Cleanness


Cleanness
(Purity)
(ca. 1375)
   Cleanness is a MIDDLE ENGLISH poem included in the famous Cotton Nero A.x manuscript along with SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, PEARL, and PATIENCE, and is generally believed to have been written by the same author as the other three poems. All are in a similar North West Midland dialect, and all are written in alliterative lines characteristic of the so-called ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL of the late 14th century. At 1,812 lines, Cleanness is second only to Sir Gawain in length in the manuscript. It has a number of features in common with Patience: It is a narrative homily or sermon, using biblical stories to illustrate a particular virtue. Like Patience, Cleanness seems to be written in four-line units similar to stanzas, though lacking any rhyme. Although Patience occurs first in the manuscript, scholars have speculated that Cleanness may be the earliest of the four poems, perhaps because in its generally rigorous morality it shows less of the poet’s characteristic sense of humor and playfulness.
   The theme of the poem is the virtue of spiritual cleanness, and God’s abhorrence of impurity. It begins by attacking impure priests, who profane the sacrament if they come to it with impure hands. The poet notes the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and then considers the parable of the wedding guest from the Gospels: The filthy wedding garment, the poet says, denotes the filthy state of the guest’s soul. Allegorically our deeds are our garments, and when we approach the feast in the heavenly kingdom, God wants our garments to be clean. After a long list of a wide variety of sins, the poet focuses on sins of the flesh as particularly abominable to God. Cleanness illustrates its theme with three stories from the Scriptures: the stories of the Flood and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis, and the episode of Belshazzar’s feast from the book of Daniel. The poet retells the stories in vivid detail, and his descriptions of the fall of Sodom and the destruction of Babylon are memorable and justly admired. In a typically medieval interpretation, the Flood is seen as God’s punishment for unnatural or perverted sexual practices in which the sons of God mate with the daughters of men in Genesis 6. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is described specifically as punishment for what the poet sees as the scorn of nature in the homosexual practices of Sodom.
   The retelling of the tale of Belshazzar’s feast is the longest exemplum in the poem. It begins with a description of the Babylonians’ excesses in the sacking of Jerusalem, their killing of women, children, and priests, and their theft of the holy vessels of the Temple, which they take to Babylon. Belshazzar himself is pictured as a glutton, an idolater, and a lustful keeper of concubines.His feast, it has been noted, is described much like that of a 14th-century English nobleman. But his defiling of the Jewish holy vessels at the feast ultimately dooms him and the entire city of Babylon to God’s vengeance.
   Scholarly interest in the poem has sometimes focused on the apparently significant break between the section on Sodom and Gomorrah and that on Belshazzar’s feast. The last section seems to be added on to what was a complete poem of the Sodom episode. Further, the Belshazzar narrative is presented less dramatically than the earlier parts of the poem. These differences have led some to speculate that a second poet may have added the last section of the poem. Other critics have been interested in the poet’s sources: The main source for Cleanness was, of course, the Bible, and of the four poems in the Cotton Nero manuscript, this is the only one that also uses apocryphal books as source material. The poet also alludes specifically to JEAN DEMEUN and uses his section of the ROMAN DE LA ROSE at one point in the text. He also used a French version of the travels of John MANDEVILLE in describing the Dead Sea.
   Bibliography
   ■ Brewer,Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Woodbridge, U.K., and Rochester, N.Y.: 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.
   ■ Kelley, T. D., and John T. Irwin. “The Meaning of Cleanness: Parable as Effective Sign,” Medieval Studies 25 (1973): 231–260.
   ■ Morse, Charlotte. “The Image of the Vessel in Cleanness,” University of Toronto Quarterly 40 (Spring 1971): 202–216.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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