- (ca. 1375)Patience is one of four major narrative poems preserved in a single manuscript (British Museum Cotton Nero A.x ) by the late 14th-century author known as the “Gawain poet” or the “Pearl poet.” Like the other poems in the manuscript (SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, PEARL, and CLEANNESS), Patience is written in a northern West Midland dialect. It is structured in stanzas of four alliterative lines—like all of the poems of the Gawain poet, Patience is part of the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL of the later 14th century. Patience is a MIDDLE ENGLISH verse retelling, in 531 lines, of the Old Testament story of Jonah. It begins with a 60-line passage extolling the virtue of patience, and then offers Jonah’s story as an illustration of human impatience contrasted with the patience of God. The poet’s conception of patience is far more complex and varied than a modern reader is likely to suspect. In a vivid and detailed narrative, the poet considers patience as endurance of misfortune, but also as self-control in all circumstances— essentially it is obedience to truth or to ultimate reality, to the will of God. The Jonah story follows the chronology of the biblical narrative, though the poet adds a good deal of concrete detail. The belly of the whale, which the poet compares with hell, is so slimy that Jonah must stumble about, looking for a clean nook to lodge in while praying to God for three days. After the whale has spit him up on dry land, the poet mentions how badly his clothes need washing. When God spares the city of Nineveh after Jonah’s preaching, the prophet is angry and blames God for his “courtesy”—a word with profound significance for all of the poems in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript. Courtesy is behavior in accordance with charity: By the end of the poem God’s courtesy includes his mercy and patience that preserves human beings in the world. In effect the poem is organized like a medieval sermon, specifically a sermon on the eighth beatitude (“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Mt. 5.10), to which the poet alludes in the prologue. Thus like a sermon, it begins with a statement of the theme followed by an illustration of the theme with a detailed exemplum (not unlike The PARDONER’S TALE by the Gawain poet’s contemporary Geoffrey CHAUCER). The author’s source was, of course, chiefly the book of Jonah in the Vulgate Bible, but he may also have known a hymn on Jonah by the late Latin poet PRUDENTIUS, as well as another Latin poem, De Jona et Ninive, attributed to the early Christian theologian Tertullian. Still the depiction of Jonah in Patience owes little to any earlier source. None of the traditional exegetic interpretations of the Jonah story (Jonah as an allegorical type of Christ, for instance) occur in the poem, and the poet is unique in applying the notion of patience to Jonah ’s story. Also unusual is the poet’s playing up the comic aspects of Jonah and his encounters with God. It is certainly one of the most entertaining and effective scriptural paraphrases in medieval English, and is more tightly crafted than the Gawain poet’s most similar poem, Cleanness.Bibliography■ Bowers, R. H. The Legend of Jonah. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1971.■ Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, ed. A Companion to the Gawain-poet. Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1997.■ The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Translated with an introduction by Casey Finch; Middle English texts edited by Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron, and Clifford Peterson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.■ Gardner, John, trans. The Complete Works of the Gawain-poet.Woodcuts by Fritz Kredel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.■ Schleusner, Jay. “History and Action in Patience,” PMLA 86 (1971): 959–965.■ Williams, David J. “The Point of Patience,” Modern Philology 68 (1970–71): 127–136.
Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.