God as Creator in Patience: A Re-Examination of Cotton Nero A.x.

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08 | pg. 2/3 |

The poet greatly expands the “wodbynde” episode, from the original text, to include a lavish, fourteen‑line description of it. The original, however, does not describe Jonah’s “bour” or God’s “wodbynde.” Therefore, the poet clearly places great emphasis on the rich garden imagery of this scene; from the moment Jonah “buske[z] hym a bour” (l.437) to the end of God’s great speech to Jonah (l.523) is nearly one hundred lines. Like the description of Jonah’s temporary residence, and prayers, inside the whale (ll.247‑342), this scene is one of the longest in the poem.

Jonah’s “bour” (l.437), however, which is made “of hay and of euer‑ferne and erbez a fewe” (l.438), cannot compare with the splendor of God’s creation, which He “ded growe of þat soyle” (l.443). The poet calls it “þe fayrest bynde him abof þat euer burne wyste” (l.444). This “wodbynde” (l.446),17 described as “brod at þe boþem, bo3ted on lofte” (l.449), and like a house “schet in a scha3e þat schaded ful cole” (l.452), is full of “grene graciouse leues” (l.453). Such language produces a rich image of life, symbolic of the Ninevites, to make it clear what Jonah’s cold-hearted impatience wants to destroy.

The literal death of the “wodbynde” symbolizes what would have happened to the Ninevites had God been as impatient with them as Jonah. Therefore, the poet uses a rich language of death, not found in the Bible, to illustrate this truth. While Jonah is asleep, a fact reminiscent of his first slumber on the boat, “God wayned a worme þat wrot vpe þe rote,/And wyddered watz þe wodbynde bi þat þe wy3e wakned” (ll.467‑68); Jonah, the next morning, is horrified to find “his wodbynde þat broþely watz marred,/Al welwed and wasted þo worþelych leues” (ll.474‑75, emphasis mine).

Such imagery does not appear in the original, in which the worm simply “smote” “the gourd that it withered” (4:7, KJV). Therefore, the “wodbynde,” as an image of life, has now become, through the poet’s rich language, a clear image of death. Unlike Jonah’s experience in the whale, the seed of the “wodbynde” literally dies. Here, God uses the “wodbynde” to send a clear message to Jonah: any impatient refusal to show mercy to another literally produces a perished people, and figuratively, a dead “wodbynde.”

It is clear in Jonah’s response that he has not understood God’s message to him. After the worm‑eaten plant dies, and the hot winds make Jonah nearly faint, he cries, “I wolde I were of þis worlde, wrapped in moldez” (l.494). William Vantuono notes that “wanting to be ‘of þis worlde’ . . . implies the desire to be alive in the next. The Ubi Sunt theme, dominant in the medieval period, stressed that earthly joys pass and one should look toward God and his divine kingdom” (231 n494).

Vantuono’s observation is interesting, but Jonah is not interested in heaven; he wishes to be “wrapped in moldez” (l. 494), which shows an obsession with death, not heaven’s bliss. Jonah wants to die because the “wodbynde” itself has died in the night, and there is nothing to protect his head from the sun and wind. Jonah clearly cares more about his life here on earth; why would someone who is angry at God desire to die and be with Him? It is only through symbolic, not literal, death that the spiritual seed can produce fruit. Therefore, Jonah wants to die for the wrong reasons; he has neither pity nor patience for the Ninevites.

God’s reply to the angry Jonah is filled with the language of seeds being planted, and symbolically “dying,” so they can live to bear fruit. None of this imagery appears in the Biblical original. First, however, we notice that Jonah has claimed the “wodbynde” as his own creation, a serious mistake, signifying human pride. God must correct him: “If I wolde help My hondewerk,18 haf þou no wonder;/Þou art waxen so wroth for þy wodbynde,/And trauayledez neuer to tent hit þe tyme of an howre,/Bot at a wap hit here wax and away at anoþer” (ll.496‑99).

Again, God tells Jonah not to “wyte . . . [Him] for þe werk, þat I hit wolde help” (501). He tries to give Jonah some perspective; since the “wodbynde” is not a permanent fixture of the landscape, Jonah should care less about his well-being, and more about the imminent death of many thousands of people. These lines also remind us of another time when the poet metaphorically compares God to a farmer (ll.66‑68, 111); the emphasis is on God as loving and merciful “creator.”

