Famous Allegory of Medieval English Period

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      Allegories were not new things in English poetry. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, The Dream of the Rood was cast in dream allegory. But allegories were many and of greater artistic merit in the Anglo-Norman literature. The principal allegorical poems are Pearl, Langland's Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and Green Knight, The Owl and the Nightingale, Layamon's Brut, Ormulum, The Cursor Mundi,  The Ancrene Wisse, Havelock the Dane and King Horn

The principal allegorical poems are Pearl, Langland's Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and Green Knight, The Owl and the Nightingale, Layamon's Brut, Ormulum, The Cursor Mundi,  The Ancrene Wisse, Havelock the Dane and King Horn

      The Owl and the Nightingale : "The Owl and the Nightingale' is another poem belonging to the secular literature that sprang up after the Norman Conquest or England and which was inspired by French works of chivalry. It was written about 1220 and attributed to Nicholas de Guildford. It is cast in the form of a debate, a heated argument between the two birds. The origin of the form 'Disputoisons' very popular with the French and Provencal poets may be traced back to the classical eclogue of Theocritus and Virgil, which sometimes portrays a contest of skill between two birds on the relative merit of their song. The Owl accuses the Nightingale of singing amatory songs and of enticing men and women to sin. The Nightingale retorts that the owl is a bird of ill omen, whose song is ever of sorrow and misfortune. In the end the birds set out to lay their case before the judge the owl says she can repeat every word from beginning to end - but the poet disclaims knowledge of the outcome.

      The poem has been interpreted as symbolising the conflict between pleasure and asceticism, gaiety and gravity, art and philosophy, the minstrel and the preacher. Most recently it has been viewed as a conflict between the ideals of the newer love poetry of courtly origin and the religious, didactic poetry so prominent in mediaeval verse. There is however no necessity for seeing in the poem anything more than a lively altercation between two birds, with the poet's skill sufficiently revealed in the matching of wits. Written in regular octosyllabic couplets, the well-turned rhymes lend point to its thought, satire and irony.

      Pearl : In the second half of the fourteenth century, literature blossomed due to the awakening of national pride and confidence, the result of the victories of Edward I. Of superior merit are four alliterative poems found in a single manuscript which have been given the titles of Pearl, Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. These were written about 1350. The Pearl is an intensely human and realistic picture of a father's grief for his little daughter Margaret. It is the saddest of all early English poems. On the grave of his little one the father falls asleep and sees vision. In spirit he comes upon a stream which he cannot cross and wanders along the bank. He sees the vision of a crystal cliff beneath which is seated a maiden who raises a happy shining face - the face of his little Margaret. Sweet as a lily, she comes down the crystal stream's bank to meet and speak with him and tell him of the happy life of heaven. The father listens with rapt heart. Then the heart of the man cries out for its own and he struggles to cross the stream to join her. In the struggle, the dream vanishes.

      This beautiful and seemingly transparent allegory has been interpreted in various ways. The traditional view sees in the poem an elegy in which the poet grieves for the death of a two year-old daughter and is consoled by her in a vision of a common mediaeval type. This view was challenged by Schofield in 1904 who denied the autobiographical interpretation and suggested that the poet was merely upholding the virtue of purity under the symbolism of a pearl. The Pearl has been taken as symbolism, to be sure in incidental ways in the poem and the problems of divine grace and the equality of heavenly rewards constitute the major theme for discussion, but there are too many features which are meaningless on any other assumption than that the poet mourns the loss of a real child. The poem treats certain aspects of salvation in the framework of a personal elegy employing the medieval conventions of vision and debate.

      Viewed as a personal elegy the Pearl is a poem of deep feeling. The poet's grief yields gradually to resignation and spiritual reconciliation. In its sensuous beauty its artistic descriptions of the garden, the pearl-maiden and the New Jerusalem, it is in its best parts unsurpassed by anything in Middle English poetry. It has highly alliterative line with four accents in a very marked imabic rhythm.

      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight : The most interesting of all Arthurian romances are those of the Gawain Cycle and of this story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is the best. Though the material is taken from French sources, the English workmanship is the finest of all early romances.

