Terry Comito: On "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight"

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 Winters’s own summary, recognize the claims of sensibility. … The lady by whom Gawaine is tempted is lithe, unholy and "pure" in [Allen] Tate’s sense, with the purity of unmediated sensation, and her body "clings" and "swarms" with the buzzing intensity of Winters’s 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 poem’s final image – Gawaine resting beside the road "on a drying hill," its form emergent from the morning’s 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.


Title Terry Comito: On "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Terry Comito Criticism Target Yvor Winters
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication In Defense of Winters: The Poetry and Prose of Yvor Winters
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