Pearl (Middle English: Perle) is a late 14th-century Middle English poem that is considered one of the most important surviving Middle English works. With elements of medieval allegory and dream vision genre, the poem is written in a North-West Midlands variety of Middle English and highly—though not consistently—alliterative; there is a complex system of stanza linking and other stylistic features.
A father, mourning the loss of his "perle" (pearl), falls asleep in a garden; in his dream, he encounters the 'Pearl-maiden'—a beautiful and heavenly woman—standing across a stream in a strange landscape. In response to his questioning and attempts to obtain her, she answers with Christian doctrine. Eventually she shows him an image of the Heavenly City, and herself as part of the retinue of Christ the Lamb. However, when the Dreamer attempts to cross the stream, he awakens suddenly from his dream and reflects on its significance.
The poem survives in a single manuscript, London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, which includes two other religious narrative poems: Patience, and Cleanness, and the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All are thought to be by the same author, dubbed the "Pearl poet" or "Gawain poet", on the evidence of stylistic and thematic similarities.
Though the real name of "The Pearl Poet" (or poets) is unknown, some inferences about them can be drawn from an informed reading of their works. The original manuscript is known in academic circles as Cotton Nero A.x, following a naming system used by one of its owners, Robert Cotton, a collector of Medieval English texts. Before the manuscript came into Cotton's possession, it was in the library of Henry Savile of Bank in Yorkshire. Little is known about its previous ownership, and until 1824, when the manuscript was introduced to the academic community in a second edition of Thomas Warton's History edited by Richard Price, it was almost entirely unknown. Now held in the British Library, it has been dated to the late 14th century, so the poet was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales; however, it is highly unlikely that they ever met. The three other works found in the same manuscript as Pearl (commonly known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness or Purity) are often considered to be written by the same author. However, the manuscript containing these poems was transcribed by a copyist and not by the original poet. Although nothing explicitly suggests that all four poems are by the same poet, comparative analysis of dialect, verse form, and diction have pointed towards single-authorship.
He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.
The most commonly suggested candidate for authorship is John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire. He is known to have lived in the dialect region of the Pearl Poet and is thought to have written the poem St. Erkenwald, which some scholars argue bears stylistic similarities to Gawain. St. Erkenwald, however, has been dated by some scholars to a time outside the Gawain poet's era. Thus, ascribing authorship to John Massey is still controversial and most critics consider the Gawain poet an unknown.
Genre and poetics
A great deal of critical discussion has taken place since the poem was first published in the late 19th century on the question of what genre the poem belonged to. Early editors, such as Morris, Gollancz and Osgood, took for granted that the poem was an elegy for the poet's lost daughter (presumed to have been named Margaret, i.e. 'pearl'); a number of scholars however, including W. H. Schofield, R. M. Garrett, and W. K. Greene, were quick to point out the flaws in this assumption, and sought to establish a definitive allegorical reading of the poem. While there is no question that the poem has elements of medieval allegory and dream vision (as well as the slightly more esoteric genre of the verse lapidary), all such attempts to reduce the poem's complex symbolism to one single interpretation have inevitably fallen flat. More recent criticism has pointed to the subtle, shifting symbolism of the pearl as one of the poem's chief virtues, recognizing that there is no inherent contradiction between the poem's elegiac and its allegorical aspects, and that the sophisticated allegorical significance of the Pearl Maiden is not unusual but in fact has several quite well known parallels in medieval literature, the most celebrated being probably Dante's Beatrice.
Besides the symbolic, on a sheer formal level, Pearl is almost astounding in its complexity, and generally recognized to be, in the words of one prominent scholar, "the most highly wrought and intricately constructed poem in Middle English" (Bishop 27). It is 1212 lines long, and has 101 stanzas of 12 lines each with the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b-a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c. Stanzas are grouped in sections of five (except for XV, which has six), and each section is marked by a capital letter in the manuscript; within each section, the stanzas are tied together by the repetition of a key "link"-word in the last line of each section, which is then echoed in the first line of the following section. The oft-praised "roundness" of the poem is thus emphasized, and the final link-word is repeated in the first line of the whole, forging a connection between the two ends of the poem and producing a structure that is itself circular. Alliteration is used frequently, but not consistently throughout the poem, and there are a number of other sophisticated poetic devices.
