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

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08 | pg. 1/3 |

Patience, the third poem in Cotton Nero A.x., tells the story of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, placing the narrative within the context of the virtue “pacience” (ll. 1, 531). This, however, is the crux: how much of Patience is simple translation, and in what ways did the poet augment the Biblical narrative? According to C. David Benson, the poet’s use of a Davidic psalm (ll. 118-24) is the “only admitted addition to the Book of Jonah” (152). As Sarah Stanbury observes, “The exemplum section of Patience, the Jonah story, is episodic, as is the Biblical narrative” (73).

Both critics also acknowledge that Jonah’s prayer inside the whale is a close “model” (Benson 153) and “paraphrase” (Stanbury 80) of the Vulgate. However, Stanbury insists that “the description of the experience of interior space,” the inside of the whale, “seems to be, in the absence of any apparent source, the poet’s own creation”; she also notes that the poet’s “description [of the inside of the whale] is long and detailed and . . . utterly unlike the account in the Vulgate” (80).

Although this debate has not yet been settled, many critics agree that the structure of Patience itself is a homiletic sermon, or at least contains the elements of one.1 Although Benson believes Patience is too long to be a strict homily, he describes the typical homily’s purpose, which “is not so much to explore the abstract questions of Christian doctrine as to involve the audience so that they learn a lesson that can be put to practical spiritual use. A preacher intends to move his listeners’ hearts as well as their minds and to show the relevance of Christian doctrine to daily life” (148).

The Pearl Poet

Gawain Poet (fl. c.1375–1400), manuscript painting [as the father in Pearl].

The poet of Patience has a clear spiritual and practical lesson for his readers: the virtue of patience. However, one method he uses to teach this lesson has been overlooked for too long, since the poet explores similar themes and imagery in Pearl, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which critics have been analyzing for many years.

One theme that recurs in Patience is the poet’s portrayal of God as “Creator.” Critics have frequently observed, and discussed, such a portrayal in the “wodbynde” episode of the poem (ll. 435-523?). For example, Elizabeth D. Kirk notes an intimate connection between God’s salvation of the Ninevites and the “revelation of [Him] as creator” (96).2 John Scattergood states, “Because God is the creator and lord of everything . . . He has a right to expect obedience” (306).3

However, Kirk and Scattergood, as well as other critics, fail to see the implications of this portrayal of God as “Creator” throughout Patience, and its deep connection to the virtue of patience. As A. C. Spearing states, “Reminders of the divine creativity . . . are found everywhere in Patience” (Gawain-Poet 94). He affirms that “the power of God the creator . . . is present everywhere within the world of the poem -- and this very power is the source of God’s mercy, his ‘patience’” (94).

Therefore, in Patience, the poet augments the Book of Jonah using creation and harvest imagery, not found in the Biblical narrative, to illustrate the virtue of patience. Such imagery produces two themes in this poem: spiritual death and rebirth, in that the death of the seed bears spiritual fruit (patience, repentance, and humility), and the twin fruits of sin and righteousness, obedience and disobedience. This imagery more thoroughly reveals a consistent portrait of God as “Creator” in Patience.4 However, the few critics who acknowledge such imagery in Patience fail to analyze it in the context of patience, salvation, and repentance.

Lorraine K. Stock notes how “the poet takes every possible opportunity to capitalize on this aspect of the Old Testament God [as Creator] in a series of epithets that, in stressing God’s creativity, emphasize His activity” (167); she then lists nearly a dozen references in which the poet has done so. However, Stock’s observation is a sidenote in her analysis of the poet’s use of medieval vices and virtues in characterizing Jonah’s sloth (163). In “The God of the Gawain-Poet,” Lawrence Clopper notes the consistent portrayal of God as “Creator” in Cleanness (2-7); however, in Patience, he considers a similar portrayal of God as “Farmer” “worldly” (9).

Therefore, as in Pearl, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet in Patience uses creation and harvest imagery, and language, to illustrate another aspect of the virtue patience: spiritual fruitfulness, which signifies life. The poet’s portrayal of God as “Creator” in Patience illustrates how the Lord produces fruitful obedience, repentance, humility, and patience in His creation.

Jonah’s unique path to patience, however, illuminates the spiritual truth of planting the seed, which in Patience signifies the words of God: this seed must “die” in order to be more fruitful. Therefore, such planting is an image of spiritual death and rebirth, themes analyzed in Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, there is another aspect of fruitfulness in Patience. The poet’s contrast between Jonah’s disobedience and the Ninevites’ repentance illuminates the concept of the spiritual fruits of sin and righteousness.

