The great medieval English poem was discussed on Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” with guests, including Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate and recent translator of the work . (Check the BBC Radio 4 website if you wish to listen to the programme) The development of the strands of English into the language we know, is something thinking people can take too easily for granted. How did the language of the Angles and Saxons become one of the world’s greatest literatures? It is a matter of wonder that Sir Gawain in the English of the western Midlands, Langland’s “Piers Plowman,” also in the alliterative verse tradition inherited from Old English, in an English slightly more accessible than Gawain to “southren” readers or listeners and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in the very different vernacular of London and Essex, are all roughly contemporary achievements of the late fourteenth century.

I append a passage from the first few pages of the poem and I add the same passage from Armitage’s translation. If I may add some advice to first time readers of medieval verse. Do not be put off by the unfamiliar language. Try to read yourself into it, seeking to pronounce the words. You will find meanings will suggest themselves to you but don’t worry if they don’t. The main thing is to get into the feel of the verse. The translation will then help to clarify the meaning but don’t make it a crutch you cannot do without. Eventually you will come to love it in the original. This is how it has worked with me with Chaucer( now a poet I love) and Langland whose work I am still seeking to familiarise myself with. With so much to read is it worth doing? you may ask. Well quite as much as it is learning to read in any other language and with the additional incentive that this, if you are a native English speaker, is your language to be proud of.

Of this poem John Spiers has concluded in his Medieval English Poetry Faber 1971, “Sir Gawain is a superb work of art-a formly rooted, muliple-branched, gnarled but symmetrical northern oak”

Here is a verse paragraph early on on the Court of King Arthur:

  "This kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,
Reckenly of the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,
With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.
Ther tournayed tulkes by tymes ful mony,
Justed ful jolile thise gentyle knightes,
Sythen kayred to the court, caroles to make.
For there the fest was ilyche ful fiften dayes,                                                                                     With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse:
Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes;
Al was hap upon heghe in halles and chambres
With lordes and ladiees, as levest him thoght.
With al the wele of the worlde they woned ther samen
The most kyd knyghtes under Krystes selven
And the lovelokkest that ever lif haden,
And he the comlokset kyng that the court haldes.

For al was this fayre folk in her first age on sille,

             The hapnest under heven,
             Kyng hygest mon of wylle;
             Hit were now gret nye to neven
            So hardy a here on hille .

And here is Simon Armitage’s translation of the same verse paragraph:

"It was Christmas at Camelot-King Arthur's court,
where the great and good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and revelling in pleasure.
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,
they had lunged at each other with levelled lances
then returned to the castle to carry on their carolling,
for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,
with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.
the hubbub of their humour was heavenly to hear:
pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,
so the house and its hall were lit with happiness
and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.
Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:
the most chivalrous and courteous knights known in Christendom;
the most wonderful women to have walked in this world;
the handsomest king to be crowned at court.

Fine folk with their futures before them, there in that hall.
                    Their highly honoured king
                    was happiest of all: 
                   no nobler knights had come 
                   within a castle wall.  

Simon Armitage (tr.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Faber 2008

Happy reading!


“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of you beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be ; and if all else remained and he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger. I should not seem part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware as winter changes the trees -my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath- a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff-he’s always, always in my mind-not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself-but as as my own being….”

Wuthering Heights Ch.9

The quoted speech is perhaps the most central of the novel. It has been much referred to and debated by critics. It comes from the time when Catherine, having decided to marry Linton, uses Nelly (the narrator) as her sounding board for convincing herself that she is right to choose him before Heathcliff. For Nelly the distinction between the two possible lovers is clear. Edgar is a gentleman in terms of property but also in quality. Heathcliff at this stage of the novel has been degraded by Hindley ( now master), brutally treated, an outsider whose doubtful background is made to justify his treatment as an outsider.

In the earlier part of the scene Heathcliff has been a listener. He has heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff and after this Nelly becomes conscious of him leaving the room. (Thence he leaves the area for years before returning completely altered from the gauche brutalised adolescent he has been). His later behaviour in relation to Catherine indicates his passion for her is as necessary to him as hers for her.

The intensity of the speech is made to sound religious. She is clearly thinking hard to get the words right: “What were the use of creation if I were entirely contained here?” We see her pointing to herself trying to make clear to Nelly what she means. Yet what she identifies herself with-her extended self-is not God but Heathcliff. The contrasting imagery of foliage and rocks brilliantly contrasts the nature of her feeling. “Foliage” has the potential to be beautiful and attractive but it is temporary; it dies back in winter. The rocks made “eternal” last permanently.

Some see the deep bonding of Catherine and Heathcliff as a kind of solidarity formed out of their mistreatment after Hindley takes command of the house. I noted above the passage from Catherine’s diary describing their rebellion against the oppressive Sunday atmosphere under the assigned control of the bigoted Joseph.

It could also be seen as a primitive kind of religious bonding. There is the freedom they share scampering over the moors as adolescents. Is the feeling sexual? Despite the passion and though Catherine speaks of marriage there is little sign on her part of sexual love. As children they slept in the same bed (she refers to this in the delirium scene) so sexual feeling would be close to incest. On Heathcliff’s side the description of digging up the corpse to hold her has been linked to necrophilia. What it underlines perhaps more , however,is Catherine’s pronouncement “if he were annihilated the universe would turn a mighty stranger” To Heathcliff death must not be allowed to separate them. Existence continues-he has known for years her troubling presence as a ghost-and in death, both physically and spiritually they continue together.

What do you think?


On the morning of a fine June day, my first bonny nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born.

