Patience (poem)

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Patience is a Middle English alliterative poem written in the late 14th century. Its unknown author, designated the Pearl-Poet or Gawain-Poet, also appears, on the basis of dialect and stylistic evidence, to be the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Cleanness (all ca. 1360-1395) and may have composed St. Erkenwald. This is thought to be true because the techniques and vocabulary of regional dialect of the unknown author is that of Northwest Midlands, located between Shropshire and Lancashire.

The manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x is in the British Museum. The first published edition was in Early English Alliterative Poems in the West Midland Dialect of the fourteenth century, printed by the Early English Text Society. Of Patience, considered the slightest of the four poems, its only manifest source is the Vulgate Bible. It also resembles a Latin poem by Tertullian and Bishop Marbod. There are certain mannerisms found in Patience that Pearl does not have. For instance, both homilies clearly follow the same pattern: 1. statement of theme, 2. announcement of the text from the New Testament, 3. discussion of another passage from the New Testament in elucidation of that text, 4. and elaborate paraphrase of exemplum or exempla, from the Old Testament.


Genre and poetics

A didactic, homiletic poem, “Patience” consists of 530 lines. Alliteration is used consistently throughout the poem, usually with three alliterating words per line. The very last line repeats the opening line of the poem, giving it a kind of cyclic feel. The unidentified narrator speaks in the first person throughout the work, posing as an autobiography.


The narrator/homilist begins by praising patience, setting it among eight virtues (which he calls blessings) or typically known as the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10 from the Sermon on the Mount, which he hears in mass one day. He closely associates it with poverty, closing with an admonition not to grumble or fight one’s fate, as Jonah did (ll. 1 - 56). The remainder of the work utilizes the story of Jonah as an exemplum which illustrates and justifies the admonition to accept the will of God patiently. Jonah's story delineates his own impatience because he could not handle the burden of what he was supposed to do--preach to the Ninevites. Notably, patience is generally paired in opposition to sloth. Medieval schools of thought would have condemned sloth, portraying negative consequences of those who fall into sloth, which essentially, is what the poet is trying to convey. Jonah, although written centuries prior to the poet's time, is an exemplary model of impatience, yet God still shows his loving mercy toward him, demonstrating that "the love he feels for his creatures whom he has nurtured and thus does not want to harm them" (Szarmach, 531). The poem ends with its opening lines.

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