     A gigantic Knight in green enters the banquet hall of Arthur and his Knights and challenges the bravest Knight. Gawain accepts the challenge and with one blow sends the giant's head rolling through the hall. The Green Knight, a terrible magician picks up his head and mounts the horse and goes away with the words that he would return the blow on next new year's day. Gawain goes out in search for the green chapel. He struggles with storm and cold, beasts and monsters and takes shelter in a great castle; receives warm entertainment from the aged hero and his wife. For three days he is the guest of the noble man. Every morning the old man goes off hunting and every morning the lady visits Gawain's chamber to tempt him with offer of her love. The courtly but pure Gawain resists temptation, yet accepts from the lady a girdle of green silk which shall preserved him from being slain. When Gawain comes by the green chapel and meets the Green Knight, the axe of the latter does no more than cut his skin. His host proves to be the Green Knight. The blow has wounded him because he has concealed the gift of green girdle. Full of shame, Gawain throws back the gift and is ready to atone for his deception, but Green Knight presents the green girdle as a free gift. Gawain returns to Arthur's court, tells the whole story frankly and even after that the Knight of the Round table wears a green girdle in his honour.

      The poem is remarkable for the liveliness and variety of scenes. The author of the poem has drawn a real man who is tempted while Spenser in the character of Sir Guyon has drawn insensate virtue. Realistic vigour is evident in the description of three successive hunts. It is a poem of chivalry and courtesy, but the Anglo-Saxon mist covers the poem. Anglo-Saxon elements are noticeable in the Struggle with storm and cold, beasts and monsters, in the vision of a misty morning in the hills. There is however freshness and colour in the descriptions of scenes and situations. We begin with the New Year's feast, the guests exchanging greetings and gifts, the maidens laughing and making mirth. The Green Knight is fully described - stature, appearance, dress, horse and armour. The descriptions of the seasons and the hunting scenes have all the excitement and life-likeness of first-hand experience or observation. The poem is written in an elaborate stanza combining meter and alliteration. At the end of each stanza is a rimed refrain, called by the French a 'tail rime'.

      The Ancrene Wisse : The Ancrene Wisse (Rule from Anchoresses) is the most remarkable prose work in English literature between King Alfred and Malory, is also known as The Ancrene Riwle. It is a treatise written for a community of three anchoresses living in a retreat near a church. The popularity of this treatise is evident from the number of surviving Mss and from the fact that there were versions in Latin and French as well as English. This Rule exists also in Latin and French, but possibly the English Rule was the original. It is in many ways an admirable treatise on morals and a universal guide to piety.

      What distinguishes this book from other devotional treatises is the personality of the author that colours all his writings. There is for example his independence and remarkable freedom from the conventional attitudes of the ordinary religious writer of the Middle Ages. This quality is shown in the very beginning of the poem where the author answers the question: "What rule should the three sisters follow?" He tells that the external rule that they follow is a very minor matter compared with the inward rule which imposes on them genuine piety and obedience to the dictates of their conscience. Equally refreshing is a certain boldness of speech. His reference to the anchoress who is bold and ill-favoured and who is therefore less likely to be tempted is an example of his candor. The author's descriptions of flatterers and his picture of the back-biter are masterly. In a similar vein is his description of how the newly-wed husband breaks in a wife in the mediaeval fashion.

      But the chief attractions of this prose work are certain incidental features of its style - its proverbial quality, its bestiary allusions, its familiar illustrations from everyday life, its home-spun metaphors, its humour. The author is very fond of proverbial wisdom: "the dog enters gladly where he finds an open door", "the cock is brave on his own dung hill". He has a rich fund of animal love which he uses to point his moral - the pelican who pierces her own breast, the eagle whop "deposits in his nest a precious stone which is called agate". His illustrations have the appeal of homely and familiar things: "A small patch may greatly disfigured a whole garment". A new gentleness and humour permeate these simple and minute instructions with their sense of devotion to the Virgin and their asceticism softened by the realisation of femininity.