In Patience, the poet sets the narrative of Jonah within the specific context of the virtue of patience, something the Biblical narrative does not mention. The poet defines patience as to “suffer” or endure (l. 5), to “abyde” (l. 7), and “suffraunce” or long-suffering (l. 3). He characterizes it as a virtue because of its reward: “For quoso suffer cowþe syt, sele wolde fol3e” (l.5). Patience is also a virtue because it is an attribute of Christ, who taught in His Sermon on the Mount that “þay are happen also ppat con her hert stere,/For hores is þe heuen-ryche” (ll. 27-28).5

Here, the Beatitudes of Christ are the very words of God, like “seeds.” As such, they contain the “lesson of spiritual growth” (Johnson, Voice, 25). According to the poet, patience also “quelles vche a qued and quenches malyce” (l. 4); he therefore associates the divine virtue with symbolic death. Symbolically, the spiritual fruit of patience must “kill” evil, such as pride and disobedience, in order to be productive in the heart.

Through the early church fathers and medieval theologians, the poet would have been familiar with Jonah as an example of patience. In Against Heresies (3.20.1-2), Irenaeus (c. 125-202), bishop of Rome, discusses Jonah’s salvation in the context of God’s “long-suffering” (qtd. in Chow 181). According to Irenaeus, it was God who “patiently suffered Jonah to be swallowed by the whale,” so that Jonah “might be the more subject to God . . . and might bring the Ninevites to a lasting repentance” (qtd. in Chow 181). Greek theologian Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215) named Jonah as an example of patience. In Stromata 2.20, Clement states, “This is the patience which the Christian Gnostic will gain . . . . Like Jonah, he will offer prayer even when swallowed down by a sea monster, and his faith will restore him as prophet to the people of Nineveh” (226).

Franciscan Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340) lived before Cotton Nero A.x. was written, although Postillae Perpetuae was not printed until 1471. Here, Nicholas glosses Jonah 4:4: “And God spoke: reprehending Jonah’s impatience” (qtd. in Bowers 60). Even if the poet had not read Nicholas’ work, he was aware of this connection, for Nicholas repeated what came before him.

Through the Vulgate and early church fathers, the poet was also familiar with patience, or “long-suffering,” as a spiritual fruit.6 Saint Augustine (354-430), in his treatise on patience (c. 417), associates the virtue of patience with spiritual poverty and the Biblical idea of bearing fruit. At the end of the treatise, Augustine compels his readers to be patient for their eternal inheritance in Christ. Quoting Psalm 9:18, Augustine states, “‘the patience of those poor,’ I say, ‘shall not perish forever’” (263).

The patience of the poor in spirit “will not be unfruitful. It will have eternal fruit, and so ‘shall not perish forever’” (263-64). Gregory of Naziansen,7 commenting on Jonah 3:5, declares, “Let us sow in tears, so that we may reap in joy. Let us show ourselves people of Nineveh. . . .Let us listen to the preaching of Jonah. . .” (Ferreiro 142). Therefore, in Patience, the poet’s interpretation of patience as a spiritual fruit was commonplace.

In the narrative section of this poem, God’s first command to Jonah is rich in planting imagery. In the book of Jonah, however, God tells the prophet to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it” (1:2, KJV). This same command appears in the poem, but the poet has augmented it to include the language of the sower. God tells Jonah to “nym þe way to Nynyue wythouten oþer speche,/And in þat ceté My sa3es soghe alle aboute” (ll.66‑67). In this context, “soghe” means “to scatter or deposit(seed) on or in the ground,” “to place or put (seed) in the ground,” or “to plant (a crop)” (Oxford English Dictionary def. 4.a).

Therefore, the phrase “soghe all aboute” (l.67) produces a clear image of someone spreading seeds on the land. In this context, “sa3es” (l.67) become the “seeds” of God’s word, a figurative meaning the poet would have known, since he uses it in Pearl (l. 54). According to the Middle English Dictionary, “seed” can mean “fig. spiritual seed; also a latent beginning of something, a germ; ~ of God, ?Holy Spirit, ?divine nature, words” (1.a.e). The OED also interprets “seed” as such, noting its figurative meaning, used as early as Boethius (c. 1000), as an “allusion to the Parable of the Sower8 . . . with regard to its degree of fruitfulness” (2.a). Therefore, the fertile soil for such planting is both Jonah’s “hert” (l.68) and the city of Nineveh. Figuratively, God has commanded Jonah to spread the life-giving seeds of His word to Nineveh, so that they will bear the fruits of patience and repentance.