Soon, however, it becomes evident that God has planted more than just a “wodbynde.” He has also planted the Ninevites: “Fyrst I made hem Myself of materes Myn one” (l.503), which describes the initial act of creation. However, God must also “trauayl” (l.505) over the Ninevites as He would tenderly guard a living plant: “And syþen I loked hem ful longe and hem on lode hade” (l.504). The poet’s explicit message in God’s speech comes near the end, when He patiently explains to Jonah, “Wer I as hastif as þou heere, were harme lumpen;/Couþe I not þole bot as þou, þer þryued ful fewe” (ll.520‑21). If God, like Jonah, “couþe . . . not þole” (l.521) the Ninevites’ sins, they would not have had a chance to repent because the entire city would have been destroyed.

Therefore, Jonah must allow the seed of God’s word, within him and the Ninevites, to “die” so that it will bear fruit: humility, obedience, and patience. This is the paradox of planting the seed of faith: it must spiritually “die” in order to be reborn. Therefore, the poet’s injunction to his readers is to “be no3t so gryndel . . . bot go forth þy wayes,/Be preue and be pacient in payne and in jove” (ll. 524-25). In Patience, the poet, using the language and imagery of planting, and of God as “Creator” and “farmer,” brings the message of spiritual death and rebirth: the “death” of the seed to produce abundant “life” and “fruit.”

“In his labor of cultivation, God extirpates the seeds of evil from us and opens our hearts as with a plow in order to plant the seeds of the precepts, whose fruit is piety. Since God is in this sense a farmer, He planted a vineyard and called workers in it” (Robertson 152). This quotation captures the theme of spiritual death and rebirth in Patience. However, D. W. Robertson, Jr. is not discussing Patience; instead, he is analyzing planting imagery in the parable of the vineyard in Pearl.

Why is the poet’s theme of spiritual rebirth, illustrated through the imagery and language of planting, not given the critical recognition or analysis it deserves in Patience? The poet uses this theme, the symbolic death of the seed producing spiritual fruit, in Pearl, and many critics have thoroughly analyzed a “death-and-resurrection motif,” and its imagery, in that poem (Hoffman 79-80).19

Pearl, the first poem in Cotton Nero A.x., is a highly structured narrative on what appears to be a father’s elegy for his young daughter; it contains many frameworks, including the father’s spice-garden, the Eden-like garden in his vision, the vision of the New Jerusalem, and the rich, variant meanings of “pearl.” When the poem opens, it is “Augoste in a hy3 seysoun” (l. 39): harvest-time; unlike Patience, however, the word “fryt” actually appears here. The poet describes a grieving father who is fixated on his loss, not heaven’s gain. The speaker, in a vain attempt to solace himself, states that “flor and fryte may not be fede/Þer hit doun drof in moldez dunne/Vch gresse mot grow of graynez dede;/No whete were ellez to wonez wonne” (ll.29‑32); this theme is replicated in Patience.20

These lines also allude to John 12:24: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (KJV). The father, however, in his grief, misses the second half of the allusion: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (12:25, KJV). Therefore, the father fails to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of death: eternal life in heaven.21 These lines also give us an image of the speaker’s “hit” sinking in earthly “moldez” (l.30). William Vantuono notes here that the poet’s use of “moldez” (l.30) produces “an effective burial image,” similar to Patience (l.494) (231 n494).

Therefore, as in Patience, the seed must die to produce fruit. While in Patience, that fruit is humility and patience, in Pearl such fruit is eternal life, through literal, and symbolic, death and resurrection. The symbolic death, or sleep, of the grieving father allows him a vision of his daughter in heaven (ll. 57-62).22 However, only the literal “death” of the pearl can “fede” each “flor and fryte” (l.29).23 The maiden acknowledges this truth when she describes “my Lorde þe Lamb” (l. 407) as the “rote and grounde of alle my blysse” (l. 420). It is only through the death and resurrection of Christ that the speaker, physically dead but spiritually alive, can live in heaven.

