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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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2 The Conflict of Love and Chivalry in Le Chevalier de la Charrete

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Sì disse prima; e poi: ‘Qui non si vieta di nominar ciascun, da ch’è sì munta nostra sembianza via per la dïeta.’ — dante, Purgatorio, XXIV.16–181 I. The titles of works of art are not unimportant and sometimes we are obliged to supply a title in the absence of one. This is the case in respect of the greatest Old English poem, the epic or heroic poem we know as Beowulf, and also of the greatest medieval romance which we have agreed (almost but not quite unanimously) to call Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.2 We might form a very different estimate of these works, or at least approach them with different preconceptions, if we knew that their authors had bestowed upon them different titles. The great work of Arthurian romance in the English literary tradition is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and it is in some version of this work that most English-speaking readers acquire a taste for romance. Mark Twain refers to it in the explanatory opening section of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) as ‘old Sir Thomas Malory’s enchanting book’.3 But even so seemingly harmless a statement has become problematic in the wake of modern scholarship, for Eugène Vinaver has (regrettably in my opinion) entitled his great edition not Le Morte Darthur but The Works of Sir Thomas Malory and has defended his decision to do so with some pugnacity: The most obvious merit of this text is that it brings...

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