A few critics have commented on the poet’s use of “seed” in this passage; however, because they fail to analyze the implications of such imagery, their conclusions are flawed. James Rhodes asks, “What are the seeds that are planted in [Jonah’s] heart?” (117-18). Although he states that “God’s plan . . . can only . . . come to fruition through the actions of human beings” (118), Rhodes believes such patience on Jonah’s part produces a God “incomprehensible to human understanding” (124).

In Patience, this creative image of God illuminates His character, not conceals Him. A. C. Spearing also analyzes creative imagery in this passage. He states, “To sow seed is to adopt the male role in procreation,” which “God is telling Jonah to undertake . . . on His behalf. Of course, the seed to which God refers here is not literal but metaphorical, the seed of his word; but the connection between this and procreative seed was close” (“The Subtext of Patience” 299).

Spearing argues that God, in Patience, adopts male and female procreative roles (299-318); his analysis, however, is fallacious. Such an analysis is more appropriate in Cleanness, where the poet uses seed and fruit imagery in connection with procreation. Here, however, the poet uses garden imagery and language, and intends such a meaning, which bears no resemblance to procreation.

In the poet’s language and imagery, God appears here as a “farmer,” ready to plant the seed of His word in Jonah’s heart. Elsewhere in Patience, the poet figuratively calls God a “farmer,” for Jonah in his heart “wende wel þat þat Wy3 þat al þe world planted/Hade no ma3t in þat mere no man for to greue” (ll.111‑12). Contrary to Clopper’s observation that “Jonah’s phrasing ‑‑ God the Farmer ‑‑ seems considerably more worldly than that in Genesis” (9),9 the phrase is the poet’s, not Jonah’s, and it is not “worldly” either.10

Here, “planted,” the past tense of “plaunten,” means “to create (the world)” or “to establish (a place)” (MED, 3.a). “Plaunten” can also mean “to instill (a virtue),” “to instill (one’s will in sb.),” or “to impart (truth, the word of God)” (MED, 2.c); this meaning first appeared in 1340. The noun “plaunt” does not appear in Patience; however, the Middle English Dictionary lists “ivi [plaunt]: Jonah’s miraculous gourd or ivy” as a reference under “plaunt”: “something planted, a shrub, an herb, a plant” (1.a). The same definition occurs in Pearl (l.104). Therefore, the poet of Patience was familiar with, and understood, these variant and rich meanings of both “plaunten” and “plaunt.”

But Jonah does not realize that he, like the Ninevites, is also being figuratively “planted.” He will soon learn that any spiritual growth in his soul, any possibility of bearing fruit, can take place only after the symbolic death of the seed. Since the Bible is silent on why Jonah refuses to obey, the poet adds rich language and imagery of imminent death to explain Jonah’s disobedience.

His initial refusal to endure suffering in Nineveh produces visions of imprisonment in “stokkes” (l. 79) and a “fetter” (l. 80), forced blindness (l. 80), and a stark image of crucifixion: “Þa3 I be nummen in Nunniue and naked dispoyled,/On rode rwly torent with rybaudes mony” (ll. 95-96). Jonah, however, must suffer worse “plyt of peril” (l. 114), both during the storm and inside the whale, because “he wolde no3t suffer” (l. 113) or “þole” (l. 91) either God’s commands or the Ninevites’ possible insults. Jonah’s disobedience paves the way for symbolic death inside the whale, so he will obey God and preach to Nineveh.

During the storm scene, the poet augments the Biblical original by frequently using the language and imagery of death.11 For example, the sailors, trying to figure out who is the “losynger” (l.170) and “lawles wrech/Þat hatz greued his god and gotz here amonge vus” (ll.170‑71), realize that “al synkes in his synne and for his sake marres” (l.172). They believe Jonah is another Adam and will make everyone on board “marre” (l.172). Ironically, it is the sailors here who are “lawles wrech[es]” (l.170), not Jonah, who as a Hebrew is the only law‑abiding person on board the ship, at least until he decided to disobey God by fleeing to Joppa.

The sailors then ask Jonah, “Hatz þou, gome, no gouernour ne god on to calle,/Þat þou þus slydes on slepe when þou slayn worþes?” (ll.199‑200) Believing the storm will kill them all, they warn Jonah, “Lo, þy dom is þe dy3t, for þy dedes ille./Do gyf glory to þy godde, er þou glyde hens” (ll.203‑04). The sailors cannot know in advance that by throwing Jonah into the sea, none of them will be “slayn” (l.200), not even Jonah, who they believe is dead inside the whale. The poet uses this rich language of death to foreshadow Jonah’s symbolic death, and therefore, allow God to produce the fruit of patience in him.

