While digging through some of my old books, I came across The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet translated by Casey Finch. As an undergraduate, I purchased this work for the class on Medieval English literature, which was then taught by Prof. Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale College. He made us cover the poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Pearl offers a beautiful vision of heaven, and Prof. Jackson offered some interesting insights into Sir Gawain. You might have caught by now why this poet is referred to as the Pearl-Poet: he wrote anonymously in the 14th century, so some academics chose to call him by one of the five poems attributed to him. He also wrote Cleanliness, Patience, and Saint Erkenwald. Of these poems, Pearl, Cleanliness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are the longest.
My dear readers might see what’s coming now. I intend to review all five of these works within the next two weeks. Each book shall be read once or twice, time permitting. I shall give myself four days for the longer works and two days to digest the shorter. This gives me a schedule that looks like this: review of Pearl on Sept. 13th, Patience on Sept. 15th (We all need a little patience on Mondays, don’t we?), Cleanliness on Sept. 19th, St. Erkenwald on Sept. 21st, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on the 25th. Of course, I shall try to follow along in the Middle English as best as I can to discern the rhyme and rhythm of the pieces, but this Middle English is not Chaucer’s London dialect, but a West Midlands dialect. Compare the well known beginning of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth 5
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë, 10
That wasn’t too hard to understand, was it? Now compare that to the West Midlands dialect:
Siþen þe sege & þe assaut wat3 sesed at Troye,
Þe bor3 brittened & brent to bronde3 & aske3,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t,
Wat3 tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe;
Hit wat3 Ennias þe athel, & his highe kynde, 5
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, & patrounes bicome
Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles,
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,
With gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,
& neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat; 10
If you understood all that without flipping back and forth from a Modern English translation, you’re pretty good! The West Midlands dialect is much closer to Old English than the London dialect. They even use the word athel for prince! Any idea what the word bobbaunce means? Gret bobbaunce gets translated as “pride,” and I’m pretty sure any etymological relatives of bobbaunce have been completely and utterly buried in the sands of time. So, I shall try to read from the Middle English as much as I can, but I know that the language will exhaust me pretty quickly.
Look forward to my thoughts on these medieval English works!