My failing, and the frailty of wayward flesh

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (beinning ~2430) in the W.S. Merwin translation – which I much preferred to the Armitage I read last year.

“But your belt,” Gawain said, “God reward you for it!
I will be glad to wear it, not for the gold on it,
Nor the sash itself, nor the silk, nor the pendants around it,
Nor its value, nor the honor in it, nor the glorious workmanship,
But I shall look at it often to remind me of my wrongdoing.
When I ride in triumph remorse will recall to me
My failing, and the frailty of wayward flesh,
How easily it is splashed with stains that defile it.
And so when pride from prowess at arms stirs me,
The sight of this love token will humble my heart.

‘Bot your gordel’, quoþ Gawayn, ‘God yow forзelde!
þat wyl I welde wyth guod wylle, not for þe wynne golde,
Ne þe saynt, ne þe sylk, ne þe syde pendaundes,
For wele ne for worchyp, ne for þe wlonk werkkez,
Bot in syngne of my surfet I schal se hit ofte,
When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
þe faut and þe fayntyse of þe flesche crabbed,
How tender hit is to entyse teches of fylþe;
And þus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
þe loke to þis luf-lace schal leþe my hert.

Mist muged on the mor, malt on the mountes

Some of what is best in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are the transit passages – moving through nature in passing from one human zone to another.  For all the poet enjoys describing life at court, he also shows a surprising – for the time – attentiveness to natural landscapes.


And went on his way with his wyye one,
That schulde teche hym to tourne to that tene place
Ther the ruful race he schulde resayve.
They bowen bi bonkkes ther boghes ar bare,
Thay clomben bi clyffes ther clenges the colde,
The heven was up half, bot ugly therunder;
Mist muged on the mor, malt on the mountes,
Uch hille hade a hatte, a myst hakel huge,
Brokes byled and breke bi bonkkes aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schores ther thay doun schowved.
Wela wylle was the way ther thay bi wod schulden…. (2074-2084)

Then he went on his way with the one whose task
was to point out the road to that perilous plcae
where the knight would receive the slaughterman’s strikel
They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare,
clambered up cliff faces crazed by the cold.
The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped
so the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist
and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head.
The streams on the slopes seemed to fume and foam,
whitening the waysid with spume and spray.
They wandered onwards through teh wildest woods (Simon Armitage translation)

For thagh men ben mery quen they han mayn drynk

I don’t properly know Middle English.  I can mostly get through it with a crib translation, but my grammar is too hazy to come out on top in some alliterative clusters where the context alone doesn’t make the different roles clear – as is the case in line 4 of the below excerpt from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has stumped me for a while now.

The original:
Gawan watz glad to begynne those gomnes in halle,
Bot thagh the ende be hevy, haf ye no wonder;
For thagh men ben mery quen they han mayn drynk,
A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyke;
The forme to the fynisment foldez ful selden (495-499)

The Simon Armitage poetic rendering (Norton, 2007):
And Gawain had been glad to begin the game,
but don’t be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped:
for men might be merry when addled with mead
but each year, short lived, is unlike the last
and rarely resolves in the style it arrived

The James Winny mostly literal rendering (Broadview, 1992):
Gawain was glad enough to begin those games in the hall,
But if the outcomes prove troublesome don’t be surpised;
For though men are light-hearted when they have strong drink,
A year pass swiftly, never bringing the same:
Beginning and ending selom take the same form.

My literal but illiterate rendering:
Gawain was glad to to begin those games in the hall,
but that the conclusion was harsh, have no wonder;
For though men become merry when they have many a drink,
A year seeks fulfillment swiftly but never yields the same [kind of year],
The [initial] appearance full seldom agrees with the conclusion.

I take “A yere yernes ful yerne” as:
yere – year (subject)
yernes – desire (verb)
But I’m using the poorly attested secondary meaning from the Univerity of Michigan Middle English Dictionary entry for yernen
yerne – swiftly (adv)

I think there are two problems here.  First – ‘yernen’ has to be taken with a rare secondary sense and the translators I’ve looked at appear – understandably – to glide over this difficulty by giving preference to dictates of context.  Second – I think the poet’s image itself lacks full logical continuity.  The situation in lines 1-2 (Gawain begins his task lightly but concludes in different manner) is supposed to be clarified by a parallel example in lines 3-4.  The import of both examples is then summed up by the gnomic line 5.  Easy enough.  But the shift in focus from 3-4 (men are happy when they drink/ but a year passes quickly..) is so violent that the intended elaborating power feels lost to me.  I can still only guess what 3-4 ‘needs’ to mean by setting it aside what precedes and what follows.  Now it’s lunch and I’ve earned my ‘mayn drynk’