“Lady Bertilak in the Chapel” – A Creative Imitation of Julia Alvarez

Lady Bertilak seducing Sir Gawain, Image Source: Wikipedia

Lady Bertilak in the Chapel

We walk, the witch woman at my wing,

wending through the high hall. Here

is the hapless hero, hunting for his honor

which will hang by a thread. The head 

of my husband, who will have me hanging

by this poor man’s bed, is hiding right

in front of him. He’ll be forced into failing,

he’s as faultless as the rest. I must make 

that man my mark, the lord of the castle 

says. This naive knight does

not know 

I must go to his room, 

at my lord’s behest,

for a man’s rash boon-

meant to beg for sex.

Julia Alvarez, Image Source: Poetry Foundation

I chose to write this poem as a sort of poetic imitation of Julia Alvarez.

In her poetic statement “Housekeeping Cages,” she writes:

Sometimes people ask me why I wrote a series of poems about housekeeping if I’m a feminist. Don’t I want women to be liberated from the oppressive roles they were condemned to live? I don’t see housekeeping that way. They were the crafts we women had […] Isn’t it already thinking from the point of view of the oppressor to say to ourselves, what we did was nothing? (16)

She goes on, speaking about sonnets, to say that “It’s the classic form in which we were trapped, love objects, and I was trapped inside that voice and paradigm, and I wanted to work my way out of it” (18). I think her view on writing in form, specifically from a feminist perspective, is so interesting. 

I wanted to explore Alvarez’s sentiments on reclaiming form from the female or feminist perspective. This poem is a re-imagining of a scene in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from Lady Bertilak’s point of view. Lady Bertilak is used throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a means for her husband, Lord Bertilak, along with the witch Morgan Le Fay, to get revenge on King Arthur. Her role is that of the temptress who is supposed to try and seduce Gawain to test him, although it doesn’t seem like Lady Bertilak has any choice in the matter as, for the most part, she isn’t granted a lot of agency (and, generally, the poem is pretty misogynistic on the whole). Here, I was inspired by Alvarez’s “How I Learned To Sweep,” which draws on this idea of traditionally oppressive gender roles. In my own imitation, I extended that notion of traditional roles beyond housekeeping into the larger Middle English literary tradition’s treatment of women. But where Alvarez reclaims these domestic acts, Lady Bertilak (in this reimagining), is merely noting what she is being told to do by her husband Lord Bertilak and how her role is the driving action behind the plot.

Drawing on Alvarez’s “Sonnet 42,” in which the woman as “love object” is restructured and reinvented within the traditionally suppressive sonnet, I wanted to do something similar here. I tried to stick with a similar form found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is highly alliterative and features a bob and wheel at the end of each stanza. I chose to focus mainly on the alliterative aspect, which is such a hallmark feature in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and kept the bob and wheel at the end which is a short line followed by four lines that follow an abab rhyme scheme. One thing I chose to change in this instance is the overall length. The original scene, going off Simon Armitage’s translation, is 42 lines, with each line much longer in length. I chose to use shorter lines and a compressed stanza here to highlight Lady Bertilak’s more limited agency in the original poem.

Did anyone else find insight in Alvarez’s take on form from a gendered perspective? If so, did you agree with her sentiments?


Works Cited

Alvarez, Julia. “Housekeeping Cages”

Alvarez, Julia. “How I Learned to Sweep.”

Alvarez, Julia. “Sonnet 42.”

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Simon Armitage, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, New York.


2 Responses to “Lady Bertilak in the Chapel” – A Creative Imitation of Julia Alvarez

  1. Hanna October 5, 2022 at 8:38 pm #

    This is such a clever and thoughtful way to make use of creative imitation! I enjoyed your poem and your reflection very much! I am glad you asked these questions. Though I don’t believe her to be right in all capacities, I generally agree with her sentiments regarding both housework as well as her feelings toward sonnets. Though sonnets do not necessarily need to be love poems, a great many are, and a great many make the female into a passive love object where her agency is absent. Her idea of freeing a “colonized form” makes sense to me. Just adding a woman’s agency to a sonnet is an act of subversion, it seems, for sonnets. Regarding the household, I feel too often that women put each other down regarding this matter. I agree with Alvarez here in that housework, because it is domestic unpaid labor, has too often been thought of as non-work, valued less because it does not “produce” anything. Claiming that women should move beyond housework to “real work” even if housework is their preferred choice of work, is, in my opinion, an anti-feminist mindset.

  2. Carl October 5, 2022 at 10:16 pm #

    Hey Kathleen, when reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I was also struck by the lack of agency and character Lady Bertilak had in the narrative–even going so far as to not even give Lady Bertilak a first name. I think re-framing Lady Bertilak’s story into Alvarez’s poetic form was such a great move to make. Your use of alliteration and assonance really give your poem great movement and rhythm. I love your use of space on the page, its almost phallic like a sword, which is such an important element within the story of SGGK.

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