When asked to explain her exalted status in heaven, the maiden relates the parable of the vineyard, where the Lord is the gardener, and she a worker hired at “euensonge” (l. 529); here, all Christians in God’s vineyard are equally paid their “peny” (l. 560): eternal life.24 This portrait of God as the Gardener is similar to His creative role in Patience, for as a prophet, Jonah is also a worker in God’s vineyard. With clear reference to Christ’s second coming,25 the maiden states that “þat meyny þe Lombe þat swe;/For þay arn bo3t, fro þe vrþe aloynte,/As newe fryt to God ful due” (ll.892-94).26 According to the MED, “fryt” here means “the produce or crops of the soil” (1.a). Although the poet uses here a clear harvest metaphor, this is spiritual “fruit,” able to be harvested by God only through death. As Andrew and Waldron note, this “harvest metaphor” is a “more overt reference to the hope of resurrection” (96 n.889-94).

Throughout Pearl, “fryt” is associated with spiritual life. The father, describing the beauty of the heavenly garden he sees in his vision, notes that “so frech flauorez of frytez were,/As fode hit con me fayre refete” (ll.87-88). The beauty of this garden is so wonderful that it “garten” the speaker “for3ete” the “greffe” in his “goste” (l. 86). The purposes of this heavenly fruit are both to refresh the soul and, more importantly, to produce life out of both physical (daughter) and spiritual (father) death. Ad Putter notes the association of heaven, in medieval literature, with a “city set in a pleasant garden, where flowers grow, [and] where trees are always laden with fruit” (152).27

The poet uses this image of the fruit of life in heaven to illustrate spiritual rebirth. Later, in the father’s vision of the New Jerusalem, he sees “tres ful schym,/Þat twelue frytez of lyf con bere ful sone;/Twelue syþez on 3er þay beren ful frym,/And renowlez nwe in vche a mone” (ll.1077-80). According to the MED, “frytez” can mean here “outgrowth, development, consequence, outcome, or result” (5.a). The “result” of the young woman’s death, and the ensuing father’s grief, is this vision of the garden-like New Jerusalem, the ultimate source of life; out of physical and symbolic death come “twelue frytez of lyf” (l. 1078).

This spiritual truth, of the fruitful life springing out of both literal and symbolic death, is used skillfully in both Pearl and Patience. Ironically in Pearl, the father is physically alive, but spiritually dead because of his inconsolable grief. However, he learns to bear his grief, in essence to patiently suffer emotional pain, through a vision of his daughter in heaven, who, unlike her father, is physically dead but spiritually alive with Christ.28 She has learned that only out of death can true life spring, related by the poet through the metaphor of fruit. The father’s sleep, a symbolic death, is what allows him this great vision, both of his daughter and of the New Jerusalem.

This theme also clearly runs in Patience. Jonah must symbolically “die” inside the whale, and God’s “wodbynde” must physically die during the night, so that Jonah can bear the fruits of humility, obedience, and patience, and learn to show mercy to his fellow human beings. He also must learn that only out of symbolic death can true life spring, again related by the poet through the language and imagery of the seed and its fruit.

Another fruit‑related theme has been working its way through Patience: the contrary spiritual fruits of sin and righteousness. Twice in this poem, the poet portrays Jonah as a man asleep, first during the storm (ll.184‑86), and then under the “wodbynde” (ll.465‑73). In his commentary on Jonah in Postillae (1498‑1502), Hugh of St. Cher, a Dominican cardinal, interprets Jonah’s slumber during the storm “as the wayfaring man in the sleep of sin, who being utterly senseless, ignores the wrath of God; and slumbers secure in a deep sleep snoring raucously” (qtd. in Bowers 58).

Although Patience was written long before the cardinal’s commentary on Jonah, the poet was probably aware of the “sleep of sin” theme in medieval theology; he therefore interprets Jonah’s slumber as such. Jonah sins by refusing to preach God’s word to Nineveh; in his slumbering state, and unaware of the storm, Jonah believes he is safe on the boat. However, the storm proves God is watching him; the fruit of his sin includes being singled out as a “lawles wrech” (l.170), and then being swallowed by the whale. Jonah also sins by angrily cursing God for having mercy on the city of Nineveh. Rejoicing in his lovely “loge” (l.461), and later asleep under it, Jonah again believes he is safe, unaware that God has “wayned a worme” (l.467) to destroy the “wodbynde” and a hot “Zeferus” (l.470) to make him faint. Each time, Jonah’s sin proves disastrous for his life and health.

