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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Nevill, and Richard Sturry, with their apparent desire for spiritual address in the vernacular. RUSSELL A. PECK University of Rochester LYNN STALEYJOHNSON. The Voice ofthe Gawain-Poet. Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984. Pp. xix, 276. $32.50. This book, based on the author's Princeton thesis of 1973, stresses themes shared by the poems of MS Cotton Nero A.x. Art. 3 such as cyclical form, regeneration, human failure and inadequacy, and the need for penitence. Biblical allusions and analogues are given ample space. A great deal of what this book has to say is not so much untrue as it is either too general or too much a matter of consensus to be worth saying at such length, or repetitive of what others have put better or of what the author has already saida fewpagesback.Rather a lot ofspaceis devoted to telling the stories, and all four chapters (each dealing with a separate poem) end with a summary. Too often we are faced with platitudes which, even in context, do not suggest new thoughts about the poems: for example, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we read that 'the process includes failure because failure is an integral part of growth' (p. 70); of Pearlthat the poem 'teaches a new understanding of love; it demonstrates resurrection.' The book has a predilection for the analogue: Gawain is like Aeneas, the Pearl maiden and its narrator are like Christ and Mary Mag­ dalene on Easter morning. Johnson is right to stress the importance of penance in the late fourteenth century (although, again, the perception is hardly new) and the Magdalene is indeed a most compelling figure in the writings of that era. But her specific connection withPearlis not secured by Johnson's rather ponderous comparison. It is not surprising that the author reiterates Singleton's remark that 'there is only one drama enacted many times, the drama of reversal, of salvation.' This is potentially, no doubt, one of the great profundities. But finally, a diet of nothing but such vast ideas and patterns, in which everything is very much like something else, unless handled with rigorous theoretical care, fails to nourish. 208 REVIEWS What is sadly lacking, despite recurrent mentions of'linguistic flex' and ageneralenthusiasmfor thepoetry, is any incisivetreatmentof the way the poemsputwords together, or any detailedscrutinyof the way theinherited themes and images (whose extratextual reverberations are so largely dis­ cussed) are juggled in these celebratedly ambiguous works. And this failure does finally mislead; we are told that'the attitude of [Arthur's) court contrasts to that of the Church' (p. 58) and that, in Pearl, 'from the moment the narrator falls asleep, it is clear that the poet will be describing the redemptive movement of the mind because the movement of the narrator's spirit is upward and its interest is directed outward' (p. 193). Such statements are too singleminded; surely the ending of Gawain is remarkable not because weknowthatthe herois right and the court wrong, but precisely because the final tone lacks any such certainty. And can we allow the celestial images in the landscape and the springing of the narrator's spirit in Pearl to assure us fully that the sympathetically obtuse central figure learns his lesson? Perhaps a more important underlying critical question: do we really want these certainties? There might be the germ of an idea closer to the words of the poems inJohnson's implied ideal of 'flexibility' but this is too little developed to be judged. There is throughout an oddly dated look which tempts one to suspect that the book has matured insufficiently since its days as a thesis. Works whichappeared in the early1970s aretermed 'recent;'J.J. Anderson's1977 edition of Cleanness is ignored and R. J. Menner's Purity of 1920 is used instead. Theintroductionspeaks ofthe smallnumber of studiestreatingall four poems together, failing to mention either Edward Wilson, The Ga­ wain Poet (1976) or W. A. Davenport, The Art ofthe Gawain Poet (1978). The latter does finally appear in a footnote to Chapter Three, but Daven­ port's stimulating remarks, for instance about the didacticism of Pearl, provide a particularly apt example...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 208-210
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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