The Pearl-Poet Essay - Critical Essays


All four poems attributed to the Pearl-Poet reflect a great concern with establishing the distinctions between the temporal and sublunary viewpoint of human beings and the eternal and unvarying positions of God. This outlook is not uncommon in the art and thought of the later Middle Ages. It is the foundation of scholastic thought. Like scholasticism, furthermore, the arts were not content to establish only the distinctions between human and divine; they sought also to merge and synthesize the sacred and the secular. As long as the hierarchy of values was kept clear, allegiance to the divine and the human need not be in contradiction; it was possible to serve, for example, both the Virgin Mary and the courtly lady. However, if human sinfulness and obstinacy reversed the hierarchy, placing the earthly garden of delights above the promise of paradise regained, then the synthesis of earthly and divine was shattered and humans were left to inherit the results of their folly.

The Pearl-Poet was thus an artist of his time not only in distinguishing between the earthly and the heavenly but also in showing how the two spheres could merge and interrelate. His greatness, however, lies in his sympathetic investigation of humanity’s situation in the face of the divine. Humans as creatures are subordinate to their creator, and there is no room for doubt that human rebelliousness is disastrous, because the Lord can become “wonder wroth.” However, as Andrew and Waldron conclude, the poet shares “a spirit of sympathetic identification with human frailty besides a zealous dedication to ideal virtue.”

The distinctions between, yet juxtaposition of, human desires and divine standards are explored by the Pearl-Poet by concentrating on three ideals. These encompass a variety of social and Christian values, best summed up by the concepts of cleanness (understood as the divine requirement of purity in both body and soul), of truthfulness to duty and to God (and thus including loyalty, obedience, and faithfulness), and of courtesy (a chivalric ideal given religious significance by the poet).

In three of the four poems, the poet creates a major character with whom readers sympathize yet who must come to learn of the differing values of humankind and the divine. In these poems, the major characters undergo a three-part mysterious journey: in Patience, a voyage in the belly of a whale; in Pearl, a visionary pilgrimage glimpsing the New Jerusalem; and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fantastic quest to meet an enchanted opponent. The characters face a divine or supernatural demand or challenge and are left quite befuddled, surprised, or overwhelmed by what they experience. More important, in each poem, the character is moved from a narrowly human and basically self-centered outlook to an awareness of humanity’s essentially subordinate and often ignorant position in relation to the divine. Surprisingly, none of the characters has changed drastically by the end of the poems, although readers are left to assume that the new perspectives they have gained will lead to such change.

The fourth poem, Cleanness, also shares this three-part movement, but it presents not a journey of a single character to a mysterious or foreign land, but the history of humankind as outlined in the Old Testament and interpreted within the context of the New Testament. By concentrating on three key moments when the divine intervened in human history, the poem highlights the results of humanity’s unwillingness to conform to the divine.

The four poems of the Pearl-Poet are of great artistic merit. In verse of great beauty, they include passages of vigorous narrative, realistic description, and dramatic intensity. They describe extremely violent situations as well as peaceful gardens, sailors as well as an enchanted green knight, the suffering of the dying as well as the joy of the saved. Drawing from a wide range of sources yet including much that is original, the poems are carefully crafted and structured. They are compelling not only for their presentation of deeply moral and human concerns, but also for their imaginative power.


The Pearl-Poet’s shortest and most simply structured poem, Patience, is a verse homily teaching the need for humans to submit their will to God and to act faithfully and humbly. Like traditional medieval sermons, it establishes this theme in an introductory prologue and illustrates it in an exemplum, a narrative example intended to support the preacher’s main argument. In the case of Patience, the narrative centers on the prophet Jonah. It is a dramatic expansion of the biblical account found in the Book of Jonah.

The poet’s choice of Jonah may seem odd, since the usual Old Testament figure representing patience is Job. The poet may have felt that the best way to explore the virtue of patience (which might be viewed as rather passive and uninteresting) was through negative examples (as, again, in Cleanness). Certainly Jonah’s sulking pride and abortive attempt to flee from the command of God serve as examples of what patience is not. It may also be that Jonah was selected because, although his human rationalizing and severely limited understanding of God’s nature place him in conflict with the divine, he does ultimately accept the will of God. Finally, Jonah’s figurative significance in medieval exegesis as an Old Testament type of Christ may be significant. As evident in numerous commentaries and sermons, and in popular literature, Jonah’s three-day entombment within the belly of the whale typifies the death of Christ and his resurrection on the third day.

The association of Old Testament story with New Testament event is not unusual in medieval poetry. Medieval theology understood the Old Testament as prefiguring the New, and often interpreted the stories of the Jewish people as signifying Christian belief. The story of Jonah is thus told by the poet to exemplify the beatitudes preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. These are recited in the prologue of Patience, and it is the last beatitude, interpreted as Christ’s promise of heaven for those who endure patiently, that provides the poet’s theme. The beatitudes certainly are classic examples of Christ’s teaching that false earthly goals and aspirations are not to be confused with the true ideals of Heaven. Whereas humans seek riches, boldness, pleasure, and power, Christ praises poverty, meekness, purity, and patience. Patience tells how Jonah must come to recognize the distinction between human and divine to act truthfully and to obtain the mercy of God.

