The survival of Middle English literature was a hazardous business, and a great deal has been lost. Of the most fortunate survivors – works which depend on a single manuscript – there is nothing to be more grateful for than the British Library manuscript labelled Cotton Nero A x, containing four narrative poems from the northwest midlands of England in an ornate language of the late fourteenth century, Chaucer’s time. The most celebrated of the manuscript’s four poems is the final one, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the pre-eminent masterpieces of European Romance. The first of the four poems is Pearl, a work which would not be secondary in appeal to anything except such a masterpiece as Gawain. The other two poems, equally brilliant in language and colour, are lively Biblical paraphrases, Patience (the story of Jonah and the whale) and Cleanness, which mostly consists of three Old Testament stories on the subject of sinful worldliness – the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Belshazzar’s Feast. It is almost certain that the poems are all by the same writer, usually referred to out of deference for the two most distinguished items as ‘The Gawainpoet’ or ‘The Pearl-poet’. There is probably no writer in English who is so unfortunate to be unidentified; this poet is one of the great writers of the Middle Ages, of the era of Dante and Petrarch and Chaucer.
As far as modern versions go, Gawain has fared well, ever since the manuscript first came to notice in the early nineteenth century. There is a huge body of criticism on the poem, and since the early twentieth century a steady stream of distinguished translators: J.R.R.Tolkien, Marie Borroff, W.S. Merwin and Simon Armitage, for instance. Pearl has fared much less well, despite the general warmth of its advocates and the volume of enthusiastic criticism on the poem which often mentions it in the same breath as Dante, Boccaccio and Langland. The reasons for this are clear. Gawain (like all the poems in the manuscript) is written in a ringing alliterative language. The modern translator has to decide whether to try to reproduce the formal effect of this; several have done so with great success – Borroff and Armitage, for example. But that is the only decision to be made; the poem’s narrative compulsion and descriptive brilliance carry any version forward, alliterating or not.
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