Tag Archives: pearl poet

Troilus, Criseyde, and Gawain

cotton nero

If you wish to read the previous parts (which should place this into a semi larger context): here are  Part IPart II and Part III.

A similar division of aspect, as found in the previous parts, is illustrated by the final two poems in each quartet. Sir Gawain and Troilus move to achieve what the previous poems had not accomplished, yet both seem to fall short only to evince the impediment of human limitations or shortcomings. A  discussion of these final poems will also importantly conclude the interpoetic portion while explicating the intrapoetic unity that defines the two quartets as halves of a complete whole. As Criseyde, Troilus, and Sir Gawain take center stage in a stark comparison of two quite different poetic styles and matters, the entirety of Cotton Nero A.x along with Chaucer’s earlier poems will join them to further demonstrate their importance which could not otherwise have been evident from looking at the constituent parts.

Chaucer builds up towards Troilus and Criseyde’s zenith long before the narrative begins. The dream visions of DuchessFame, and Parliament are simply just that, dreams. The Black Knight, much like the tercels, is unable to achieve love, and the dreamer is unable to return at a later date to find the result of their labors. White is dead, and the formel refuses to accept either suitors, leaving the dreamer, and consequently the reader, in a state of suspense. As the poems end there remains the question of whether the Black Knight will remain faithful to his memory of White, or if he will in fact move past his mourning and learn to love another, or if the formel will indeed make a choice within the year, and if the tercels will be patient and seek her again when the time comes. Fame also ends in an ambiguous tone. The dreamer is left with the image of “a man of gret auctorite,” unable to identify him, or even what about him makes him seen as though he has authority. Perhaps the greatest indication of authority is the subject of the poem itself, fame. The man is surrounded by many people, apparently seeking to see or perhaps hear him, implying they had heard him, or of him, before. This would seem reasonable considering the conversation the narrator had had with the eagle beforehand concerning fame and rumor. Yet, the knowledge that the man posses is withheld from the dreamer, essentially leaving the definition of fame incomplete despite the multiple attempts to define it throughout. The last example, a physical image of fame, is not granted. Troilus and Criseyde finishes the conversation that the other three poems commenced, withholding nothing from the audience, staging reality, but its end suggesting that reality is not necessarily as satisfying once achieved.

Desire depends on lack –  on something not in possession. Desire fulfilled is desire suspended. In Troilus and Criseyde desire is ultimately fulfilled, unlike the desire of the previous three poems where the desire for a defined conclusion is never achieved. Troilus and Criseyde consummate a love that could only be fancied by the Black Knight or the tercels. Also, their love is not guided by convention, but by genuine human emotion, a type of emotion characteristic of life experience. It is powerful and passionate, even if only momentary, often times one-sided, and as the two come together a real affair occurs, for better or worse. Their love, however, is tainted by human misunderstanding, or incapacity. The reader, through the couple, is made to understand and feel love, but only to have it suspended and destroyed, evidencing its ethereal nature , further demonstrating that all earthly things are transitory and basically human, with the implication of the selfish nature of their love . Thus Criseyde cannot be fully blamed for her betrayal, just as Troilus cannot be judged for his regard towards Criseyde as existing solely to fulfill his whims. Criseyde’s love, and later perceived betrayal were only magnified by his own shortcomings, namely his selfish methods of love that relied upon his ownership of Criseyde’s emotions and person. It was not Criseyde’s lack of love for Troilus that drove her to Diomede, just as Troilus’ love for her was not deficient when he chose to remain silent before the Parliament. Everything human, including love, is fallible.

Human realization of incompetence is the first step towards improvement, and also understanding that perfection is unreachable despite the best of efforts. Sir Gawain applies what the previous three poems of Cotton Nero A.x attempted to teach, and essentially becomes the most theological piece in the entire manuscript. The Maiden in Pearl instructed the Dreamer how to theoretically attain salvation through penance and by leading a spiritual life. Although the Dreamer does not fully understand his lesson in the end, the poem does not allow a glimpse into the rest of his life to see how he may try to incorporate what he had learned. Purity is a retelling of biblical stories that demand the characters sin only to highlight the instruction they will receive, and demonstrates the power of God. Patience, too, is more concerned with the forgiveness and patience of a benevolent God to focus on human trial, and Jonah, being the chosen voice of God, is hardly a typical human, despite his representation as “everyman.”

