Pearl survives in only one manuscript, which contains two of the greatest poems in Middle English, Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as two other poems, Cleanness and Patience. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance infused with Christian concerns, while Pearl and the other two poems deal with explicitly Christian matters. The poems may be the work of the same, unknown author, referred to as the Pearl-Poet or the Gawain-Poet. The poems are written in a northern dialect; therefore, although the poems are contemporary with Chaucer, they are much more challenging to read in their original language.
However, their being written in the provincial dialect does not mean that these poems are inferior literature. Rather, they are the work of a skillful and well-educated poet who is familiar with the new fashions in poetic construction as seen in Chaucer, but who chooses to write primarily in older forms. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the preeminent example of long-line alliterative poetry of the so-called alliterative revival (William Langland’s Piers Plowman, c. 1362, c. 1377, c. 1393, is the other major example).
Pearl is a tour de force of poetic construction. First, the poet blends the newer fashion of rhyming poetry with the older alliterative forms. Each stanza has a rhyme scheme and usually divides into units of meaning along the fissures (abab, abab, bcbc). Alliteration is also used consistently, underscoring core concepts. Both poetic strategies can be seen from the first lines of the work: “Perle plesaunte, to princes paye/ To clanly clos in golde so clere:/ Oute of orient, I hardyly saye,/ Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.” The line-end rhymes and mid-line alliteration coexist, creating poetry rich in both beauty and meaning.
Pearl’s sophisticated structure extends beyond the...
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