Images of death and hell also recur in the poet’s description of the whale. Many critics of Patience, noting such imagery, use it to launch their discussions of the depth of the poet’s use of typology, namely, Christ in the tomb.12 However, this imagery also sheds light on the theme of spiritual death and rebirth; the seed of God’s word in Jonah’s heart must “die” so that it can bear spiritual fruit.

Therefore, the poet goes to great lengths to compare the belly of the whale to hell, “þat stank as þe deuel” (l.274) and “sauoured as helle” (l.275). The whale’s insides are called “warlowes,” or the devil’s, “guttez” (l.258). In his second prayer inside the whale, Jonah acknowledges God’s mercy: “Out of þe hole Þou me herde of hellen wombe” (l.306). Since this death imagery does not appear in the book of Jonah, the poet uses it, like Jonah’s irrational fears for his safety and the crew’s fears of imminent death in the storm, to produce images of the dead seed in Jonah, a seed that will soon bear the fruits of repentance, obedience, and patience.

Why would God allow Jonah to be swallowed by a whale? There are various reasons but, for the poet, the most important one relates to symbolic death, seeds, and patience. He states that Jonah “bylded his bour” inside the whale because he “wyl no bale suffer” (l.276).13 Jonah is figuratively in “hell” because he has refused to suffer physical pain. For him to bear the fruits of obedience, humility, and patience, the seed in his heart must “die.”

This seed is being liberally watered, since the whale has temporarily made his home in the deep. It is interesting to note the description of water surrounding Jonah: “Ande as sayled þe segge, ay sykerly he herde/Þe bygge borne on his back and bete on his sydes” (ll.301‑02). In his second prayer, Jonah tells God “þe grete flem of Þy flod folded me vmbe;/Alle þe gotez of Þy guferes and groundelez powlez,/And Þy stryuande stremez of stryndez so mony,/In on daschande dam dryuez me ouer” (ll.309‑12). Again, he complains that he is “wrapped in water to my wo stoundez/. . .Þe pure poplande hourle playes on my heued” (ll.318‑19). These watery descriptions are also in the original, but the poet uses such imagery for his own agricultural purposes: to allow God to water the dead seed in Jonah’s heart so he will bear spiritual fruit.

The poet himself refers to Jonah as one of the “living dead.” Inside “þat best [Jonah] bidez on lyue” (l.293); it is as though Jonah were literally dead, and is waiting for God to revive him. However, this “bidez on lyue” (l.293) signifies spiritual death, not a literal one. By waiting on God, Jonah acknowledges first, that God has placed him there, and second, that only God (and not any human being) can retrieve him. The poet describes the Lord’s divine protection, “for nade þe hy3e Heuen‑Kyng, þur3 His honde my3t,/Warded þis wrech man in warlowes guttez” (l.258), Jonah might be floating dead in the sea.

Interestingly, to wait upon the Lord and accept His will are just two, of many, definitions of patience. From Saint Augustine’s treatise on it, the poet would have known both meanings. In chapter nine, Augustine discusses the life of David to illustrate “accept[ing] the will of God” (243). In chapter fourteen, Augustine quotes a passage from the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus, in which the writer commands the faithful to “wait on God with patience; join thyself to God and endure” (qtd. in Augustine 248). Therefore, in the process of waiting for the Lord to rescue him from the whale’s “hellen wombe” (l.306), Jonah is bearing the fruits of humility, patience, and repentance.14

Proof that Jonah has been spiritually reborn occurs after the whale spews him out. Asked if he “nylt þou neuer to Nuniue bi no kynnez wayez” (l. 346), Jonah replies, “3isse, Lorde . . . lene me Þy grace/For to go at Þi gre: me gaynez non oþer” (ll. 347-48). “3isse,” which Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron note “is a strong affirmative” (200 n.347), proves the now humble Jonah is interested in the Lord’s “gre” (l. 348), not his own. He is willing to “gaynez,” or serve, “non oþer” (l. 348) than the Lord God, “þat al þe world planted” (l. 111). Therefore, God’s second command to Jonah slightly, but meaningfully, changes; he has not gone “back to square one” (Diekstra 187).

