Criticism on "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight"
One can see immediately that Winters had not, in writing "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight," moved too far from his earlier preoccupations. The problem remains the same, but it can be stated in a number of different ways: the otherness of nature, man's dependence on--and alienation from--that otherness, the invasion of consciousness by experience, the dependence of consciousness on experience, and nature as experience. This theme, which corresponds to the incidental or obsessive theme defined above, is to be found, in one form or another, in all but a few of the poems written by Winters during the remainder of his career. At times one aspect of the subject will be emphasized, and at times another. In "Sir Gawaine," it is the fragile human balance in the face of the invasion of impersonal nature that is emphasized.
From Language as Being in the Poetry of Yvor Winters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Louisiana State University Press.
This poem is written in ballad verse with all the simple disarming effects of the old tale retold by its hero, Sir Gawain. It has all the ballad motifs: the four-line stanza; the skips from action peak to action peak without intervening description or meditation; the witch-lady of beautiful, sensual attraction; the tempting, heroic knight with the "green" mystery; the series of chivalric proofs; the trust and the tryst, etc. And yet the poem becomes much more than the old retelling for Yvor Winters, twentieth century citizen-poet.
He takes this opportunity to use the old legend, well known to medieval literature, and to translate it into a modern and even an autobiographical problem. The translation is never mentioned, but the effect is there. This is a poem in which Winters follows his own precepts of criticism: "to embody sensory experience in poetry rationally or logically constructed to express themes of universal significance." Winters uses the legend of Sir Gawain thus to supply the sensory experience for a rationally constructed poem that will express his favorite theme for his life and his poetry: the search for self-identity in the battle between reason and sensation. The theme, recurrent throughout the entire body of his poetry, involves the sensitive human being's temptation to immersion in sensation; a detailed description of particulars to the point of near disintegration; and finally the successful recovery to a life of rational order. "I found a road that men had made / And rested on a drying hill." This poem is in a sense the epitome of Winters' own career and life, both as poet, critic, and human being.
It opens with the highly sensory description of the moment of climax; in good ballad form it starts in medias res. "Reptilian Green, the wrinkled throat, / Green as a bough of yew the beard"; and all the mystery of the flourishing greenness of the knight is drawn along with the repulsion of wrinkled, reptilian--and therefore attractively evil-- appearance. Sir Gawain reacted entirely through impulse: "He bent his head; and so I smote"; then, after the action, after the vision, the thought came; and rationality as to its meaning developed.
The second stanza is also full of suggestive sensory detail: the beheaded knight picks up his head by the hair; it speaks to Sir Gawain and lays upon him the quest. It is the essence of evil directing him to temptation; and he takes the tryst to wait the season's round for another meeting. In the third stanza Winters uses exact "moral" diction to summarize the wonderful year between the tests: "The year declined"--toward its spiritual climax with inexorable downward sweep. However, "I passed in joy a thriving yule"--with the temporary rising effect of physical epicureanism. "And whether waking or in sleep / I lived in riot like a fool." And Sir Gawain's self-judgment after the fact shows his awareness during the fact. The attraction for the lady is supplemented by the physical hedonism of the knight's provision for love, food and shelter. His lady, like a forest vine, / Grew in my arms; the growth was sweet; And yet what thoughtless force was mine!" The simile "like a vine" represents the bewitched Gawain as utterly surrounded, choked, threatened by the fertility of the vine-woman's temptation; yet his once thoughtless force is recalled in his now thoughtful mind as he retells the story in retrospect. He comes to understand that which he had never known before: the power of practice and conviction that saved him again in this second moment of crisis. Winters makes his case for discipline in these lines as he blesses his "ancient stubbornness." Diction in this stanza is again chosen with expert "morality." The stanza is full of abstract language as far as the word "body." As the poet makes the transition from the abstract to the physical, he introduces it with "body" and then almost explodes it into pure physical sensation with "clung" and "swarmed." Her body "clung and swarmed," and his own passion almost overwhelms him. The diction of the passage is perfectly in keeping with the content. The stanza is projected out of its carefully abstract memory of the event into a flashback present of the passion through these two verbs. But the pure of heart and the disciplined of mind--Sir Gawain and Sir Yvor--surmount temptation and return to reason because of this practiced conviction and ancient stubbornness! The ever-present threat continues in its magnificent attraction. Even the threat of ars-gratia-artis is there: "her beauty, lithe, unholy, pure / Took shapes that I had never known"; Winters is proud that he did not falter at the brink. "Had I once been insecure. . ." It is difficult to see how the memory of things past which were so completely sensory can be recalled with the sweet calm of reason. How could they be concurrently so strong? But in this poet they were--whether in life or poetry. "Had I once been insecure". . . he says, recalling his physical passion mixed with his rational control. And so the laurel graft was never made!
The knight let him go "with what I knew." That phrase is the subject of the poem. What he knew after the experience is what he has just recounted: the great threat to reason in the contemporary world of sensory attraction; the necessity for discipline and practice in lonely resistance; and the final purity of heart of those who keep the faith. The poem returns to its narrative end after that small but all-important transition into philosophy. "I left the green bark and the shade"; and by this time, "green," "bark" and "shade" have all taken on the metaphysical quality of the Post-Symbolist dicta ". . . Where growth was rapid, thick, and still." Sir Gawain realizes that evil has a natural, fast, and silent growth in the world of passion and sensory impression; and it is not to be endured for long without submission. Man must return to the world "men had made" and find rest for the next inevitable struggle on a "drying" hill. The high aridity of pure reason is here set against the low swamps of miasmic sensation as the poet's contemporary theme fades back into the pattern of the old medieval allegory.
From An Introduction to the Poetry of Yvor Winters. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Elizabeth Isaacs.
Gawaine must meet the Green Knight on his "native ground," which is to say that he must confront his own ground in the primordial and impersonal life of nature. He must, to adopt Winterss own summary, recognize the claims of sensibility. The lady by whom Gawaine is tempted is lithe, unholy and "pure" in [Allen] Tates sense, with the purity of unmediated sensation, and her body "clings" and "swarms" with the buzzing intensity of Winterss earliest bee visions. The strength that masters her must necessarily be "thoughtless," and not only because it is derived from "ingrained" moral habit. Gawaine must risk what only his long habituation in virtue would permit him to dare: to suspend orb temporarily put in abeyance the forms of past knowings in order to perceive "shapes that I had never known." And yet it is with knowledge that he emerges:
And then, since I had kept the trust,
Had loved the lady, yet was true,
The knight withheld his giant thrust
And let me go with what I knew.
The poems final image Gawaine resting beside the road "on a drying hill," its form emergent from the mornings liquidity suggests a more precise formulation. What Winters means by knowledge is not a series or system of precepts. It is, rather, just this emergence, this resurfacing, from experience. "Knowledge" is a kind of behavior, a perpetual trial, a practice through which the sheer mobility of the temporal world takes on a definite direction, measurable against those things (those values, that sense of the self) to which we stubbornly continue to be true.
From Terry Comito, In Defense of Winters: The Poetry and Prose of Yvor Winters (Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1986), 179.
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