Study Guide

The Pearl-Poet

The Pearl-Poet Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Pearl-Poet, or Gawain-Poet, is regarded as one of the most important and accomplished writers in medieval literature on the basis of the four long Middle English poems attributed to him. Among English poets of the period, he is ranked second only to Geoffrey Chaucer. Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exist in a single manuscript, MS Cotton Nero A.x, that provides no author’s name and no titles (the titles by which they are known have all been added by modern editors).{$S[A]Gawain-Poet[Gawain Poet];Pearl-Poet, The}

The poems were discovered in the British Museum in the 1830’s, bound in a volume with two unrelated Latin works, and no direct evidence survives regarding their reception before the nineteenth century. The poems themselves comprise the only source of information about the poet—indeed, his very existence is deduced from their existence. Despite this virtually perfect anonymity, a number of conclusions about the poet’s identity and biography have become widely accepted. While the poems differ dramatically in subject matter and genre—from elegy to homily to romance—their thematic, stylistic, and linguistic cohesiveness have led to general agreement that a single author wrote all four poems. The manuscript is dated to the later fourteenth century, usually close to the end of that century. The scribe who copied the texts was almost certainly not the author, but scholars believe that the poet composed the poems in the second half of the fourteenth century, not long before the copies...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

The Pearl-Poet Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

As W. A. Davenport has aptly remarked, “Though the Gawain-poet may not have existed, it has proved necessary to invent him.” Certainly, there is no external evidence to “prove” that the four poems found only in a single manuscript are by a single poet. It may be that the poems were crafted by a small school of poets working together closely at a court in the northwest Midlands during the late fourteenth century. As A. C. Spearing has argued, however, the principle of Ockham’s razor suggests that it is more reasonable to postulate that the Pearl-Poet was a single poet of genius writing in a unique Middle English dialect (probably north Cheshire or south Lancashire, but with Scottish, French, and Scandinavian forms). The poems share to a remarkable extent imagery, diction, and stylistic features that cannot be entirely accounted for by a common alliterative tradition. More important, readers of the four poems are continually impressed by what Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, two of the poems’ editors, have called a “conviction of an individual poetic personality” and an “unbroken consistency of thought.” The analysis of the four poems below will suggest, moreover, that they are thematically related.

Nevertheless, the Pearl-Poet remains unknown. The manuscript can help scholars locate him approximately in place and time, and the poems can provide clues to his interests and knowledge. Like other poets working in the alliterative revival,...

(The entire section is 522 words.)