The Power of Words and the Power of Narratives: Cleanness

The Power of Words and the Power of Narratives: Cleanness

Hamilton, Ruth E.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol.3 (1986)


One theme that emerges from a careful reading of the fourteenth-century poem known as Cleanness is the power of words, both spoken and written. This should be no surprise to readers of two more famous poems generally considered to have been written by the same author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. Students of these works have noted the poet’s careful choice of words, his artistry in linking them together, and their power of evocation. Ironically, however, it is in Cleanness, which has never enjoyed the critical acclaim of its companion pieces, that the poet celebrates his artistry. In Cleanness, the poet proclaims not only the power of words but also their capacity to serve as bearers of a divine message. The ability to use words makes a relationship with God possible for humans and distinguishes them from animals. It is in the acts of speaking and writing that humankind draws closer to God. Furthermore, in Cleanness, the poet demonstrates his awareness of the power of the narrative, the weaving of words into stories. And he claims kinship with the prophets of old because of his craft.

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