Structure and content
The poem may be divided into three parts: an introduction, a dialogue between the two main characters in which the Pearl instructs the narrator, and a description of the New Jerusalem with the narrator's awakening.
Sections I–IV (stanzas 1–20) The narrator, distraught at the loss of his Pearl, falls asleep in an "erber grene" – a green garden – and begins to dream. In his dream he is transported to an other-worldly garden; the divine is thus set in opposition to the terrestrial, a persistent thematic concern within the poem. Wandering by the side of a beautiful stream, he becomes convinced paradise is on the other shore. As he looks for a crossing, he sees a young maid whom he identifies as his Pearl. She welcomes him.
- Sections V–VII (stanzas 21–35)
When he asks whether she is the pearl he has lost, she tells him he has lost nothing, that his pearl is merely a rose which has naturally withered. He wants to cross to her side, but she says it is not so easy, that he must resign himself to the will and mercy of God. He asks about her state. She tells him that the Lamb has taken her as His queen.
- Sections VIII–XI (stanzas 36–60)
He wonders whether she has replaced Mary as Queen of Heaven. He also objects that she was too young to merit such a high position through her works. She responds that no one envies Mary's position as Queen of courtesy, but that all are members of the body of Christ. Adopting a homiletic discourse, she recounts as proof the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. He objects to the idea that God rewards every man equally, regardless of his apparent due. She responds that God gives the same gift of Christ's redemption to all.
- Sections XII–XV (stanzas 61–81)
She instructs him on several aspects of sin, repentance, grace and salvation. She describes the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem, citing the Apostle John and focusing on Christ's past sacrifice and present glory. She wears the Pearl of Great Price because she has been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and advises him to forsake all and buy this pearl.
- Sections XVI–XX (stanzas 82–101)
He asks about the heavenly Jerusalem; she tells him it is the city of God. He asks to go there; she says that God forbids that, but he may see it by a special dispensation. They walk upstream, and he sees the city across the stream, which is described in a paraphrase of the Apocalypse. He also sees a procession of the blessed. Plunging into the river in his desperation to cross, he awakes from the dream back in the "erber" and resolves to fulfill the will of God.
- Gollancz, Israel (1911). . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- "Web Resources for Pearl-poet Study: A Vetted Selection". Univ. of Calgary. Retrieved 2007-04-01.
- "Pearl: Introduction". Medieval Institute Publications, Inc. 2001. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
- Turville-Petre, Thorlac. The Alliterative Revival. Woodbridge: Brewer etc., 1977. pp. 126–129. ISBN 0-85991-019-9
- Burrow, J. Ricardian Poetry. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1971. ISBN 0-7100-7031-4 pp. 4–5
- "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period, Vol. 1., ed. Joseph Black, et al. Toronto: Broadview Press, Introduction, p. 235. ISBN 1-55111-609-X
- Nelles, William. "The Pearl-Poet". Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition Database: MagillOnLiterature Plus, 1958.
- Tolkien, J. R. R.; Gordon, E. V., eds. (1925). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Introduction, xv. OCLC 564429705.
- Peterson, Clifford J. (August 1974). "The Pearl-Poet and John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire". The Review of English Studies. New Series. 25 (99): 257–266. doi:10.1093/res/XXV.99.257. JSTOR 514012.
- Shippey, T. A. (1982). The Road to Middle-Earth. HarperCollins. pp. 176–177. ISBN 0-261-10275-3.
- Trueman, Matt (24 October 2013). "Perle". Time Out. Retrieved 29 October 2013.
- "Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain, reproduced in facsimile from the unique MS. Cotton Nero A.x. in the British Museum", introduction by Sir Israel Gollancz, EETS OS 162 (London, 1923)
- Cotton Nero A.x. Project, led by Murray McGillivray. See http://gawain.ucalgary.ca
- Richard Morris, ed. "Early English Alliterative Poems", EETS o.S. 1 (1864; revision 1869; reprint 1965).
- Sir Israel Gollancz, ed. and trans. "Pearl", (London 1891; revision 1897; 2nd edition with Giovanni Boccaccio's Olympia, 1921)
- Charles C. Osgood, ed. "The Pearl" (Boston and London, 1906)
- Sophie Jewett, trans. The Pearl. A Middle English Poem: A Modern Version in the Metre of the Original (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1908)
- E. V. Gordon, ed. "Pearl" (Oxford, 1953).
