Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 1, 2020

A Year Runs Swiftly: The Old Year Passes for Sir Gawain

A large number of high school students get at least an introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

If nothing else, they get to read his “Prologue.” One of the most well-known pieces of English poetry, the Prologue is an artful evocation of the advent of spring. Many of you can recite at least a few lines:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote ….

At almost the same time — around 1400 — as Chaucer was in London, writing Canterbury Tales, an unknown poet was writing a poem of singular importance somewhere to the north in England.

Long-time Under Western Skies readers are familiar with the Middle English verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because for most of the past ten years, I’ve written about some aspect of the poem at New Year’s, the time of year in the story.

Why have I been rereading this poem every year for more than 40 years? Because I like it. Writing about it here is my way of coming to grips with at least some of the reasons I enjoy it so much, and never seem to tire of it. I always hope to pass along some of my enthusiasm for it in a way that may interest you.

The poem tells a fascinating story and includes memorable characters (King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, Morgan La Fay, a giant green warrior, all dressed in green armor, riding a green horse and carrying a big, green axe which Sir Gawain uses to cut off the Green Knight’s head), and so forth.

It also comprises some of the most remarkable poetry in all of English. The anonymous author of the unique surviving manuscript was an accomplished storyteller, ironist, humorist (yes, there are places where I, at least, laugh) and a poet of considerable accomplishment.

This year, I’d like to say a bit about one 33-line passage. I’ll single out only a few lines of particular interest.

In those 33 lines, the poet does something similar to Chaucer’s paen to spring. But instead of introducing one season, his story requires that we flash ahead one year, from Gawain beheading the Green Knight, to the time he must go find the Knight to have his own head removed (from which he is less likely to recover than the obviously supernatural Green Knight, whose headless torso blithely picked up its own head, mounted its horse and rode away).

As the year passes in those lines, we get winter, then spring, summer, harvest (that’s autumn in 13th century language) and, once again, winter.

If you’d like an overview of the poem, and a few words about what sort of verse it is, please see my introduction at Silent Night, Green Knight.

I invite you to enjoy the poetic craftsmanship and inventiveness of the poet, and — so far as you can, the poetic sensibility of these single lines.

To start the cycle, the poet demonstrates that punning and word play are not mere amusements, but a longtime, inherent part of English. He plays on three similar-looking, similar-sounding Middle English northern dialect words that alliterate: yere (year), yernes (runs) and yerne (swiftly), plus yeldes (yields or gives):

A yere yernes ful yerne and yeldes never lyke

In J.R.R. Tolkein’s translation:*

“A year slips by swiftly, never the same returning.”

As the first winter passes, there is — in poetic terms — a battle between persistent winter and determined spring, insisting on victory.

Bot thenne the weder of the worlde with wynter hit threpes

As translated by Simon Armitage:**

“Then the world’s weather wages war on winter.”

What does spring look like? This:

Bothe groundes and the greves grene ar her wedes

My translation:

“All the ground and the groves wear green all around.”

In another token of spring, think of Chaucer’s immemorial line:

And smale foweles maken melodye

Our poet, writing at the same time, had a similar thought:

Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen

Marie Borroff rendered it thus:***

“Birds build their nests, and blithely sing”

Our poet — who certainly never read Chaucer and likely never heard of him — is still in step with ol’ Geoff as summer begins. Here’s Chaucer:

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes …

From the Gawain Poet, this:

After, the sesoun of somer wyth the soft wyndes,

Quen Zeferus syfles hymself on sedes and erbes

As translated by Marie Borroff:

“And then the season of summer with the soft winds,

When Zephyr sighs low over seeds and shoots”

Next comes Harvest, and our poet carries the year into a time Chaucer didn’t give us:

Bot then hyes hervest, and hardenes hym sone,

Warnes hym for the wynter to wax ful rype

Here’s Simon Armitage:

“Then autumn arrives to harden the harvest,

And with it comes a warning to ripen before winter”

At the end of Harvest, near the edge of winter, all is bleak. Please note well that our poet intentionally echoes the earlier greening of the grass and the trees, and how they now appear:

And al grayes the gres that grene was ere

My translation:

“All gray the grass now that once was so green.”

Winter comes. The cycle is complete; the year has run full swiftly, and the poet pulls out a clever bit of compositional legerdemain, with another set of alliterating “ys” that echo the start of the annual cycle:

And thus yirnes the yere in yisterdayes mony

Per Tolkein:

“And so the year runs away in yesterdays many”

Our language has changed enormously in 600 years. But artistry, sound, sense, language and some irrepressible spirit are still with us. It’s up to us to keep it alive.

Happy New Year.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Middle English text from Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A.C. Cawley, editor. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1962

Text of the Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, A.C. Cawley, editor. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1958

Translations cited from these works by masters of the art:

* Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, J.R.R. Tolkein trans., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978

**Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage trans., W.W. Norton & Co., 2007

*** Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie Borroff trans., W.W. Norton & Co., 1967

To learn something about these translators, and read more examples of their impressive translations from Gawain, see my blog post, Sir Gawain vs. the Poets: Translations.


Responses

  1. I wondered which aspect of the tale you’d offer this year, and I really enjoyed this. Some lines were harder to grasp than others, but a few really did trip off the mental tongue, like “al grayes the gres that grene was ere. In fact, I think I might use that as a blog title over at Lagniappe. It really does have a bit of a lilt to it — a ‘lilt-le’ bit, if you will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No doubt I’d have done a better job of selecting lines that resonate with modern readers had I a better ear, like yours. I look forward to what you’ll do with “al grayes the gres.” Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

    Your annual lessons In Middle English must be paying off….. as I actually managed to get a workable (though not always poetic) translation into Modern English in my head from just reading each line, prior to reading your offered translation.

    “Quen Zeferus syfles hymself” did take a while though, before I settled on Zephyr as the most likely meaning!

    Goode wishes for a soote newe year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • See? Easy. Way easier than all that whiz-bang computer stuff, which is why I was in the Poetry Department. The best to you.

      Like


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