Noah’s Flood

The Gawain Poet
Marie Borroff

This account of the Flood translates into modern English one episode of a long poem written at the end of the fourteenth century, called by its modern editors Cleanness or Purity. There is every reason to think that its author also wrote the more famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. His source is the comparatively brief narration in Genesis 7–8, which he would have read in Latin. He expands it in the highly conventional descriptive style of Late Middle English alliterative poetry. My version reproduces the metrical and alliterative patterns of the original poem. The poet both follows source and tradition and impresses on them his distinctive imaginative bias, including, most importantly, his tendency to see human action as shaped by limits: of space, of circumstance, of causation, of complementary or antagonistic response. The narration in Genesis lends itself to his purposes in that it describes the Flood as coming simultaneously from below and above: “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were opened” (7.11). He visualizes its progress in spatial terms. First the waters converge with horrendous violence, enclosing earth and sky. Once they have “wet the whole world,” all living creatures grow increasingly fearful as the rising flood forces them upward onto steadily diminishing areas of safety. Here, the narrator’s awareness (as also in Sir Gawain) takes in the responses of animals as well as of men, women, and children: we hear the “heart-rending roars” of wild creatures, “stranded on the steeps.” But at last he focuses his attention on the human beings who have provoked God’s wrath. Once they have done everything in their power to escape, they see that their doom is inevitable and turn to take leave of each other. Though he knows that God despises them all, he imagines them sympathetically as individuals bound by ties of mutual friendship and love, and invites us to share in the anguish of their parting. He then turns to the plight of the eight passengers enclosed in the “buoyant box” of the ark. Devoid of sailing or steering apparatus, it “wallows on the wide sea” that covers the earth until, once “the loftiest ledges” have been exposed by the receding waters, it comes to rest on a ridge of Mount Ararat.

Then from the bowels of the abyss boiled up the big waters;
Each wellhead spewed wide its wild-racing torrent;
No bank but burst apart, by river or pool;
The seas in great surges swelled toward the sky;
The clouds cleft in pieces, that carried the rain:
From rifts high in the heavens it rushed down to earth;
Forty days undiminished the deep flood rises.
The woods were awash, and the wide fields,
For when the weather of the welkin had wet the whole world,
All beings that drew breath were bound to perish.
They who marked the mischief lamented their fate,
That they were doomed to drown in the deep streams.
Torrents towered higher, toppled down houses,
Rushed raging into rooms where wretches harbored.
All fled at the first shock whose feet would serve them;
Women with children wended their way
To banks and bluffs that abode above water,
And all made for the uplands, where hills were highest,
But their frenzy was futile – the force of the storm
And the rage of the risen flood would never relent
Until each broad bottomland brimmed like a lake
And rain filled to the rim each rift and valley.
Then the highest mountains on earth were all but hidden;
Folk fled there in flocks, who feared the great doom.
The wild things took to water, when woods went under;
Some set out to swim, in search of safe harbor;
Some, stranded on the steeps, stared up to heaven
With heart-rending roars that re-echoed afar;
Hares and harts hasted to the high ground;
Bucks, badgers and bulls beset the steep banks;
All called, confounded, on the King of Heaven,
Cried out for clemency to the Creator of all,
But the maelstrom only grew madder; his mercy was past
And his pity departed from people he despised.
When the swift-swelling flood swirled around their feet,
Not a soul but saw he must sink and be lost;
Comrades crowded round and clung to each other
To endure the dire doom that destiny decreed;
Lover looked to lover in last fond farewell,
To end once for all, and ever be parted.
After forty full days, no flesh stirred on earth
That was not seized and consumed by the rough seas’ rage,
For it climbed fifteen cubits, past cliffs and crags,
Above the mightiest mountains measured on earth.
Then all creatures were condemned to decay in the mud
That breathed the breath of life – they lashed about vainly –
Save the captain of that strange crew, closed under hatches,
Noah, ever crying his Creator’s name,
One of eight in the ark, as pleased heaven’s King,
Where all creatures in cabins were kept safe and dry.
The ark was hurled about by heaving waves,
Carried close to the clouds in countries unknown.
It wallowed on the wild sea, went where it would,
Drove over the deep, in danger, it seemed,
Without boom-crutch, or mast, or bowline made taut,
Cable or capstan to secure their anchors,
Helm to keep a course, or hand-held tiller,
Or any swelling sail to sweep them to harbor,
But floated forth, flogged on by furious winds.
From each buffet of the brine it rebounded in turn;
Often it rolled round and reared up on end;
Had the Lord not been their helmsman, their lot had been dire.
To expound in true speech the life-span of Noah:
The sum of his age was six hundred years;
When the seventh month had passed, and seven days more,
All wellheads burst at once, and the waters flowed,
And the flood followed after, thrice fifty days.
Each hill was awash in wan-hued waves;
All were lost and left to drown that lived in the world,
That ever floated, or flew, or fared forth on foot,
Save the wretched remnant that rode over the sea
Where creatures of all kinds were confined together.
But when God thought it good, who governs the sky,
To make known to His man His mercy unfailing,
He wakened a wind over the wide waters,
And then the lake grew less, that was large before.
He checked the churning pools, choked up the wells,
Bade the rain cease – it desisted straightway.
Then the deep sea diminished, drawing together.
After hard days had passed one hundred and fifty
As that buoyant box was borne all about
Wherever wind and weather willed it to go,
On the morning of a mild day it made land at last:
On the ridge of a rock resting unmoved,
On Ararat Mount, amid Armenia’s hills
(Though otherwise, in Hebrew, they have the name Thanez).
But though the craft was caught secure in the crags,
The deep water remained, nor drained to the bottoms,
But the loftiest ledges were a little uncovered
So that the boatman on board beheld the bare earth.

The Gawain Poet is the unknown author of the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
Marie Borroff was a scholar, poet, translator, and a Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.
Originally published:
July 1, 2004


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