Such a powerful display of God’s discipline is a stark contrast to its counterpart: the fruit of righteousness among the people of Nineveh. Confronted with their grievous sin against God, “such a hidor hem hent and a hatel drede,/Þat al chaunged her chere and chylled at þe hert” (ll.367‑68). The poet continues: “Þenne þe peple pitosly pleyned ful stylle,/And for þe drede of Dry3tyn doured in hert” (l.371‑72); they proceed to dress themselves in sackcloth and ashes, as a sign of mourning for their sin (ll.373‑76). Commanded by the king, the people “faste frely for her falce werkes” (l.390), starving their children and animals while hoping for God’s “gentryse” (l.398), “mylde amesyng” and “mercy” (l.400). The fruit of the Ninevites’ righteousness, their repentance and patient willingness to suffer physical hunger and spiritual humility, is God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Like the earlier analyzed death-and-resurrection motif in this poem, why would the obvious theme of the fruits of sin and righteousness in Patience be overlooked?29 This theme also appears in Cleanness, and critics have discussed the poet’s use of it in this poem, such as the image of Sodom’s rotten fruit.30 Ad Putter also notes the poet’s use of the metaphorical “tree,” “commonplace in the Middle Ages,” as a structural method; he discusses the ars praedicandi, in which “the theme of a work . . . is like the seed or the root of a tree. As the author considers the various divisions of his theme, he may pursue its implications, the branches that spring from this root, and these implications may split off again, like off-shoots on a branch” (204). Therefore, according to Putter, “the theme of cleanness . . . grows along the branches of [the poet’s] main exempla” (204).

“Cleanness,” like patience and its synonyms in Patience, is the key term in this poem. However, the poet adds a sexual dimension to his use of this term, which is not found in Patience. The Lord God commands righteous Noah to “waxez now and wendez forth and worþez to monye,/ Multyplyez on þis molde” (ll. 521-22); this is the poet’s version of the Biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 9:1, 7, KJV).31 The poet would have been familiar with “fruit” defined as “offspring [or] progeny,” since it was first used in this sense c. 1300 (OED def. 5).

God then tells Noah that the earth’s cycles will never again be disturbed: “Sesounez schal yow neuer sese of sede ne of heruest” (l. 523). For obeying God in building the ark and gathering earth’s creatures into it, Noah is rewarded with the promise of descendants and a covenantal relationship with God. Here then, the poet intertwines the themes of the fruit of righteousness and sexual fertility.32

Such ingenious intertwining of themes continues in Cleanness. For Abraham and Sarah, who are “barayn” (l. 659) and “withouten sede” (l. 660), the fruit of righteousness means the promise of children: “And þenne schal Sare consayue and a sun bere” (l. 649). As in Patience and Pearl, “seed” here signifies planting and an expectation of the harvest; however, the added dimension of sexual fertility produces another sense of “seed” as “offspring [or] progeny” (OED def. 5), a meaning the poet would have known, since it was first used in this sense c. 825.

Because of his righteousness as God’s servant, the Lord makes Abraham the “chef chyldryn fader,/ Þat so folk schal falle fro to flete all þe worlde” (ll. 684-85). This planting image33 is similar to God’s commands to Jonah in Patience (ll. 66-68, 365), with, however, the added dimension of sexual fertility. Finally, Mary, “þe lel mayden” (l. 1069) and mother of Jesus Christ, is rewarded with a “clean” virgin birth; the fruit of her womb34 is literally the Savior of the world. Throughout Cleanness, the poet uses the literal and metaphorical fruit of righteousness theme and imagery to connect “cleanness” with the promise of descendants.

