Gospel Truth

“The Gospel Truth”

The speaker in Agbabi’s “The Gospel Truth” is telling his story to his beloved. The story is meant to serve as a warning, to impart the wisdom of one who knows the seven deadly sins and turned away from them, to a life on “the right track” (Agbabi, line 69). The personifications of Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust allow the speaker to engage abstract conceptions of sins in concrete narrative action.  Agbabi has turned the seven sins into old friends and the retelling of their escapades serves as the speaker’s confession. The speaker also heavily draws on English fairytales, biblical references, geographical locations in England and popular culture references while telling his story. This emphasizes the different kinds of knowledge he has accumulated throughout his worldly interactions. The source of this knowledge is not limited to scholarly written texts, but comes from engaging with the physical and cultural world around him. The poem starts with a warning, or “parental advisory” (Agbabi, line 7). Like a warning label on the front of an album, we anticipate some explicit content within, but also, simultaneously, some entertainment. The cautionary tale that follows is a lesson, but it is also a tale that is reminiscent, that boasts of the fun and antics that occurred while the speaker was part of the Seven Sins crew. 

The speaker in “The Gospel Truth” confesses many details that pertain to his past sinful exploits, but this should not be surprising since this poem is also Agbabi’s adaptation of the penitential manual that concludes Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Priests used penitential manuals as guidebooks and they were written to help the clergy educate sinners about the different types of sin and their corresponding penance (Payer 4).  Chaucer’s The Parson’s Tale is a long treatise on penance and sin, a close translation of Raymond of Penafort’s Summa de poenitentia (Chaucer and Benson, 956-957).  Compared to “The Gospel Truth,” Chaucer’s tale is more solemn, more serious. Chaucer chooses to present a close translation of Penafort’s Summa, while Agbabi’s adaptation is more loose. Infusing her adaptation with English pop culture references contextualizes the ways in which virtues and vices are present in everyday life. By drawing on locations, oral traditions and current cultural references, the speaker’s confession becomes a conversation about what sinful behavior might look like today. 

Chaucer’s Parson refuses to use the alliterative poetry of England or the rhyming poetry of France to tell his tale to his fellow pilgrims. The Parson says, “I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf’ by lettre,/ Ne, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre” (Chaucer, X.I.43-44). Instead, he gives a tale that is entirely in prose. Agbabi, faced with the same challenge, to rhyme or not to rhyme, chooses rhyme. Her Parson says, “rhyme for a reason, reaping what it sows – / wheat not the chaff, punchier than prose” (Agbabi, lines 3-4). In keeping with one of the larger themes in her collective work, Agbabi is highlighting the way people connect to language, especially when it moves and flows. Rhythm and rhyme keep language exciting and help keep poetry alive. She is also elevating non-traditional forms of poetry, like rap and grime music, to a higher, more legitimate status by combining them with more traditional forms of literary styles. Much like mixing biblical references with nursery rhymes to create present day authoritative sources of knowledge, Agbabi is remixing rap and traditional poetry to argue for the legitimacy of a literary language that represents contemporary British culture. 

The Gospel Truth

Rap, The Son aka ‘The Parson’ Notice how Rap, The Son is an anagram of The Parson. This is just one way Agbabi is remixing The Canterbury Tales. 

… Stand ye in the…for your souls – Jeremiah 6:16 A quote taken from the King James version of the Bible, where the Lord is asking his people to stand still, to contemplate the ways in which they may proceed. He asks his people to see the ways in which their ancestors walked, which were good, and to follow in their footsteps. Chaucer includes the latin text of this biblical quote in the beginning of the Parson’s Tale, and goes on to translate the verses as a beginning of a dialogue about the importance of penitence. 

2     rum, ram, ruf From Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale: “I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by letter. / No, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre.” (Chaucer, X.I.43-44). The Parson is declaring that he will not tell his tale in poetry, neither the alliterative poetry of Northern England, nor the rhyming poetry of France. Chaucer’s Parson chooses prose to explain his ideas. Agbabi chooses to repeat this ‘rum, ram, ruf’ phrase several times, in rhyme, showing that her Parson finds great pleasure in rhyme and more highly esteems it over prose.

4     wheat not the chaff An idiomatic phrase meaning to separate something with high value from those things which have no value. Chaucer’s Parson references the idiomatic phrase: “Why should I sown draw out of my fest / Whan I may sown whet, if that me lest?” (Chaucer, X.I.35-36). Here Agbabi uses the idiom to further assert her claim that rhyme, like wheat, is valuable.