We were busy with the hay in a far away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon, across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go; he says she’s been in consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr Hindley-and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it Nelly- to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it, day and night-I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”

“But is she very ill?” I asked, flinging down my rake, and tying my bonnet.

“I guess she is; yet she looks bravely, “replied the girl, “and she talks as if she thought of living to see it grow a man. She’s out of her head for joy, it’s such a beauty! If I were her I’m certain I should not die. I should get better at the bare sight of it, in spite of Kenneth. I was fairly mad at him. Dame Archer brought the cherub down to master, in the house, and his face just began to light up, then the old croaker steps forward, and, says he:- “Earnshaw it’s a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son. When she came, I felt convinced we shouldn’t keep her long; and now, I must tell you, the wintere will probably finish her. Don’t take on, and fret about it too much, it can’t be helped. And besides you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass.


D. H. Lawrence uses the phrase “spirit of place” to point to the writer’s gift of rendering the essence of his particular setting. I love this particular passage of Emily Bronte’s great novel because it gives an immediate insight into a society and way of life on the Yorkshire moors around her chosen setting of Wuthering Heights. It also gives a sense of the rich power of the language of the book reflecting the community life of the folk which I shall seek to underline with a comparison of her language with Jane Austen’s.

The narrator is Nelly, a live-in servant whose main employment at this stage of the novel is indoors but who is clearly employed to help as needed with the ongoing life of the farm . Note the rhythm of the opening sentence with its balance of the words “first” and “last” : ” my first bonny nursling and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock” suggests her pride in the association with the family with their long history, her delight in the birth of the new heir and her sorrow at his being the last. The prose renders the excitement of the breathless servant girl pouring out her joy at the the beauty of the new born and the energy of Nelly’s response “Flinging down my rake and tying my bonnet”. But vigour is an element sadly lacking in the condition of the mother. The doctor’s testimony of the mother’s inadequacy brings us to the specifics of place: “the winter will probably finish her……you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass”. The doctor’s brutal realism (rejected as he is by the phrase “old croaker” of the young servant girl) on the physical limitations of the not local wife acts in the passage as a kind of counterpoise to the apparent vigour of the “grand bairn” and the energy of the young Nelly ready to take on her first “nursling”. You do not survive in this kind of place without rude vigour and strength. The breakfast girl’s implicit joy in the beauty of the boy, the pride in the survival of the Earnshaw “stock” is of the celebration of the physical qualities of strength and endurance that make possible survival over generations in a harsh landscape.

In the rhythm of speech we note the strong physical words of common life that stand out : “bonny”, “ancient,” ” stock,” “bairn,” “flinging,””bravely” “beauty,” blessing,” “croaker” “spared””fret” “rush of a lass”. This is language unlike that of Jane Austen. Compare the start of Sense and Sensibility :

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”.

Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility

The language here belongs to a different class of gentility -“family, ” long settled” (as against “ancient stock”), “residence”, “respectable” “general good opinion”; gentility which is securely settled, not struggling for survival. We notice the preponderance of longer more Latinate, anglo-Norman vocabulary. The short blunt physicality of the language of Wuthering Heights is absent. It is a contrasting England with a quite different spirit of place.

It is worth noting how the Wuthering Heights passage continues. The doctor’s prophecy is accurate. Yet the wife shows the kind of spirit that shows us why the Yorkshireman was drawn to her. When Nelly approached “She spoke merrily” and in the face of death “that gay heart never failed her”. The language, the merriness and gaiety, reflects a resilience of spirit that can take her so far but not further. It is a resilience of spirit lacking in her husband Hindley. Earlier Nelly had noted “I was very sad for Hindley’s sake; he had room in his heart for only two idols-his wife and himself- he doted on both, and adored one, and I couldn’t conceive how he would bear the loss”. The effect indeed is catastrophic for himself and for his family:

“For himself he grew desperate; his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament; he neither wept nor prayed-he cursed and defied-execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation”.

Again we note the powerful rhythm of reinforcing doubles ( “wept nor prayed”, “cursed and defied” “God and man ” with the force of “execrated”).

Hindley with all his physical strength and his unruly character has none of his wife’s spiritual resilience”. He lacks the moral force to complement his physical powers. His “idol” gone his only recourse is defiant recklessness bringing ruin.


What kind of novel is Wuthering Heights? I ask because the novel blends so many different possibilities within its composite whole. It is a passionate love story of a never consummated relationship that dominates the whole story-even though the heroine dies well before the end and consummation is sought by her lover after death ; it is a history novel to do with life on the Yorkshire moors sixty to forty years before- a history describing class differences between the two houses of its settings; it is a revenge drama, in which the adopted outsider who feels rejected, becomes the usurper eventually taking over the two houses; it is a saga of three generations in which, eventually, there appears to be a restorative process at work whereby characters in the third generation learn from the mistakes of the earlier generation; it is a novel pre-eminently of two dominating characters who are often regarded as over- shadowing everything else in the novel. It is a novel, which is realistic, with very accurate sociological observation, as well as a novel with sensationalist gothic and supernatural elements. As a result of all this blending it has challenged literary theorists to very different approaches. Marxist, feminist, pscho-analytic theorists have found much within the novel to discuss.

In a series of blogs I want to look more basically at what I find in the novel which makes it great reading as literature. What makes it, quite simply, a wonderful book with a life of its own? The critical approach is traditional : to present a passage which is looked at for its particular qualities and which leads the discussion towards debate as to the rich experience the book has to offer. I hope thereby to encourage interest in the novel for those who have not read it and to stimulate further thought in those who have. I shall be delighted to deal with any responses from readers.