Sir Gawain exemplifies a typical Christian, and when he encounters temptation, despite his good intentions and great sense of decorum, he succumbs. This is the story of a man who finally realizes all the lessons previously taught. However, his failure to attain perfect spirituality, much like Troilus’s and Criseyde’s unfulfillment of perfect love, is not to be counted against them, just as God chose not to punish Jonah or the Ninivites for their transgressions. Part of being human is the potential to err, and the perpetual inability to fully comprehend. Even as he withstands the temptations of the flesh brought upon him at the castle, his greatest vice is his lack of humility. Yet the charm Gawain exhibits for the audience is not in his superfluous speech, or his courtly mannerisms, but in his total representation of everyman that no other character in the manuscript has attained. He is the embodiment of the common human, and as he embarks on his journey that will inevitably lead to certain danger, he never fails to err in the familiar ways, confused about his ultimate trials, and almost oblivious to subversively perilous situations, in effect depicting the struggle concerting the human soul each day. As he remains before the Green Knight, bare necked and awaiting the equivalent of the Day of Judgment, it becomes apparent that he has not in fact learned his lesson, and cannot even accept the consequences as just for his actions, choosing to blame the tempters instead of realizing his own choice in the matter. Nevertheless, with a slap on the wrist, or more appropriately, a nick on the neck, he is forgiven, and sent home. The Green Knight’s actions echo the benevolence of God in earlier poems, accepting human nature, and treating mankind as a hoard of errant children. This instruction of man also serves as a reassurance for the reader, allowing him to understand that an impossible perfection is not what is expected, but rather a willingness to learn, along with some staunch perseverance.

Nevertheless, the Pearl poet chose to create a different type of perfection for Sir Gawain that is unreachable for the main character, and subsequently mankind. The divinity attained through the numerical design of the poem is directly related to the Divine Proportion, a number that holds together the entire manuscript and can by this point be easily identified as a recurring theme, and consequently a constant reminder to the medieval reader about the greater purpose of the text. The most prominent display of the Divine Proportion is depicted in the extraordinarily detailed description of Sir Gawain’s shield, and shall remain within focus throughout the story, expanding towards infinity through the catalog of fives that ascends from the trivial to the eternal, much like the manuscript as a whole outlines humanity in terms of the divine, from elevating seemingly simple peonies in Pearl to reappearing strategically in Patience and Purity. Interestingly, much like PearlSir Gawain is comprised of 101 stanzas, a number that signals a return to prime numbers, used primarily to symbolize a completion or unity which would only be perceived as potentiality elsewhere. It is this numerical design that lends the much needed unifying aspect to the manuscript that would otherwise be a compilation of works that may or may not be perceived in relation to one another except for their appearance together.

The manuscript is divided in several ways and to better understand the divisions it is important to note the number of lines in each poem: Pearl has 1212 lines, Purity 1812, Patience 531, and Sir Gawain 2531. If the numbers are rounded off, the manuscript can be divided in halves – Pearl and Purity comprise the first 3000 lines, and Patience and Gawain, the latter. If the 6000 lines of the whole manuscript are divided by the 3700 lines of Pearl and Sir Gawain combined, they would just about equal the same 3700 lines divided by the 2300 lines of Purity and Patience, which is the Divine Proportion. Essentially, the higher meaning of this can be viewed in terms of infinite expansion, the infinite pattern that is found in nature, and is attributed to divine creation due to its absolutely perfect state. Throughout history the Divine Proportion has been observed to evoke emotion or aesthetic feelings. It has been used in architecture since before it was even fully understood. Within literature, philosophy, physics, and mathematics, it i has been associated with the concept of universal unification. Of course this is only an absolutely simplified version of the intricate numerical design of the exquisitely complicated Cotton Nero A.x, but it depicts enough to demonstrate the unity of the four poems that transcends words, and language, despite the amazing alliteration maintained throughout.

Essentially both of these poets have created works that serve as a reminder of the duality of mankind, preserving a delicate balance between the spiritual and worldly. Throughout these eight poems a mirror is held up to man to illustrate a propensity for error and offer reassurance that human fallacy, whether towards each other, or in relationship to God, is a part of being human, and despite the most sincere redress, perfection is unattainable; perseverance is all that remains.