However, God’s fruitful rewards for righteousness are in stark contrast to the fruit of sin: physical and spiritual sterility. Adam and Eve “ete of an apple/Þat enpoysened alle peplez þat parted fro hem boþe” (ll. 241-42). The fruit of their sin, literally God’s “defence” of a “fryt” (l. 245), is both literal and spiritual “dom” and “deþe” (l. 246), not only for them but also for “alle peplez þat parted fro hem boþe” (l. 242), including the poet. Adam and Eve’s sin does not appear to involve “uncleanness” or produce sterility; however, it is their punishment (i.e. original sin) that produces physical and sexual sterility in their “unclean” descendants, who are the victims of God’s wrath in His destruction of the world.

As “þe fende” (l. 269) and “þe de3ter of þe douþe” (l. 270) “controeued agayn kynde contrare werkez” (l. 266) when they “engendered . . . jeauntez” (l. 272), so the fruit of their uncleanness is physical sterility and death; for their sin, God must “wasch alle þe worlde” (l. 323). “In lust and in lecherye and loþelych werkkes” (l. 1350) also describes Balthazar’s court; for the married king’s sexual uncleanness in taking “mony a lemman” (l. 1352), God destroys him and his kingdom in one night. In each exemplum, the poet uses a fruit metaphor to show a direct correlation between the fruit of sin and spiritual and sexual sterility, and the immediacy of complete destruction.

The fruit of sin is also evident in the poet’s stark portrayal of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Describing the Sodomite landscape after the two cities have been destroyed, the poet notes that the fruit there appears “þe fayrest fryt þat may on folde growe/As orenge and oþer fryt and apple‑garnade,/Also red and so ripe and rychely hwed/As any dom my3t deuice of dayntyez oute” (ll.1043‑46). Such rotten fruit is a sign of both physical and spiritual sterility. The fruit of Sodom is rotten because of the people’s homosexuality, for “quen hit is brused oþer broken, oþer byten in twynne,/No worldez goud hit wythinne, bot wyndowande askes” (ll.1047‑48).

The legend of Sodom’s rotten apples was a commonplace in medieval theology.35 Michael Twomey notes that “in scriptural tradition, Sodom’s unfaithfulness . . . is expressed through the metaphor of spiritual sterility” because they failed to “cultivate the fruit of faith” (121‑22). As in Patience, the verb “plaunten” also appears here, but in a different sense: “to plant (a vineyard, a garden)” (MED, 1b). The poet describes Sodom as a place “þat euer hade ben an erde of erþe þe swettest,/As aparuant to paradise, þat plantted þe Dry3tyn” (ll.1006‑07). The poet compares Sodom with Eden, before its destruction, to demonstrate the fruit of sin, “beautiful but seedless and filled only with ashes” (Twomey 122). Had the people of Sodom repented of their sexual sin, the city’s fate might have been like that of Nineveh.36

Such sinful fruit produces, even in righteous people, a wrong view of human sexuality for those who must live with uncleanness. To the men of Sodom, Lot offers his daughters as “ronk . . . rype, and redy to manne” (l. 869), and frequently mentions their beauty. Ad Putter describes such language as “harvest imagery” (207), since the two daughters, now grown up, are “rype” for the picking, and are ready to be married. This is an interesting insight, but not quite right, for the poet uses a mixed metaphor, with the imagery of both the harvest and procreation.

For “unclean” Sodom, therefore, the fruit of sin means both physical and spiritual sterility. As they refused to bear children through heterosexual relations, so are they destroyed, making descendants impossible; the poet captures Sodom’s sin in the image of ash-filled apples.

Like the symbolic death of the seed in Patience and Pearl, this theme of the contrary fruits of sin and righteousness is used skillfully in both Patience and Cleanness. In Patience, Jonah, as the poet’s negative exemplum, must learn to bear God’s punishment for his pride, disobedience, and impatience; the Lord allows a whale to swallow Jonah, and then destroys His own creation, the lovely “wodbynde,” to show him His mercy. For Nineveh, however, God withholds His wrath because they have born the fruit of righteousness: repentance. This theme also appears in Cleanness.

The righteousness of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and Mary brings sexual fertility and a covenantal relationship with God. However, the sin and uncleanness in Adam and Eve, in those bearing giants before the flood, in Baltazar, and in Sodom and Gomorrah brings spiritual and sexual sterility. In both poems, the poet masterfully uses fruit and harvest imagery to communicate his message of spiritual life and fertility for those who obey God, and spiritual sterility and death for those who refuse to listen to Him.

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