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

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

Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not as clearly connected to these other three poems in themes and imagery, critics have frequently analyzed the recurring death and resurrection motif in the poem.37 Through a beheading game and exchange of winnings, Bercilak tests both Gawain and Arthur’s court. However, similar to Patience, Pearl, and Cleanness, in this poem it is symbolic death that brings spiritual renewal to Arthur’s court. Gawain’s near-death experience takes place at the Green chapel, which Gawain explicitly compares to hell: “Here my3t aboute mydniy3t/Þe Dele his matynnes telle!” (l. 2188) He calls the Green chapel one “of meschaunce, þat chekke hit bytyde!/Hit is þe corsedest kyrk þat euer I com inne!” (ll. 2195-96) However, in labeling it a “green” chapel, the poet denotes this strange “kyrk” (l. 2196) as a sign of life; therefore, it is only through symbolic death that life and renewal, for Gawain and Arthur’s court, is possible.

Malcolm Andrew connects the death-and-resurrection motif in this poem to Patience, for he compares the Green chapel to “the munstor dor” (Pa. l. 268) and the natures of Gawain and Jonah’s confessions (“The Diabolical Chapel” 314-17). As both Gawain and Jonah prepare for death, so also is their preservation “contingent on the mercy of a superior power” (319). Andrew notes that their similar crises are “concerned with the morality of conduct” (319), but he fails to notice the strong relationship between this death-and-resurrection motif and the fruit of sin and disobedience. Gawain is quick to condemn himself, once he realizes his sin in hiding the green girdle, which paradoxically is also a source of both life and death; it spares Gawain from a complete beheading, but not from his wound.

Therefore, in this poem the death-and-resurrection motif’s intimate connection with Pearl and Patience soon becomes clear. After Gawain has made his confession, Bercilak states that like a pearl he is “polysed of þat ply3t and pured as clene” (l. 2393); both Gawain and the green girdle, “a juel for þe joparde” (l. 1856), are compared to pearls, which in Pearl is a symbol of death and resurrection. Only through the “death” of the pearl can spiritual life spring anew. As in Patience, it is only through symbolic death, here necessary because of Gawain’s sin (like the fruit of Jonah’s sin inside the whale), that resurrection and renewal is possible.38 Therefore, the green girdle, although a reminder of Gawain’s sin, is also a symbol of life to King Arthur’s court; everyone who wears it is “acorded þe renoun of þe Rounde Table/And he honoured þat hit hade, euermore after” (ll. 2519-20).

Clearly, the death-and-resurrection motif is a consistent theme throughout all four poems in Cotton Nero A.x. In Pearl, the simultaneously literal and symbolic death of the grieving father’s “pearl” produces the maiden’s spiritual life and renewal in heaven. Throughout the poem, the poet consistently uses fruit, seed, and harvest imagery to convey this theme of life-through-death; he also portrays Christ the “gardener,” whose own death and resurrection paves the way for the maiden’s heavenly reward. In Patience, the symbolic death of Jonah inside the whale, which is the fruit of his sin, engenders Jonah’s spreading the seeds of God’s word to the Ninevites, so that they may bear the spiritual fruit of repentance. As in Pearl, throughout Patience the poet uses creation, planting, and seed imagery to illuminate God’s role as “Creator.”

Although this death-and-resurrection motif does not appear in Cleanness, the poet does contrast the fruits of righteousness and sin, life and death. God spares the righteous, because of their “cleanness,” by offering spiritual life through a covenantal relationship with Him; however, the fruit of “uncleanness” is death and destruction, which the poet skillfully portrays in the ash-filled fruit of Sodom. Like Patience, in Cleanness the fruits of sin and righteousness are clearly conveyed through creation and fruit imagery; however, unlike Patience, the poet ingeniously uses the image of fruit as a symbol for sexual fertility. Finally, although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not contain the rich harvest, fruit, and seed imagery that appears in the other three poems, the poet clearly uses the death-and-resurrection motif in this poem to convey his theme of symbolic death. The girdle promises spiritual life and renewal to Gawain and Arthur’s court. Therefore, the poet’s rich and creative use of the death-and-resurrection motif, along with harvest, seed, and fruit imagery, throughout all four poems of Cotton Nero A.x., but especially in Patience, deserves a serious critical reappraisal.


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1.) See Jane Chance, 33 and 49; C. David Benson, 148-53.

