Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
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 ...
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- Critical Essays
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 integration of rhyme and alliteration. The poem is divided into twenty sections, each a group of stanzas connected thematically. The linking concept is seen in the concatenating word that appears in the first and last lines of each stanza. These concatenating words underscore the core concerns of the poem itself. For instance, in the first stanza group, the linking word is “spot.” The narrator speaks of his grief for his child, whom he thinks of as having been a “precious pearl without spot,” raising the question of why God allows the death of innocents. The unblemished “pearl” is contrasted with the dirt in which it is now buried. The “spot” where the narrator lies is envisioned as a garden, but the presentation is ambivalent. Soil is life giving, but the dead are buried within it. New plants grow, but only if a seed dies. Using the various meanings (“place,” “blemish”) of the concatenating word “spot,” the poem begins its multifaceted consideration of death, mourning, and one’s relationship to God.
A final arc of structural complexity can be seen in the poem’s linking of its first and last lines. The opening line of the poem (“Perle plesaunte, to princes paye”) is echoed in its final line (“Ande precious perlez vnto His pay”). Structurally, the poem becomes, like its predominant image, the pearl, round and perfect. Here, as with the rhyme, alliteration, and concatenating words, the form and content of the poem complement one another.
However, this strategy of echoing the first line of the poem in its last, creating a circular structure, does not imply that essentially nothing happens in the poem. In fact, the echoing underscores precisely what has changed. At the beginning, the narrator envisions his lost daughter as a pearl, so precious as to have been desirable to a prince. He is thinking in solely earthly terms—an earthly prince and earthly worth. By the end of the poem, the narrator’s understanding has matured. The prince of the final stanza, for whom we are to become like “precious pearls,” is Christ.
Indeed, the relationship of the earthly and the heavenly is a central concern in the poem. As the Pearl-maiden makes clear to the narrator, it is necessary that we develop our understanding beyond the merely earthly; we need to begin seeing things through a heavenly perspective, even though we can never fully do so. Moreover, the majesty of Heaven is ultimately incomprehensible to the merely human. In the second stanza group, for instance, the narrator asserts that what he has seen is more beautiful than he can possibly describe. However, the earthly is what we know, and the poem shows how the earthly can be used to help us reach toward and better understand the heavenly.
The poem is constructed as a dream-vision, a common medieval genre. Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess (c. 1370), and the anonymous Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood” (written before c. 700) are other well-known medieval dream-visions.