The Lord, recognizing that Jonah has learned his lesson, tells him to “ris, aproche þen to prech, lo, þe place here./Lo, my lore is in þe loke, lauce hit þerinne” (ll.349-50). The Lord’s command has changed from “þat in þat place, at þe poynt, I [will] put in þi hert” (l.68), a future tense, to “my lore is in þe loke” (l.350), a simple past. This small change indicates that Jonah, through his experience inside the whale, has born the fruits of obedience and patience, from the symbolic “death” of the seed in his heart; he is now ready to preach God’s word to Nineveh. However, Jonah does not realize he must undergo another trial, which will put his newborn patience to the test.

The theme of the dying seed bringing forth new life recurs in Jonah’s message to Nineveh. Instead of death and destruction, Jonah’s message brings spiritual life to the city, through repentance. According to Jonah, after “forty dayez. . ./. . .schal Niniue be nomen and to no3t worþe” (ll.359‑60). The “fate” of Nineveh appears truly dim, for “þis ilk toun schal tylte to grounde;/Vp‑so‑doun schal 3e dumpe depe to þe abyme,/To be swol3ed swyftly wyth þe swart erþe,/And alle þat lyuyes hereinne lose þe swete” (ll.361‑64). In language reminding the reader of God’s first command to Jonah (ll.66‑68), the poet then says, “Þis speche sprang in þat space and spradde alle aboute” (l.365).15

After being planted, these seeds appear to “die,” for the people, “chylled at þe hert” (l.368), dress themselves in “heter hayrez” (l.373) and “drop dust on her hede” (l.375). This is the poet’s colorful language for the Old Testament “sackcloth and ashes.”16 The poet also expands the Ninevite king’s command, from the book of Jonah, to include the language of the harvest. The original simply states, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water” (3:7, KJV). In the poem, however, the king commands that “ne best bite on no brom, ne no bent nauþer,/Passe to no pasture, ne pike no erbes,/Ne non oxe to no hay, ne no horse to water” (ll.392‑94, emphasis mine). All residents of Nineveh must suffer starvation, a kind of death, so they may obtain God’s mercy.

Again, like in the storm and whale scenes, this passage contains the language of death; the difference here, however, is the Ninevites’ reaction to God’s message. Unlike Jonah, the entire city is willing to suffer, in sackcloth and ashes, by weeping and wailing for their sins; the people are waiting upon God for His mercy. As the king himself states, “If we leuen þe layk of oure layth synnes,/And stylle steppen in þe sty3e he sty3tlez Hymseluen” (ll.401‑02), then God “may fynde” (l.400) mercy for them. The Lord, “þur3 His godnesse” (l.407), rewards the Ninevites’ patience and willingness to suffer by forgiving them of their sins and “withh[o]ld[ing] His vengaunce” (l.408).

Therefore, it is evident that the planting and “death” of the seed of God’s word has born much fruit among the Ninevites. By repenting of their sins, patiently waiting on God and suffering physical hunger, the Ninevites are rewarded with life, albeit displayed in negative terms; by His mercy, God withholds His threatened punishment. This is a stark contrast to Jonah’s reaction to God; he had to learn obedience and patience the hard way, through living in the belly of a dank whale for three days and nights.

Jonah’s lesson in patience, however, is not over. He is angry at God for showing mercy to the Ninevites; the language of such anger, however, is rich in the patience and mercy of God: “Wel knew I Þi cortaysye, Þy quoynt soffraunce,/Þy bounté of debonerté and Þy bene grace,/Þy longe abydyng wyth lur, Þy late vengaunce;/And ay Þy mercy is mete, be mysse neuer so huge” (ll.417‑20). Jonah then asks God to “lach out my lyf, hit lastes to longe./Bed me bilyue my bale‑stour and bryng me on ende,/For me were swetter to swelt as swyþe” (ll.425‑27).

He would prefer to die “Þen lede lenger Þi lore þat þus me les makez” (l.428). Jonah is more concerned with his own reputation as a prophet than God’s reputation as a merciful Lord. Here, Andrew and Waldron translate “lede” as “cultivate” (329); the poet uses this sense of “lede” (l. 428) to illustrate Jonah’s impatience. Jonah does not want to “cultivate” the seed of God’s word, planted within the Ninevites; he does not want to wait for Nineveh to repent. It is evident, then, that Jonah has lost perspective of the situation; as in the whale, he must be humbled. God’s manner of producing the fruits of humility and patience in Jonah is to provide a beautiful “wodbynde,” symbolic of Nineveh, over his head, and then to kill it, as Jonah impatiently wanted Nineveh to be destroyed. He must be reminded that God, not Jonah, is in control.

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