The Song Of Courtesy

by George Meredith

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"Courtesy Is The True Alchemy"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184

Context: In this simple little lyric, George Meredith turns to the stories of King Arthur's knights for inspiration and likewise, at least in part, to Chaucer's Tale of the Wife of Bath. Sir Gawain, hated by the others because of his purity, is forced to marry an old hag who "was yellow and dry as a snake's old skin," and being the knight of courtesy, a title that roughly means "a perfect gentleman," he cannot hurt the hag's feelings by showing his disgust. Alone with her in the bed chamber, he takes the route of honor: he ignores her loathsomeness and covers her with kisses. Such courtesy, however, is well rewarded, for the hag is miraculously transformed into a beautiful maiden. The quotation occurs in the last stanza of the poem:

Of gentle Sir Gawain they had no sport,
When it was morning in Arthur's court;
What think you they cried?
Now, life and eyes!
This bride is the very Saint's dream of a prize,
Fresh from the skies!
See ye not, Courtesy
Is the true Alchemy,
Turning to gold all it touches and tries?
. . .

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