5     Seven Sins The seven deadly or cardinal sins, in Christian theology, are forces of evil that attack a person’s virtues and are considered sins of greatest magnitude. They are Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust. In order to lead a moral life, one must reject these sins. In combination with the seven virtues, the seven sins were used to teach early Christians how to worship, and more specifically, how to make confession.

8     my confession The act of confession is a rite within the Christian religion, where one confesses their sins to a priest in the spirit of contrition. The sinner is given the obligation to perform a penance, after which they are forgiven and absolved from their sin. 

9     Two roads diverged A reference to the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” that tells of a young man who must choose between the two paths. The poem highlights feelings of nostalgia, the human tendency towards indecision, and the need to justify past actions. The introspective tone of the poem is an appropriate start for The Gospel Truth, as introspection is a necessary component for confession.

9     A2  The A2 is a roadway that connects the city of London to the suburbs of Kent. The present day highway approximately follows a route that would have been used as an ancient Celtic trackway, connecting London to Canterbury and then continuing to ports on the coast. If the premise of this poetry collection were to be acted out, the Routemaster bus where the poetry slam takes place would likely travel this route. All the towns on the route from London to Canterbury in Telling Tales can be reached by traveling on the A2. It is interesting that Agbabi chooses to have her two roads diverge from the A2, or the Canterbury Trail. This suggests that the pilgrimage is a crossroads or turning point, not only for the characters, but also for the readers.  

12     PRIDE An excessively high opinion of oneself. 

13     botox Brand name for the toxin botulinum that, when injected, causes temporary muscle paralysis. This is used to treat various medical and cosmetic conditions such as facial wrinkles, hyperhydrosis, migraines and other muscular disorders.

14     The square mile Square Mile is a colloquial term used to describe the City of London, an approximate square mile of central London that dates back two thousand years. Today, the historic town center is home to London’s Financial District.

20     Dane John Mound A motte and bailey castle (a visually impressive monument consisting of a large mound of earth, surrounded by a palisade and stone tower) erected in Canterbury shortly after the Norman conquest. Situated a little ways from Canterbury Cathedral, it is a present day park and garden. 

21     Jack fell down and broke his crown Reference to the English nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill, that dates back to the 1760’s. Today, the term “Jack and Jill” is used to mean a boy and girl.

23     loved my enemy Mathew 5: 43-44 says “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;”

23     MC A Master of Ceremonies, or MC, is a person presides over the ceremonial duties of a court or formal entertainment. In hip hop culture, an MC is the representative of the DJ and the crew, responsible for introductions and the smooth flow of performance.

24     ENVY A feeling of ill will when thinking of the advantages possessed by another. 

29     ASBOs Anti-Social Behavior Orders. Introduced by the United Kingdom’s Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, as a means of preventing unwanted behavior in communities, such as intimidation, drunkeness, disorderly conduct, theft. etc. The order served as a type of civil, not criminal, punishment, often barring a person from entering a specific place, or preventing them from participating in certain activities. They were discontinued from use in 2015. 

29     Chav  A derogatory term for lower class.

34     Whitstable oysters Discovered by Romans in England and regarded as a delicacy, they were shipped live back to Rome. Today they are cultivated as a local delicacy and remain a large part of Whitstable’s culture and industry. 

35     Her tongue was forked a lying, deceitful tongue.

42     WRATH Violent anger, hostile, indignant. 

42     SLOTH Laziness, indolence, the inclination to act in a sluggish manner.

45     wham bam An action with a quick and sudden effect. Forceful. Often, with a sexual connotation.

49     Canterbury Krays A reference to twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, gangsters in 1960’s London. They were notoriously brutal and violent. Both convicted of murder in 1969, they were sentenced to life in prison.

53     Jack, plantin my cash to hatch gold Another English fairy tale, Jack and the beanstalk is the story of a boy who plants a magic bean in the ground, which grows a stalk so large he can climb into the sky. There he finds a castle, a giant and magic treasures, which he steals from the giant.

56     GREED Sometimes called Avarice, it is the insatiable longing or desire, wanting to acquire and keep for oneself.

56     GLUTTONY Excessive eating and indulging in food or drink.

63     you be dust… A reference to either Genesis 3:19 or Ecclesiastes 3:20. Genesis says, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” and Ecclesiastes “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”

64     LUST Lust is a sensuous desire that leads to sinful behavior



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