The ‘Gawairt-Poet’ or ‘Pearl-Poet’, as he is sometimes called, is, after Gower and Langland, the third of Chaucer’s best-known poet-contemporaries, and it is no wonder that this astonishing quartet of authors has given rise to attempts to find some kind of common literary, philosophical, or temperamental denomin­ ator that could serve as a convenient label. John Burrow’s stimulating book on Ricardian Poetry1 has pointed out several important features that seem to unite these four poets, but, quite apart from obvious differences in dialect, subject and poetic idiom, the works of the Gawain-poet, four uniquely original poems, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, form a very distinct group. They seem to belong to a different literary tradition, address a different audience and in many ways enrich our picture of Middle English literat­ ure immeasurably. It appears little short of a miracle that the unpretentious little volume that contains the single extant text of these poems has survived the ravages of time; without this modest, crudely illustrated manuscript our estimate of the whole period and its literary achievement would be substan­ tially poorer. Very little is known about this collection, preserved in the British Library under the signature Cotton Nero A.x.2 It dates from about the last quarter of the fourteenth century and is written in a West Midland dialect, probably the language of the author. The poems were all copied by the same hand, almost certainly not the hand of the poet, but this is where certain knowledge ends and conjecture has to begin. Most scholars agree that the four poems were all composed by the same person, whose identity and individual character must remain a matter of speculation, though to most readers he speaks as a very distinct personality, certainly very different either from Geoffrey Chaucer or William Langland.3 Derek Brewer, in his magisterial introduction to A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, puts it with admirable clarity:

Like Langland he writes in alliterative verse, is deeply devout, has a sardonic humour, is not interested in romantic (‘courtly’) love. Unlike Langland, he is very courtly. Like Chaucer he is courtly, but in a different style. He is not ironic, or flippant, and does not tell secular comic tales, but he is more attracted to courtly festivity than is Chaucer, who is dismissive, not to say blase, about feasts, and who mocks Arthurianism.4