- Sister Mary V. Hillmann, ed. and trans., "The Pearl" (New York, 1961; 2nd edition., introduction by Edward Vasta, 1967)
- Charles Moorman, ed. "The Works of the 'Gawain'-Poet", (Jackson, Mississippi, 1977)
- A. C. Cawley and J. J. Anderson, ed., "Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (London, 1978)
- William Vantuono, ed. The Pearl poems: an omnibus edition (New York: Garland Pub., 1984) ISBN 0-8240-5450-4 (v. 1) ISBN 0-8240-5451-2 (v. 2) Text in both Middle English and Modern English
- Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron and Clifford Peterson, ed. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Berkeley: University of California Press. Fourth ed. 2002) ISBN 0-85989-514-9.
- Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron, ed. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, rev. 5th edn., 2007) with a prose translation on CD-ROM. ISBN 978-0-85989-791-4.
- Brian Stone, "Medieval English Verse" (Harmondsworth, 1964) [contains "Patience" and "Pearl"]
- John Gardner, "The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet" (Chicago, London and Amsterdam, 1965)
- Margaret Williams, "The Pearl-Poet: His Complete Works" (New York, 1967)
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975; repr. 1988) ISBN 0-345-27760-0.
- Marie Borroff, Trans. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Patience; Pearl: verse translations". (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967; repr. 1977, 2001) ISBN 0-393-97658-0
- Casey Finch, "The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet" (Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford, 1993) [contains a parallel text with an earlier edition of the Andrew, Waldron and Peterson edition, above]
Commentary and criticism
- Jane Beal, "The Pearl-Maiden's Two Lovers," Studies in Philology 100:1 (2003), 1–21. See: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/studies_in_philology/v100/100.1beal.pdf
- Jane Beal, "The Signifying Power of Pearl," Quidditas 33 (2012), 27–58. See: http://humanities.byu.edu/rmmra/pdfs/33.pdf
- Ian Bishop, "Pearl in its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem" (Oxford, 1968)
- Robert J. Blanch, ed. "'SG' and 'Pearl': Critical Essays" (Bloomington, Indiana and London, 1966) [reprinted essays]
- George Doherty Bond The Pearl poem : an introduction and interpretation. (Lewiston, N.Y., USA : E. Mellen Press, 1991) ISBN 0-88946-309-3
- Robert J. Blanch, "The Gawain poems: A reference guide 1978–1993" (Albany, 2000)
- John M. Bowers, "The Politics of 'Pearl': Court Poetry in the Age of Richard II" (Cambridge, 2001)
- John Conley, ed., "The Middle English 'Pearl': Critical Essays" (Notre Dame and London, 1970) [reprinted essays]
- J. A. Jackson, "The Infinite Desire of Pearl, in Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts, ed. Ann W. Astell and J. A. Jackson (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2009), 157–84.
- P. M. Kean, "The Pearl: An Interpretation" (London, 1967)
- Kottler, Barnet, and Alan M. Markman, "A Concordance to Five Middle English Poems: Cleanness, St Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Pearl" (Pittsburg, 1966)
- Charles Muscatine, "The 'Pearl' Poet: Style as Defense", in "Poetry and Crisis in the Age of Chaucer" (Notre Dame and London, 1972), 37–69
- Paul Piehler, "Pearl", in "The Visionary Landscape: A Study in Medieval Allegory" (London, 1971)
- D. W. Robertson, "The Pearl as a Symbol", "MLN", 65 (1950), 155–61; reprinted in Conley, 1970
- René Wellek, "'The Pearl', Studies in English by Members of the English Seminar of the Charles University, Prague" 4 (1933), 5–33; reprinted in Blanch, 1966
- Medieval Pearl by Jane Beal, PhD - with pages about the Pearl-poet, manuscript illustrations, editions and translations (with links to these), bibliographies of literary criticism, teaching, recordings, and the Pearl-Poet Society as well as blog posts about significant new publications on "Pearl" since 2015
- Medieval English Narrator – The Pearl text & audio online Dr. Anthony Colaianne, Chris Baugh – listen to recorded excerpts of Medieval English literature with text alongside for translation help.
- Pearl text & modern translation online William Graham Stanton – contains original text, literal translation, and poetic translation.
- Pearl public domain audiobook at LibriVox