2.) In Kirk’s article, see also pp. 93, 94, and 97.

3.) See also Malcolm Andrew, “Biblical Paraphrase,” 68-69; C. David Benson, 156-57; Sandra Pierson Prior, The Fayre Formez of the Pearl Poet, 149, 153; Prior, The Pearl Poet Revisited, 82; and Jay Schleusener, 959.

4.) In his study “Biblical Paraphrase in the Middle English Patience” (2000), Malcolm Andrew analyzes many ways in which the poet expands the Biblical narrative in Patience; however, there is no mention of creation or harvest imagery.

5.) Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron note that the eighth beatitude is “the poet’s only radical departure from the Vulgate text” (186 n.27). But being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10, KJV) requires patience and endurance of suffering.

6.) See Galatians 5:22-23

7.) On His Father’s Silence, Oration 16.14.

8.) See Matt. 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-20, and Luke 8:4-15.

9.) Unlike Clopper, C. David Benson, commenting on lines 109-24, acknowledges the poet’s portrayal of God as “the creator of the world . . . able ‘for-to-greue’ man” (155); however, Benson fails to notice the implications of this statement, or discuss creation imagery, in this passage and throughout Patience.

10.) See Genesis 1 and 2 for God as “creator.” In the parable of the soils (Matt. 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-20, Luke 8:4-15), Jesus compares God the Father to a “sower.” God also appears as a sower in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), and the parable of the mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19).

11.) In the book of Jonah, imminent death (“perish”) appears only twice: when a sailor wakens Jonah (1:6), and when the crew pray that God will not hold them accountable for Jonah’s death (1:14).

12.) Gary Schmidt, who comments on “Jonah’s spiritual regeneration through patient obedience” (189), in the context of typology, but fails to notice the creation and harvest imagery (179-89). See also Malcolm Andrew, “Biblical Paraphrase,” 68-69; Andrew, “Diabolical Chapel,” 316-18; Andrew, “Jonah and Christ,” 230-33; Clark and Wasserman, “Jonah and the Whale,” 3-5; John Friedman, 99-126; Lynn S. Johnson, “Patience and the Poet’s Use of Psalm 93, 70-71; L. S. Johnson, Voice, 3-36 passim; Enoch Padolsky, 171-75; Sandra Pierson Prior, “Beyond Apocalypse,” 343-45; Prior, Pearl Poet, 83-85; Jay Schleusener, 960-61; and A. C. Spearing, “The Subtext of Patience,” 3310-12.

13.) Malcolm Andrew notes that “Jonah has been searching fruitlessly for a place of shelter and security. . . .As soon as he has prayed, he finds just such a place” (“Biblical Paraphrase. . .” 56). However, he does not trace this theme in the poem.

14.) F. N. M. Diekstra states, “It is through repentance that Jonah is spiritually reborn; the salvation of the people of Nineveh is similarly brought about through repentance” (204). However, Diekstra does not analyze creation or harvest imagery to illustrate how the poet accomplishes this spiritual rebirth in Patience. Lynn Staley Johnson notes that “by his penance, [Jonah] reaps mercy for himself and for the Ninevites”; therefore, “suffering can be creative” (Voice 29). I agree that “change is the dominant theme of the poem,” suggesting a “radical spiritual conversion” on the part of Jonah and the Ninevites (35). The poet accomplishes this through the imagery of creation and harvest, which Johnson does not analyze.

15.) Lynn Staley Johnson says this line “does not occur in the Biblical account” (Voice 14). However, she fails to notice the implications of such an augmentation in the poem: the poet’s use of creation/harvest imagery to illustrate spiritual growth.

16.) Jonah 3:5-6. See also I Kings 20:30-41, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30-31, and Daniel 9:3. In the New Testament, see Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13.

17.) 446 is the first occurrence of “wodbynde” (along with its sister “bynde,” l. 444). The word also appears in lines 459, 468, 474, 480, 486, 491, and 497. The poet skillfully uses “wodbynde,” through its frequent appearance, to unite this episode.

18.) Robert Blanch and Julian Wasserman, asserting that Patience “serves to define God’s ‘hondewerk’” (46), generate a lively discussion on the poet’s use of “hondewerk,” to denote the Creator, in all four poems of Cotton Nero A.x.; except for “hondewerk,” however, Blanch and Wasserman fail to discuss the imagery in Patience that supports this thesis.