Pearl Abstract


Unlike most abstract that I have great difficulty producing, this one I found to be even more challenging because the main work is not yet complete. It is only about 3/4th done so I relied on my notes to guide me to the end.

My Pear Poet project started many years ago when E. Condren gave me an amazing idea a few weeks before graduation. I began my research and work on it immediately, but due to various circumstances, after leaving school did not pursue it further. While E. C. and I didn’t always agree (we were both quirky, but in different ways), namely  because my fascination was mostly towards the physical manuscripts (which I believe some would refer to as “object fetishism” or something like that), and less concerned with the thematics. Not always, mind you, but if I had to pick between writing a paper about what scribe wrote what/ where/when, and tracing the narrative, the former would always win. In fact, some of my lengthiest works trace thematics in terms of the physical manuscripts, using the evidence found there as proof of how the story should, or was intended to move. Yet while he didn’t share my enthusiasm, he always encouraged it, and presented me with an opportunity that, despite having taken the better part of a decade, is finally going to be finished.

Per usual, whenever I finish different sections of notes or rough drafts I post them online, so the first two parts of this can be found in the Chaucer Project section. The third part will be finished at some point this week. The fourth, and longest section, will take a bit more time. Unfortunately the deadline for this abstract cannot wait for me to fully put everything together.

Abstract of work yet to be titled (oh dear!):

Experience versus authority is perhaps the clearest distinction that can be made between Chaucer and the Pearl Poet when considering an extended survey of each of their works. While the Pearl Poet’s works have survived in only one extant manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., Chaucer’s works for the most part abound (as much as 600 year old manuscripts can). Here I will be looking at all four of the Pearl poems, Pearl, Purity (Cleanness), Patience and Sir Gawain, and four of Chaucer’s works, The Book of the Duchess, Parliament of Fowls, House of Fame, and Troilus and Criseyde.

Despite critical arguments against his formal training, the Pearl poems are written with the authority of a man speculatively devoting his entire life to learned scholarship, most likely within the confines of a monastery, and far removed from worldly concerns. Nevertheless, his poems are entrenched in theological debate, exposing human nature’s incapability to understand the divine completely. He elevates his text beyond the apparent words, and constructs his poems within the confines of an intricate numerical design that serves to distinguish further between the worldly concept of language and the superior mathematical proportion symbolic of Heaven. Chaucer’s four poems, albeit complex and powerful in their own right, depict another aspect of literature: the creative endeavor, less concerned with perfection in terms of a numerical design, and much more inclined towards the human condition, emotion, and otherwise familiar affairs. This in no way negates the thematic effects of the Pearlpoems, or the numerical design within certain Chaucerian works, but merely shifts focus towards a more predominant theme, and aligns a Chaucerian plot to Cotton Nero A.x’s inclination towards mathematical unity, essentially superimposing experience over authority, and combining them to create a whole.

The two sets of poems represent the same world through two lenses: a theological one, highly appropriate for a supposed monk, and a more cultural stance associated with a courtly patronized man like Chaucer. Without much divergence from the interiority of the poems, a quick glance should immediately signal a pattern of three smaller poems directly related to the grand narrative closing each quartet, and if taken a step further, the same analysis is not only within the quartets as wholes, but constituent poems as well. Such an interpretation would group the poems in two ways – interpoetic and intrapoetic – in the end essentially binding the divine and worldly with each poem and providing a different piece of a larger puzzle.

The Pearl poems exhibit an unbroken consistency, and contain a group of favored themes such as patience and humility set against pride, earthly and heavenly courtesy, purity, and perfection. Similarly, dream visions guide Chaucer’s works, not serving to exemplify perfect Christian conduct, but instead reappearing to depict human folly. Yet it is this human folly, spiritual or worldly, that is the link between the eight poems, as humans by nature are imperfect and constantly erring. Whether it is a numerical design that illustrates what text cannot achieve or Pandarus’ third person presence in an intimate scene highlighting Troilus’ ineptitude, the two poets persist in reminding the reader of what different situations should be like while pointing towards where they fall short.

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.