s relationship to God and to Heaven. Yet, even before associating thirteen with the number five, thirteen itself would invoke, to a medieval mind, the image of the last supper, and along with it the image of faithlessness and betrayal. This is exactly the thematic aspect of Purity, and the entire manuscript, as the characters are always found needing further guidance, if not downright repentance and spiritual cleansing to redeem their soiled lives. When they are not betraying each other, as in the case with Nebuchadnezzar, they are all betraying God to various extents, as outlined within each of the thirteen divisions.

While Purity, and Cotton Nero A.x. as a whole are meticulously calculated, making it obvious that the author spent the majority of his energy and time producing the skeleton of the work before creating the words to wrap it with, Fame appears to be nowhere concerned with its physical presentation, but rather relies on the narrative to relate its message. Nevertheless, both works function within the larger scheme of the eight poems to help elucidate human error, even as they differ in the judgement delivered.

Next time I will be looking at the following two poems in the sequence- Patience and Parliament– once again within numerical context, but also with more thematic parallels.


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