Friday, 13 January 2012

Machine poetry: Gawain and the green knight

Gawain and the green knight as a poem of Arthurian legend written in the late 14th century may not seem the obvious choice for a machine poem. In fact, as Gawain himself discovers its story is held tight by devices - poetical and plot (not to mention the girdle) - that would have been much appreciated by its attentive courtly audience in the Duchy of Lancaster.


My claim rests on the sequence when Gawain finally meets the Green Knight again in the green chapel. Gawain hears a terrible clatter emanating from his destination and compares it to a homely noise - someone sharpening his scythe on a grindstone as one vpon a gryndelston hade grounden a syþe. It is like a little window in the poem. Some have attributed the poem to a monastic source and it is easy to imagine a monk writing in the calm scriptorium suddenly distracted by teenage laybrothers messing with tools and equipment in the steading.

The watermill - as water at a mulne - is equally weighted as an image; is grinding corn terrifying? It is hard to imagine this most pastoral Constable-like vision of England as a threat unless we imagine the mills as more Blakean - gobbling up arcadia. In which case they might be deeply problematic to a certain cast of medieval mind.

The scythe has a biblical significance too - Job 14:2 He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. The thematic link with Gawain's claim that it is the preparation of armour though is unexplained. What would a monk know about the details of this? But perhaps it is more effective for we infer how the blade is being sharpened from alliterative sounds and fearsome landscape. A masterclass in early horror.

On a lighter note, we can enjoy the fact that Gawain's name is spelt two profoundly different ways - Wowayn and Gawayn to fit in with alliterative scheme. The machine of poetry indeed!

Gawain and the green knight - extract


Stanza 88

now iwysse quoþ wowayn wysty is here
þis oritore is vgly with erbez ouergrowen
wel bisemez þe wy3e wruxled in grene
dele here his deuocioun on þe deuelez wyse
now I fele hit is þe fende in my fyue wyttez
þat hatz stoken me þis steuen to strye me here
þis is a chapel of meschaunce þat chekke hit bytyde
hit is þe corsedest kyrk þat euer I com inne

with he3e helme on his hede his launce in his honde
he romez vp to þe roffe of þe ro3 wonez
þene herde he of þat hy3e hil in a harde roche
bi3onde þe broke in a bonk a wonder breme noyse
quat hit clatered in þe clyff as hit cleue schulde
as one vpon a gryndelston hade grounden a syþe
what hit wharred and whette as water at a mulne
what hit rusched and ronge rawþe to here
þenne bi godde quoþ gawayn þat here at I trowe
is ryched at þe reuerence me renk to mete

Rough paraphrase - Sir Gawain said, 'This is a bleak place. The oratory is ugly, overgrown with weeds, the green knight could easily worship the devil here. Now it is clear that it is the devil himself who will meet me, so that he may destroy me. This is a chapel of mischance, and the most accursed kirk that I have ever seen.' Armed with his helmet high on his head and lance in hand, he veered up to that rocky den. Then a very strange noise came from a rock in that high hill beyond the brook, and it clattered among the cliffs as though it would break them apart, as though someone were grinding a scythe upon a grindstone, and it made a whirring sound like water in a mill, and rushed and sang out and was terrible to hear. 'By God,' said Gawain, 'that is the noise of armour being made ready for that fellow to meet me.


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