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Seeing the 'Gawain'-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception.

Sarah Stanbury, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). x + 15 5 pp. ISBN 0-8122-3119-0. 21.95.[pounds]

Mediaevalists are going to divide over the question whether visual perception is a factor which so consistently engages the Gawain-poet's conscious attention as this intriguing book claims. While it is clear that Pearl problematizes physical sight when the dreamer is chastized for simple reliance upon it, and while the sight of God is explicitly a topic in Purity, and while it is incontestable that passages of |focalized' description are conspicuous among the poems in the Cotton Nero MS, it is much less clear that these phenomena are integral parts of a sustained ocular theme. Nevertheless Stanbury constructs bridges so ingeniously as almost to disarm doubt. In the process she responds with commanding and salutary precision to the underlying challenge of analysing visual description. Her exposition is exemplary in that respect. Yet the interpretative model she applies to acts of perception in these poems is less rewardingly elaborated. She declares that |when a text describes a scene or a person and then places a character within the narrative as spectator to that description, the horizon of meanings inhering in the description is narrowed to a perpetual reference, yet is also multiplied as that reference is subjected to the reader's gaze' (p. 98): but is it not self-evident that a reader's interpretation accommodates the view of an eyewitness in the text without being confined by it? There is some strain in accepting that this is a device used ubiquitously by the poet to configure |crises of knowledge' (p. 8).

Admittedly Pearl is a natural candidate for such an approach; but the consequence is that fresh commentary is hard to develop, though Stanbury interestingly juxtaposes the dreamer's luf-longing at his final sight of the maiden with St John's instinctual worship of his angelic companion in the Apocalypse after he has seen the wedding of the Lamb. The fact that the poem refuses to ascend finally from visibilia to blind mystic vision is plausibly held to situate the poet at the heart of mediaeval debate about the role of visibilia in contemplation. However, Stanbury's methodology seems more productive in relation to Purity, charting |perceptual failures' and |miraculous recognitions' in the context of a progression in |signs of salvation'. Discussion of Gawain fingers too monotonously over reciprocal gazes and |visual realignments'. The reading of Patience actually interests most when it drops the obsession with sight and proposes thresholds, liminality, as a central concern.

Despite some reservations about its subject, this study should repay the attention of Gawain-poet specialists. Of wider interest will be the ten pages (117-27) of Stanbury's conclusion, in which she compares the poet's descriptive methods rather penetratingly with those of Chaucer and others. This ought to be developed into a book.
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Author:Blamires, Alcuin
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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