19.) For example, see Jane Chance, 39-42; A. R. Heiserman, 160; Marie Hamilton, 812; Stanton Hoffman, 79-80; Lynn Staley Johnson, “The Pearl Dreamer,” 6-11; L. S. Johnson, Voice, 161-91 passim; W. S. Johnson, 167, 178; William Knightley, 99; Jim Rhodes, 133-34, 144-45; A. C. Spearing, The Gawain-Poet, 141.

20.) A. R. Heiserman notes, “The language permits one to wonder whether the pearl is not the seed of the parable, the word of God” (160). In Patience, “the seed of the parable, the word of God,” is what Jonah “spreads” in Nineveh.

21.) See A. C. Spearing, “Symbolic and Dramatic Development in Pearl” (4-5) for a more thorough reading of the father’s misunderstanding of John 12:24-25. See also Andrew and Waldron, 55 n. 31f; and Marie Hamilton, 812-13.

22.) Throughout the New Testament, sleep is one metaphor for death, although it also has other meanings. See, for example, John 11:13, 1 Corinthians 15:51, and 1 Thessalonians 4:14.

23.) According to William Knightley, lines 29-32 correspond to the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13:24-30: “The pearl is metaphorically the ‘semly sede’ and the spices the ‘flor and fryte’” (98).

24.) See W. S. Johnson, 178.

25.) See Revelation 7:14-15

26.) According to Stanton Hoffman, here “the soul is referred to in the language of renewal” (80).

27.) For discussions of garden imagery in Pearl, see W. S. Johnson, 165-73; Spearing, 4-5; Heiserman, 167-68 (who discusses the garden in pastoral elegies); Knightley, 98; Hamilton, 813-18.

28.) A. C. Spearing explains that, when the father wakes up, “he at once laments his lack of patience”; such impatience “has deprived him of a deeper insight into God’s ‘mysterys’” (“Symbolic and Dramatic Development” 12). By “submitting to God’s will, he now accepts positively the loss of his pearl” (12).

29.) John Scattergood notes the constant “patterns of obedience and disobedience” in this poem, but does not connect it with the concept of spiritual fruit (305-10). See also Lynn S. Johnson, Voice, 9-15 passim, 23-25, 32.

30.) For example, see Allen J. Frantzen, 459; Lynn S. Johnson, The Voice of the Gawain-Poet, 108, 118-28; Ad Putter, 211; Michael Twomey, 121-23.

31.) See also Gen. 1:28, in which the Lord tells Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (KJV).

32.) Allen Frantzen states, “Fertility protects and renews the covenant that binds God to his creation” (453). See also Michael Twomey, 121-23, 134.

33.) Andrew and Waldron translate “falle fro” (l. 685) as “spring from,” a clear image of sowing seed and reaping the harvest (140 n. 684-86).

34.) Fruit: “Offspring, progeny. Also an embryo, foetus. Orig. a Hebraism. Now rare, exc. in Biblical phraseology. More fully fruit of the body, loins, womb” (OED Online def. 6).

35.) Andrew and Waldron note that “the ultimate source of this description . . . is Josephus” (154 n.1043-48).

36.) See Malcolm Andrew, “Biblical paraphrase,” 63; A. C. Spearing, The Gawain Poet, 91. Gregory of Naziansen (On His Father’s Silence, Oration 16.14), commenting on Jonah 3:5, compares the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with that of Nineveh: “Let us sow in tears, so that we may reap in joy. Let us show ourselves people of Nineveh, not of Sodom. Let us amend our wickedness, lest we be consumed by it. Let us listen to the preaching of Jonah, lest we be over-whelmed by fire and brimstone. And if we have departed from Sodom, let us escape to the mountain. Let us flee to Zoar. Let us enter it as the sun rises. Let us not look around us, lest we be frozen into a pillar of salt, a really immoral pillar, to accuse the soul that returns to wickedness” (Ferreiro 142).

37.) See S. L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman, “The Passing of the Seasons. . .” (6, 13-15); Lynn S. Johnson, The Voice of the Gawain-Poet, 69-92 passim.

38.) Gerald Morgan sees Gawain’s confession as a kind of “baptism” (264-65). Adam Davis states that Jonah and Gawain each undergo “a symbolic baptism” (275).

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