Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception

Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception

Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception

Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception

Synopsis

"Seeing the Gawain-Poet offers the first full-length study of the descriptive art found in four medieval poems - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Purity, and Patience. Generally accepted as being the work of a single author, alternately known as the Pearl- or the Gawain-poet, these fourteenth-century poems are bound together in British Museum Cotton Nero A.x. Readers of the poems rarely fail to admire their descriptive art - the minutely detailed and precisely visualized depictions of costume, landscape, interior furnishings, or storms at sea. It is Sarah Stanbury's achievement to place the poet's use of visual detail in an illuminating, new interpretive context. Sarah Stanbury examines the Gawain-poet's extraordinary powers of physical description and the ways in which the poems focus on the moment and act of vision. With equal adeptness, she grounds her discussion in medieval aesthetics, contemporary narrative theory, and iconographic study to explore the ways in which the poet consistently uses description as a narrative tool for dramatizing the limitations of human experience and knowledge. In a speculative conclusion, Stanbury explores some of the anxieties about sight and knowledge as reflected in English mysticism and contemporary intellectual life and as represented in poetry. Through a comparison of the Gawain-poet's visualized descriptive art with that of his contemporaries, particularly Chaucer, her study concludes that the Gawain-poet was unique among English poets of this time in consistently using a focused visual poetics as a mode of description and as a mode of thought." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

Middle English poetry probably offers no more impressively fictional persona than the Gawain-poet. Not only have scholars attempted to establish a geographical locus, a time, and a cultural milieu for the writer of the poems in British Library Cotton Nero A.x., but they have also created a single author out of what could possibly be four separate poets. All we have are texts, the four poems bound together in one small, unimpressively illustrated vellum manuscript.

In yoking these narratives to a single author and then in searching for -- and hearing -- that poet's voice, we are creating a fiction out of the fabric of fiction; yet this creation of an author is not only convenient (though more than one reader has remarked that it would simplify the lives of scholars and of librarians if the "Gawain"- or "Pear" -poet had a name) but also reasonable, since the texts share many parallels in language, in mode, in image systems, and even in thematic concerns. The claim for a single author for these poems rests also on the fact that they are bound together in a single surviving manuscript, all share one dialect, and all seem to have been written within a few years of each other. A. C. Spearing summarizes: "But ultimately, to establish probabilities in such a case, we can only fall back on the principle of economy, or Ockham's razor. It is easier to believe that...within a rather small dialect area, there lived one great poet than to believe there lived two, or three, or four."

The more subjective evidence offered by similarities in imagery, theme, and style also argues in favor of single rather than multiple authorship and helps as well to create a sense of authorial presence, a sense of a writer confronting and working through difficult issues. Pearl, Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight share patterns of imagery, such as the recurrent pearl, and also patterns of spatial representation, patterns we confront most immediately in the four texts' many descriptions of enclosed spaces. Each of the Cotton Nero poems is marked by a thematic awareness of human crisis and transition, transition that is realized as both spatial and . . .

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