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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XV. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawayne

§ 2. Cleanness and Patience

The second poem in the MS., Cleanness, relates, in epic style, three great subjects from scriptural history, so chosen as to enforce the lesson of purity. After a prologue, treating of the parable of the Marriage Feast, the author deals in characteristic manner with the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fall of Belshazzar. The poem is written in long lines, alliterative and rimeless, and is divided into thirteen sections of varying length, the whole consisting of 1812 lines.

The third poem is a metrical rendering of the story of Jonah, and its subject, too, as in the case of Cleanness, is indicated by its first word, Patience. Though, at first sight, the metre of the two poems seems to be identical throughout, it is to be noted that the lines of Patience divide into what may almost be described as stanzas of four lines; towards the end of the poem, there is a three-line group, either designed so by the poet or due to scribal omission. The same tendency towards the four-lined stanza is to be found in parts of Cleanness, more especially at the beginning and end of the poem. Patience consists of 531 lines; it is terser, more vivid and more highly finished, than the longer poem Cleanness. It is a masterly paraphrase of Scripture, bringing the story clearly and forcibly home to English folk of the fourteenth century. The author’s delight in his subject is felt in every line. In Cleanness, especially characteristic of the author is the description of the holy vessels—the basins of gold, and the cups, arrayed like castles with battlements, with towers and lofty pinnacles, with branches and leaves portrayed upon them, the flowers being white pearl, and the fruit flaming gems. The two poems, Cleanness and Patience, judged by the tests of vocabulary, richness of expression, rhythm, descriptive power, spirit and tone, delight in nature, more especially when agitated by storm and tempest, are manifestly by the same author as Pearl, to which poem, indeed, they may be regarded as pendants, dwelling more definitely on its two main themes— purity and submission to the Divine will. The link that binds Cleanness to Pearl is unmistakable. The pearl is there again taken as the type of purity:

  • How canst thou approach His court save thou be clean?
  • Through shrift thou may’st shine, though thou hast served shame;
  • thou may’st become pure through penance, till thou art a pearl.
  • The pearl is praised wherever gems are seen,
  • though it be not the dearest by way of merchandise.
  • Why is the pearl so prized, save for its purity,
  • that wins praise for it above all white stones?
  • It shineth so bright; it is so round of shape;
  • without fault or stain; if it be truly a pearl.
  • It becometh never the worse for wear,
  • be it ne’er so old, if it remain but whole.
  • If by chance ’t is uncared for and becometh dim,
  • left neglected in some lady’s bower,
  • wash it worthily in wine, as its nature requireth:
  • it becometh e’en clearer than ever before.
  • So if a mortal be defiled ignobly,
  • yea, polluted in soul, let him seek shrift;
  • he may purify him by priest and by penance,
  • and grow brighter than beryl or clustering pearls.
  • If there were any doubt of identity of authorship in respect of the two poems, it would be readily dispelled by a comparison of the Deluge in Cleanness with the sea-storm in Patience. Cleanness and Patience place their author among the older English epic poets. They show us more clearly than Pearl that the poet is a “Cbackward link” to the distant days of Cynewulf; it is with the Old English epic poets that he must be compared if the special properties of these poems are to be understood. But in one gift he is richer than his predecessors—the gift of humour. Earlier English literature cannot give us any such combination of didactic intensity and grim fancy as the poet displays at times in these small epics. One instance may be quoted, namely, the description of Jonah’s abode in the whale:

  • As a mote in at a minster door, so mighty were its jaws,
  • Jonah enters by the gills, through slime and gore;
  • he reeled in through a gullet, that seemed to him a road,
  • tumbling about, aye head over heels,
  • till he staggers to a place as broad as a hall;
  • then he fixes his feet there and gropes all about,
  • and stands up in its belly, that stank as the devil;
  • in sorry plight there, ’mid grease that savoured as hell his
  • bower was arrayed, who would fain risk no ill.
  • Then he lurks there and seeks in each nook of the navel
  • the best sheltered spot, yet nowhere he finds
  • rest or recovery, but filthy mire wherever he goes; but God is ever dear;
  • and he tarried at length and called to the Prince.…
  • Then he reached a nook and held himself there,
  • where no foul filth encumbered him about.
  • He sat there as safe, save for darkness alone,
  • as in the boat’s stern, where he had slept ere.
  • Thus, in the beast’s bowel, he abides there alive,
  • three days and three nights, thinking aye on the Lord,
  • His might and His mercy and His measure eke;
  • now he knows Him in woe, who would not in weal.