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Friday, February 1, 2013

Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience

Patience, the fourteenth century alliterative poem by the Pearl-Poet, provides a revealing model of the appropriation of a scriptural source. Though in many ways a typical homily in form, offering a Old and New Testament text to illustrate a lesson, the poem’s interest for most moderns arises from its irregularities. For instance, the opening praises not all “patience” (or acceptance or humility which also figure in the author’s concept), but in particular patience when wronged and treated with “heþyng.” (20)

The story of Jonah in the Hebrew (and the Vulgate that forms the background to the poet’s version) is most often cited by Christians as typological, an anticipation of Christ with the three days inside the beast prefiguring the interval between the crucifixion and the resurrection. The tropological or moral implication is also clear. Job provides the more common exemplum for patience, and Jonah certainly recalls Job in his railing, but the story also recalls that of Abraham and Isaac in its teaching of submission and acceptance. Whereas the earlier patriarch was willing to obey the Lord even to killing his son, Jonah is punished for his recalcitrance. Further, the time in the beast’s belly does not altogether reform his rebellious tendency, what the text calls, in its northern Midlands dialect, likely to slow even a reader comfortable with Chaucer’s language, his “janglande” (90) or grumbling, and he must be reproved a second time. Though the Bible’s account is telegraphic in the style of spare folk narrative, the poet indulges in considerable expansion, including colloquialisms and psychological motivation both of Jonah and of God. In the hands of the medieval poet, the story is more “realistic” and its thematic point altered to celebrate the virtue of patience.

Though in many ways a typical homily in form, the poem’s interest for most moderns arises from its irregularities. For instance, the opening praises not all “patience” (or acceptance or humility which also figure in the author’s concept), but in particular patience when wronged, “bullied,” or “abused, (19) a feeling no unknown to the lower orders of feudal society. After a recitation of the Beatitudes, he proceeds name eight “blessings” or virtues which is derived from the Beatitudes rather than from Prudentius’ Psychomachia (which includes seven rather different virtues). The poet links poverty and patience, noting that he himself must exercise the latter as he is afflicted with the former. He asks if he were to be ordered to Rome by his master he would have to accept or face worse, though compliance would bring little reward. He then adds that a very similar circumstance once occurred to Jonah, and begins to tell the tale of the reluctant prophet and the great sea beast.

Putting up with penury and the thoughtless demands of one’s boss may be Christian, but these sound more like the storyteller’s seduction of his audience through building links to their common experience and then promising the respite of a rousing good story than like a typical moralizing sermon.

Earlier readers have often appreciated the poet’s vernacular language (not only not Latin, but markedly informal English such as the words describing his resistance to the divine will. (Another is “gyrchchyng” or complaining, l. 53.) The narrative is introduced by comparing the speaker’s discomfiture at being sent on an unwelcome mission by his “lege lorde” (51) to a “jape” played on Jonah long ago. (57) He then invites the reader to hear an entertaining story, noting as a “teaser” the ironic plot. (58) Apart from the rhythmic swing, conversational exchanges between Jonah and God are rendered as naturally as a modern play. For instance, God responds “Herk renk is þis riȝt so ronkly to wrath/ For any dede þat I haf don oþer demed þe ȝet” (431-2), a divine attitude that elicits more “janglande” from Jonah. When Jonah has emerged from the beast and is established in a pleasant home he says in the most natural way, “Iwysse, a worÞloker won to welde I neuer keped.” (464)

The rich liveliness of the text provides vivid detailed accounts far beyond the Biblical text in such matters as the ship’s setting out, a step-by-step guide (attending to ropes, sail, hawsers, windlass, anchor, and so on). Later as the ship founders the sailors bale, toss featherbeds over the side, and each calls on his favorite pagan deity. Once Jonah is out and has warned Nineveh, the king strips, throws himself into ashes, dons a hair-shirt and a covering “sack,” and commands that all must perform penitential actions including fasting by babies and livestock.

His harrowing period in the stench and slime of the sea monster’s digestive tract is also described in terms readers are likely to remember, but the experience does little to reform our grumpy hero. Having built himself a little home, he is given the marvelous honeysuckle, an emblem of all earthly delights, and he feels such satisfaction he sounds like a purchaser of a new McMansion, declaring, “Iwysse, a worÞloker won to welde I neuer keped” (464) and requiring God to chasten him once more, not, one suspects, for the last time even then.

In the end, Jonah’s lesson must be, of course, for the poet’s audience, and for us all.

Be no3t so gryndel, godman, bot go forth Þy wayes,
Be preue & be pacient in payne & in joye;
For he Þat is to rakel to renden his cloÞez
Mot efte sitte with more vnsounde to sewe hem togeder. (524-527)

The emphasis is not so much in pious obedience to God as practicality. Who wants to be obliged to needlessly resew one’s wardrobe? Jonah’s acceptance includes obeying also his earthly lord mentioned at the poem’s outset. Simple acceptance of what cannot be altered is prudential, not revealed, wisdom. It is best to follow Jehovah’s commands in one’s own interest, realizing that rebellion against the divine will must increase anyone’s suffering, just as flouting one’s worldly master will bring unwelcome consequences.

The poet established contact with his audience through their common poverty and suffering. His prophet would have preferred to avoid direct dealings with the divine, but, when such contact is forced upon him, he finds it best to cooperate. The poem in fact teaches patience in the sense of forbearance and acceptance of what cannot be changed. God’s overarching plan holds little interest for Jonah who wishes only to make his small part in it as comfortable as possible. The poet managed to entertain his audience with an altogether fabulous tale of magic and monsters while maintaining a fundamental realism that allowed each listener to identify with the prophet as someone little different form the common man.

(This essay uses Moorman's edition, The Works of the Gawain-Poet.)

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