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The Shaping of English Poetry – Volume IV

Essays on 'The Battle of Maldon', Chrétien de Troyes, Dante, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and Chaucer

Gerald Morgan

This fourth volume of essays under the title The Shaping of English Poetry consolidates the work of the previous three volumes on the great subjects of English literature in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The Norman Conquest of England built upon the rich foundation of Anglo-Saxon England but did not destroy it; thus the present volume begins with the commemoration of English heroism in The Battle of Maldon. In the late twelfth century we encounter in Chrétien de Troyes's seminal romance Le Chevalier de la Charrete a new kind of hero in Lancelot, abject and obedient before his mistress, although Chrétien himself is not an uncritical admirer of the sanctity of adulterous love. Hence the importance of Dante's exposition of love in Purgatorio, XVIII, which forms a background to the essays here on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Parliament of Fowls. The volume concludes with essays on Chaucer's Knight's, Monk's and Nun's Priest's Tales, which form part of a long-term project to interpret the Canterbury Tales as a unified whole and not merely a series of fragments awaiting revision on Chaucer's death.

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1 The Battle of Maldon: The Commemoration of an Heroic Sacrifice

Extract

Quare hec tria, salus videlicet, venus et virtus, apparent esse illa magnalia que sint maxime pertractanda, hoc est ea que maxime sunt ad ista, ut armorum probitas, amoris accensio et directio voluntatis. — dante, De vulgari eloquentia (II.ii.8)1 I. The three great subjects of poetry, as Dante identifies them in the De vulgari eloquentia, are virtue (virtus), love (venus) and war (salus). The vernacular literature of England before and after the Norman Conquest has bequeathed to us fine and even great poems on all three subjects. On the subject of virtue and our immortal destiny as moral beings we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales. On the subject of love as a passion and an act of will we have Troilus and Criseyde. On the subject of war and the conduct of men in battle we have Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon. Historical events are present in Beowulf but not at the centre of the poem’s interest (a fact much lamented by W. P. Ker).2 The Battle of Maldon on the other hand is a poem commemorating an historical event. The Battle of Maldon is based on and probably written shortly after the battle fought at Maldon on the 10 or 11 August 991 between the Viking invaders under Justin and Guthmund Steitan sunu, advancing from the island of Northey on the River Blackwater, and the fyrd or levies of Essex under the ealdorman Byrhtnoth drawn up to prevent them. The...

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