      The Cursor Mundi : The Cursor Muidi is another religious work written in the north of England about 1320. It is a long poem in 24,000 octosyllabic lines which makes a kind of metrical romance out of the Bible history and shows the whole dealing of God with man from creation to Domesday. It is an amplified version of the New Testament and forms a pendent to the miracle-plays. After a prologue in which the author explains his plan and his intention of writing in English for the common people, he divides his story into seven ages, beginning with creation and ending with the Last Judgement. He has drawn his materials from various sources. Fluent, graphic, full of humanity, this work was a great favourite in its day.

     Layamon's Brut : At the end of the twelfth century Layamon, a priest of Ernley on Severn, translated for his fellowmen Wace's Brut, which was based on the fabulous work of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Layamon, who was wholly Saxon faithfully repeats the recital in which the Britons are glorified at the expense of his own ancestors, whose defeats please him as their: victories depress him.

      The work is an example of the secular poetry of the first half of the thirteenth century (1200 to 1350) which was inspired by French works of chivalry. Layamon's Brut is assigned to the year 1205: Its originality is not great; yet a certain dawning patriotism shows itself in its preference for English subjects and English heroes. Layamon retains both the accent and part of the vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxon poets. Although he was translating from a French source, Layamon is a thoroughly English poet. He had apparently been brought up on the old English alliterative verse. He makes frequent use of rhyme as an additional ornament: His vocabulary is remarkable for the small number of French words in it, particularly in view of the fact that he was translating from a French poem. There is something impressive in his work - far removed as it is from Wace's correctness and ease with its blunt appeal to the people, and a return to the massive irony of the national epic.

      Ormulum : For a century after the Norman Conquest, the great mass of the works which can be called English literature consisted of homilies, sermons in prose and verse, translations and paraphrases of the Bible, especially the Psalms. The Ormulunm, or work of the monk Orm is written about 1200. It consists of metrical paraphrases of the Gospel lessons for the year, somewhat after the manner of Cædmon's poetic fire and originality. In form it is curious and even unique. The metre is that of the Poena Morale or Moral Ode. It consists of lines of about fourteen syllables with a caesura after the first seven or eight syllables. It is unrhymed, with a redundant feminine ending. It is always perfectly regular. Orm was not a poet, but he was a clever versifier and a most conscientious philologist. He used a new spelling, in which he doubled the consonants after short vowels in closed syllables.

      Havelock the Dane and King Horn : At the end or the thirteenth century appears two Romances, that of Havelock and that of Horn, both based on Scandinavian originals. Both are stories of adventure. Havelock narrates the adverntures of a young Danish Prince, kept out of his rights by a wicked guardian. Havelock is saved by the old fisherman, Grim, the founder of Grimsby, who was ordered to kill him and works for a time in the kitchen of princes Goldburgh - herself menaced by an unscrupulous uncle. Havelock, inspite of his ignoble position astonishes the countryside by his feats of skill and strength. He is married to Goldburgh by the latter's uncle, who hopes thus to discredit her. But Havelock wins back the two kingdoms of mark and England, and revenges both himself and Goldburgh, putting his guardian and her uncle to a cruel death.

      King Horn is more of a love story. Captured as a child by the Saracens, Horn is set adrift in a boat without sails or oars. The boat drifts to Westernesse, where he wins the love of Rymenhild, the King's daughter. When the King discovers their secret, Horn is chased from, the court, after first obtaining a promise from Rymenhild to wait for him 'full seven years'. At the end of seven years of adventure and success he returns in the guise of a poor pilgrim, just as Rymenhild is being forced into an unwilling marriage. In a strange and moving scene, Horn makes himself known to the young bride, who was intending to kill herself at nightfall.

      Havelock the Dane is written in irregular octosyllabic couplets; Horn is in a ruder, shorter accentual metre, as though it were a lay to be sung. Havelock has a more artfully constructed plot. Both the romances have emphasis on adventure. Neither romance has much of the glamour or sophistication of courtly society. In fact Havelock is almost democratic in tone. There is respect for honest labour, the hero is associated most of the time with common people, and such people and their activities play a large part in the story. The charm of his character is not revealed in courtly graces, but in homely and natural virtues - a cheerful, sunny disposition which makes the children and the cook like him, a readiness to accept without question his humble lot as a fisher boy and scullery knave. Though both King Horn and Havelock are based on earlier French narratives, they seem to reflect the spirit of the English middle class.

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