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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

§ 6. Hypothetical Biography of the Poet

The poet was born about 1330; his birthplace was somewhere in Lancashire, or, perhaps, a little more to the north, but not beyond the Tweed; such is the evidence of dialect. Additional testimony may be found in the descriptions of natural scenery in Gawayne, Cleanness and Patience. The wild solitudes of the Cumbrian coast, near his native home, seem to have had special attraction for him. Like a later and greater poet, he must, while yet a youth, have felt the subtle spell of nature’s varying aspects in the scenes around him.

Concerning the condition of life to which the boy belonged we know nothing definite; but it may be inferred that his father was connected, probably in some official capacity, with a family of high rank, and that it was amid the gay scenes that brightened life in a great castle the poet’s earlier years were passed. In later life, he loved to picture this home with its battlements and towers, its stately hall and spacious parks. There, too, perhaps, minstrels’ tales of chivalry first revealed to him the weird world of medieval romance and made him yearn to gain for himself a worthy place among contemporary English poets.

The Old English poets were his masters in poetic art; he had also read The Romaunt of the Rose, the chief products of early French literature, Vergil and other Latin writers; to “Clopyngel’s clean rose” he makes direct reference. The intensely religious spirit of the poems, together with the knowledge they everywhere display of Holy Writ and theology, lead one to infer that he was, at first, destined for the service of the church; probably, he became a “clerk,” studying sacred and profane literature at a monastic school, or at one of the universities; and he may have received the first tonsure only.

The four poems preserved in the Cottonian MS. seem to belong to a critical period of the poet’s life. Gawayne, possibly the earliest of the four, written, perhaps, in honour of the patron to whose household the poet was attached, is remarkable for the evidence it contains of the writer’s minute knowledge of the higher social life of his time; from his evident enthusiasm it is clear that he wrote from personal experience of the pleasures of the chase, and that he was accustomed to the courtly life described by him.

The romance of Gawayne contains what seems to be a ersonal reference where the knight is made to exclaim: “It is no marvel for a man to come to sorrow through a woman’s wiles; so was Adam beguiled, and Solomon, and Samson, and David, and many more. It were, indeed, great bliss for a man to love them well, and love them not—if one but could.”

Gawayne is the story of a noble knight triumphing over the sore temptations that beset his vows of chastity: evidently in a musing mood he wrote in the blank space at the head of one of the illustrations in his MS. the suggestive couplet still preserved by the- copyist in the extant MS. His love for some woman had brought him one happiness—an only child, a daughter, on whom he lavished all the wealth of his love. He named the child Margery or Marguerite; she was his “Pearl” —his emblem of holiness and innocence; perhaps she was a love-child, hence his privy pearl. His happiness was shortlived; before two years had passed the child was lost to him; his grief found expression in verse; a heavenly vision of his lost jewel brought him comfort and taught him resignation. It is noteworthy that, throughout the whole poem, there is no single reference to the mother of the child; the first words when the father beholds his transfigured Pearl are significant:

  • “O Pearl,” quoth I
  • “Art thou my Pearl that I have plained,
  • Regretted by me alone” [“bi myn one”].
  • With the loss of his Pearl, a blight seems to have fallen on the poet’s life, and poetry seems gradually to have lost its charm for him. The minstrel of Gawayne became the stern moralist of Cleanness and Patience. Other troubles, too, seem to have befallen him during the years that intervened between the writing of these companion poems. Patience appears to be almost as autobiographical as Pearl; the poet is evidently preaching to himself the lesson of fortitude and hope, amid misery, pain and poverty. Even the means of subsistence seem to have been denied him. “Poverty and patience,” he exclaims, “are need’ splayfellows.”

    Cleanness and Patience were written probably some few years after Pearl; and the numerous references in these two poems to the sea would lead one to infer that the poet may have sought distraction in travel, and may have weathered the fierce tempests he describes. His wanderings may have brought him even to the holy city whose heavenly prototype he discerned in the visionary scenes of Pearl.

    We take leave of the poet while he is still in the prime of life; we have no material on which to base even a conjecture as to his future. Perhaps he turned from poetry and gave himself entirely to theology, always with him a favourite study, or to philosophy, at that time so closely linked with the vital questions at issue concerning faith and belief. If the poet took any part in the church controversies then beginning to trouble men’s minds, his attitude would have been in the main conservative. Full of intense hatred towards all forms of vice, especially immorality, he would have spoken out boldly against ignoble priests and friars, and all such servants of the church who, preaching righteousness, lived unrighteously. From minor traditional patristic views he seems to have broken away, but there is no indication of want of allegiance on his part to the authority of the church, to papal supremacy and to the doctrine of Rome; though it has been well said recently, with reference to his general religious attitude, that it was evangelical rather than ecclesiastical.