‘Segges slepande’ and Cotton Nero A.x: The Ethics of Sleep in Patience, Cleanness, Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Marginalia, Vol. 10 Cambridge Yearbook (2008-2009)
When Patience’s Jonah, cowering in the storm-tossed ship in a vain attempt to escape both God’s wrath and his fellow-mariners’ sacrificial impulses, falls asleep in despair, his slobbering and snoring highlight the correspondences between his somatic vulgarity and his spiritual and social misconduct. Sleep, as both signifier and state, likewise occurs – with thematic significance – in each of the other three poems in Cotton Nero A.x. In Cleanness, Belshazzar’s immoral feast leads to the sleep of excess which overcomes his men, allowing Darius’ soldiers to slaughter them; in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), Gawain’s sleep, both real and feigned, repeatedly marks his temptations and anxieties during his sojourn at Hautdesert; and in Pearl, the dreamer’s sleep, as the vehicle for his vision of the maiden and the New Jerusalem, is the main postulate of the poem.