Although the four divisions of Patience in the manuscript accord with the four chapters of the biblical account, the poem’s narrative actually moves in three parts: First, Jonah desperately attempts to avoid the command of God, rejects his role as prophet, and sets sail to escape the power of God; second, after being swallowed by the whale, he accepts his duty and faithfully obeys God and prophesies the destruction of Nineveh; third, while sulking because Nineveh is not destroyed, he learns of God’s grace, love, and mercy.

Jonah is at first the epitome of humanity’s foolish opposition to God. The poet sympathetically imagines Jonah’s motives for rejecting the prophetic mission and presents his fear as understandable; nevertheless, Jonah’s flight from God, his attempt to hide, is obviously ridiculous. The God who created the world, the poet ironically comments, has no power over the sea. The power of the creator over his creation, however, becomes clear to all. Even the pagan sailors who at first pray to Diana and Neptune learn to worship the Hebrew God. At the height of the storm, Jonah, wakened from his unnatural sleep, recognizes the Creator’s power and identifies himself to the sailors as a follower of the world’s Creator. From this point, Jonah submits himself to the will of God and, in the belly of the whale, learns to act faithfully as a prophet.

He also prays for mercy, but it is not until the third part of the story, after Jonah has prophesied the destruction of Nineveh and its citizens actually repent, that the prophet of God learns the true nature of God’s grace. Although now aware of the awesome power of God over his creation, Jonah remains earthbound in his attitudes. When Nineveh is saved, he feels humiliated. Again, rather than accepting God’s will (the ultimate meaning of patience for the Pearl-Poet), Jonah reacts angrily, sulks childishly, and wishes he were dead. His wish does not come true, however, and through the remainder of the narrative Jonah learns that God not only controls but also loves his creatures.

Interestingly, in condemning what he does not understand, Jonah sets forth one of the major themes developed in the works of the Pearl-Poet: the bounty of God’s grace. This grace is described in chivalric terms, as God’s courtesy, and is linked to God’s patience. Jonah prays for mercy in the belly of the whale, but now desires—because of his pride in preaching the very prophecy that he sought to avoid—that God turn against the repentant Nineveh and destroy the city. While the Lord patiently seeks to change him, Jonah’s final attitude is not made clear, since the poet suddenly concludes with his epilogue urging patient acceptance of one’s position and mission in life. The last lines of the narrative are the words of God, whose patience is displayed not only toward Nineveh but also toward Jonah. Thus, although the career of Jonah may be a negative example of patience, the courtesy of God reflected in his patience and grace becomes the positive representation of ideal patience.


The poet’s much longer verse homily Cleanness (sometimes called Purity) also mixes negative and positive examples, although there is no doubt that the negative receives the bulk of his attention and that God’s righteous wrath, rather than his patience, becomes most evident. Again, one of Christ’s beatitudes provides the theme: “Blessed is he whose heart is clean for he shall look on the Lord.” The promise to the blessed clean, however, is not developed as much as the threat of damnation for the unclean. In his prologue, for example, the poet concentrates on yet another New Testament passage, Christ’s parable of the wedding feast. This rather harsh analogy comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king who has a guest thrown out of a wedding feast because he is improperly dressed receives a lengthy exposition, concluding with a list of the forms of uncleanness by which humans hurl themselves into the devil’s throat.

In his conclusion, the poet notes that he has given three examples of how uncleanness drives the Lord to wrath. These three Old Testament examples are arranged in chronological order, thus establishing the poem’s three-part movement through the history of salvation: from the destruction of the world by the Flood, through the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire, and finally to the overpowering of “the bold Belshazzar.” The three are linked by shorter Old Testament stories as well. The Flood is introduced by the fall of Lucifer and the angels, leading to the fall of Adam; the destruction of the two cities is preceded by the stories of Abraham and Lot and their two wives; and Belshazzar’s feast is interwoven with the fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar and his eventual conversion.

Like the story of Jonah, the Old Testament stories retold in Cleanness have typological significance in medieval theology. Each of the three major examples of God’s wrath prefigures the Last Judgment. Combined with accounts of the fall of Lucifer and the origin of sin, this typological significance gives the poem a universal sweep from creation to doomsday, symbolically encompassing the entire Christian understanding of history. The emphasis, however, is on judgment, which is clearly the moral of the introductory parable of the wedding feast: “Many are called but few are chosen.”

Judgment is particularly severe against the unclean, for the Lord of heaven “hates hell no more than them that are filthy.” The concept of cleanness includes innocence, ceremonial propriety, decency and naturalness, physical cleanliness, and moral righteousness. Their opposites are encompassed by the concept of filth, which includes all manner of vices, sacrilege, sodomy, lust, and the arrogance of spirit that elevates humanity’s earthly desires above God’s requirement of truthfulness. God floods the world because sinfulness is out of control. Not only did humanity sin against nature, but devils copulated with human beings, engendering a breed of violent giants as well. Similarly, the Sodomites practiced unnatural vices, filling a land that was once like paradise thick with filth so that it sunk into the earth under the weight of its...

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