Elizabeth Isaacs: On "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight

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.


Title Elizabeth Isaacs: On "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elizabeth Isaacs Criticism Target Yvor Winters
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication An Introduction to the Poetry of Yvor Winters
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