Arts & Culture

Sex, death, and promises

Book review

Charles McGrath ’68, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker, contributes frequently to the New York Times Magazine, Golf Digest, and other publications.

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If you studied English at Yale during the late ’60s or early ’70s, one figure stood out in a department that was (Harold Bloom excepted) WASPy and tweedy and seemingly no friendlier toward women than any other at the university then. This was Marie Borroff ’56PhD, the first and at the time the only tenured female English prof at Yale. With her heels, her beautifully tailored suits, her pinned-up red hair, she brought a welcome touch of bluestocking glamour to the place, and she was a legendarily good teacher besides. The lightweights among us took her course on modern poetry, but the more serious went for the Gawain poet, or the Pearl poet as he is sometimes called, an otherwise anonymous English writer who was a contemporary of Chaucer’s and became Borroff’s life’s work.

Borroff wrote her PhD thesis on the style and meter of probably his best-known poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and then she set about translating all of his poetry into modern English. (Unlike Chaucer’s, it’s tough going in the original Middle English.) Her version of “Sir Gawain” came out in 1967. In the following decades she completed translations of “Pearl,” about bereavement and the soul; “Patience,” a retelling of the Jonah story; “Cleanness,” which is really about the opposite—filth, and sexual filth especially; and finally “St. Erkenwald,” which is a sort of medieval Twilight Zone episode: during construction of a cathedral the miraculously preserved body of a pagan judge is discovered, a good man who lived too soon to be saved by Christianity. St. Erkenwald takes pity and baptizes the judge with his tears, and the body immediately crumbles to dust while the soul shoots straight to heaven.

Borroff retired from Yale in 1994 but remains active—she has a new book in the works—and now, in her 89th year, her publisher has brought out an edition of all five translations, including two never before published. The Gawain Poet: Complete Works is really intended for college courses or grad students, and the explanatory material is fairly dry. There is much more here about the proper scansion of fourteenth-century English verse than any civilian needs to know. (A far better way to learn what the Gawain poet sounded like is to go to Borroff’s website, She reads her translations in full plus several passages in the original.)

Nevertheless, this is a volume that belongs on the shelf of anyone who still takes pride in his or her English-major credentials. It’s a monument, really, to a life of scholarship, passion, and love for poetry, and even if you don’t look at the other poems, “Sir Gawain” is worth reading—or rereading, if you happened to be lucky enough to take Borroff back when. It may be the strangest poem in the entire canon.

The story begins on Christmas Eve at King Arthur’s court, when a giant green-clad and green-skinned knight turns up and challenges any of Arthur’s knights to take a whack at him, on the understanding that the Green Knight will have a chance to strike back in a year’s time. With a tremendous blow from his ax, Sir Gawain lops off the Green Knight’s head. Then, in a Monty Python moment, the Green Knight picks it up, heads for the door, and says he’ll see Gawain in a twelvemonth.

As the date approaches, Gawain dutifully sets off for his unpleasant appointment. On the way, he spends three days at the castle of the mysterious Sir Bertilak, who encourages him to sleep late while he goes off hunting. They strike a bargain: Bertilak will give Gawain his spoils from the field, while Gawain must present to his host whatever prizes he acquires during the day. These turn out to be kisses from Bertilak’s temptress wife, who spends every morning trying to seduce Gawain, turning up on the third and final day naked except for some fur and jewels. Gawain resists intimacy but finally accepts from her a green girdle, or belt. This item is too tempting to give up to Bertilak (though Gawain delivers the kisses as promised): it comes with a guarantee that it will literally save his neck.

Gawain is wearing the girdle when he finally meets the Green Knight—none other than Bertilak in different guise. He knows all about the girdle, and he taunts Gawain, nicks him on the neck, and lets him go. For decades, scholars have debated what all this means. Is it a poem about honor, a Christian allegory in which the girdle substitutes for Eve’s apple, or even, as some current theorists would have it, a text that “problematizes” sexual normativity in the Middle Ages? The poem is so wrapped in puzzles that no single answer seems sufficient, and puzzlement is part of its appeal. The poet means for the reader to be just as bewildered as Gawain himself.

Borroff’s is not the most accessible translation of “Sir Gawain.” That would be W. S. Merwin’s 2004 version, which essentially renders the text as a twenty-first-century poem. In some respects J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation is more colorful. But where the Borroff version excels is in capturing the sound of “Sir Gawain.” The poem is written mostly in alliterative verse, three stressed beats to a line, all starting with the same consonant: “That was lavishly lined with a lustrous fur.” In English poetry this style preceded rhyming verse, a French import. Borroff deftly reproduces its patterns without being heavy-handed, as Tolkien sometimes is. Even while reading silently you can’t help but hear the verse and feel its percussive, driving momentum. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to authentic Middle English, and Borroff makes the poem seem both strange and familiar.

The Gawain poet was devout, but as Borroff points out, he was also a man of the world. To judge from all five of the poems here, he loved stuff: gear, weapons, drapery, costume, jewels, furs, finely wrought metal objects. The best passages in her translation are those describing the hunts; they’re practically cinematic in their closely observed detail and poetic effects that amount to a sound track. When you scrape away some of the oddness—the perplexing symbolism, the Christian references, the Arthurian legend, the chivalric overlay—“Sir Gawain” shares many of our own preoccupations. On one level at least, it’s a poem, both anxious and celebratory, about sex (barely sublimated here), vitality, and the wish to live forever—not necessarily in heaven, like that old pagan judge, but here in our own flesh.  


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