Pearl ca.


Pearl ca. 1390

Middle English poem.

Pearl is widely regarded as a nearly perfect example of medieval religious poetry. Its depth of thought and emotion and its profound religious message is conveyed through an ornate formal complexity that heightens the readers' experience. Composed by an unknown Northwest Midlands writer, Pearl stands first in its manuscript in a group of four works, all probably composed by the same author in the last third of the fourteenth century. The four poems illustrate the religious and courtly interests of the poet and his audience; in each he presents human characters in conflict with spiritual beings. Pearl is a dream vision, two of the other poems are verse homilies on Christian virtues, and the fourth is an Arthurian romance. All of the Pearl-poet's work enlarges our understanding of the native British tradition of alliterative poetry, but Pearl is his most mature religious work. Consisting of 101 twelve-line stanzas of rhyming and alliterative octosyllabic verse, the poem embodies medieval ideas of numeric symbolism and visual symmetry in the beauty of its complex circular form. In Pearl readers encounter the medieval interest in the ability of human language to express the divine, ideas about personal redemption and transformation, and the virtues of patience, humility, purity, perfection, and submission to the divine will.

Plot and Major Characters

In this symmetrical dream vision, the despairing narrator wanders through a garden containing the grave of his infant daughter. He has a vision of Paradise lying beyond a river and recognizes the adult woman seated there as his daughter. As she scolds him for his extended grief, she describes her present situation. Married to the Lord of Heaven, she has a status equal to that of other blessed souls (many of whom led long and exemplary Christian lives), which she explains by relating the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard; the heavenly souls' endless bliss she equates to the pearl of great price of another biblical parable. In answer to his questions, the narrator is allowed to see the New Jerusalem, through which the Lamb of God leads a procession that includes the dreamer's daughter. He tries to join her by crossing the river but awakens to find himself back in his garden, consoled by his vision and resolved to accept his lot in life.

Textual History

Pearl is the first of four poems in the British Museum manuscript Cotton Nero A.x, dated by its handwritten script to about 1400; the other poems (the titles of all the poems have been given by modern editors) are Cleanness, Patience (both verse homilies based on biblical narratives), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (an Arthurian romance). All four poems are in alliterative verse written by an unknown author in the Northwest Midlands dialect of Middle English, and they form part of a continuous native literary tradition in the North and West of England (a tradition also known as the "alliterative revival"). Internal evidence from all poems shows them to have been composed between approximately 1360 and 1395, with the date of Pearl falling near the end of that period. The manuscript was practically unknown until 1753, when the collection of Robert Cotton was given to the British Museum. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was first published in 1839, and the remaining three poems first appeared in Morris's Early English Test Society edition of 1864 (the first in the now extensive EETS series). Israel Gollancz published an edition in 1891 and revised it in 1897; a second edition in 1921 was accompanied by a work of Boccaccio's said to be one of Pearl's sources. A facsimile edition was published in 1923 with an introduction by Gollancz. The 1953 E.V. Gordon edition was considered the the scholarly standard until the publication of Andrew and Waldron's York Medieval Text series edition of 1979.

Major Themes

Demonstrating the interests of the poet and his medieval audience, all four poems by the Pearl-poet center around a situation in which a human interacts with an other-worldly being. In Pearl the conflict is between the mind of a grieving father and the spirit of his daughter. Thus it is not surprising that the poem's major themes deal with such issues as the adequacy of language to convey spiritual truth and Christian theological concepts of redemption, salvation, and consolation. Other themes emphasize the medieval interest in cardinal virtues and vices. The tension established by the interaction between a human and a spiritual being naturally leads to discussions on the patience, humility, and purity of the Pearl maiden in contrast with the impatience, pride, and worldliness of the narrator. The courtly interests of the poet and his audience also allow the modern reader to identify such chivalric ideals as courtesy, chastity, and perfection. Many critics discuss evidence in Pearl of Christian theological issues: some find a theme outlining the nature of salvation, others see an emphasis on the redemption of the narrator, noting his progress through the poem and the stages of redemption; still others emphasize that the poem is a Christian consolatio about coming to terms with one's mortality. The theme of obedience and submission to God's will has been discussed, and critics who focus on Christian theological concepts see the narrator's growth and transformation as the main issue of the poem. Some commentators emphasize the theme of the inadequacy of language to ever embody the perfect, divine, and ineffable nature of spiritual truth, while others discuss language as incarnational art and emphasize the ornate beauty of the poem's circular form.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Pearl in this century has been varied. Early commentators noticed the seemingly autobiographical nature of the poem and speculated about the identity of the poet and possible real-life counterparts of the Pearl maiden. Some argued whether the poem was an elegy or an allegory; this debate informed much of the criticism in the first half of this century. Others emphasized symbolism in an attempt to understand the poem's meaning (i.e., pearl as "soul," or "Eucharist," or "the nature of blessedness"). More recently, critics have discussed the intricacy of the poem's interlinked and circular arrangement and discussed the ability of the poem to convey symbolic meaning through its shape. Some have linked these formal issues with the idea of an incarnational art and emphasized numeric symbolism and Gothic visual representations of the sacred. Critics who focus on the narrator connect his progress toward understanding to the stages of redemption or growth in self-knowledge. Some have commented on the poem's ability to convey his intense inner experience; others have examined the relationship between the narrator and the reader. Some scholars who focus on the nature of language and its potential to convey notions of the divine are aided by discussions of the nature of the dream vision. For example, the distance between dreamer and vision is related to the inability of human language to adequately describe divine subjects. The contrast between the experience of the narrator and that of the Pearl maiden informs discussions of theological issues, leading most critics who focus on religious matters to emphasize the nature of redemption and the transformation of the narrator as the key issues of the poem.

Principal Works

Pearl (verse dream vision) late fourteenth century

Cleanness (verse homily) late fourteenth century

Patience (verse homily) late fourteenth century

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (verse Arthurian romance) late fourteenth century

Principal Editions

Early English Alliterative Poems in the West Midlands Dialect of the Fourteenth Century (edited by Richard Morris) 1869

Pearl: An English Poem of the Fourteenth Century, together with Boccaccio's "Olympia" (translated by Israel Gollancz) 1921

Pearl (edited by E. V. Gordon) 1953

The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet (translated by John Gardner) 1965

The Pearl-Poet: His Complete Works (translated by Margaret A. Williams) 1967

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo (translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) 1975

Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by A. C. Cawley and J. J. Anderson) 1976

Pearl: A New Verse Translation (translated by Marie Borroff) 1977

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (edited by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron) 1979


Richard Morris (essay date 1869)

SOURCE: A preface to Early English Alliterative Poems. Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. ix-xx.

[In the following excerpt, Morris considers Pearl to be a valuable resource for understanding early English and the art and tradition of the poet.]

[In "The Pearl"], the author evidently gives expression to his own sorrow for the loss of his infant child, a girl of two years old, whom he describes as a

Perle pleasaunte to prynces paye
Pearl pleasant to princes' pleasure,
To clanly clos in golde so clere
Most neatly set in gold so clear.

Of her death he says:


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Carleton F. Brown (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: "The Author of The Pearl, Considered in the Light of His Theological Opinions," in PMLA, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1904, pp. 115-45.

[In the following essay, Brown describes the Pearl author as an ecclesiastic who, two hundred years prior to the Protestant Reformation, created a three-hundred-line argument equating the grace received in heaven by a baptized infant with that received by a lifelong active Christian.]

Among the English poets of the fourteenth century the one who deserves the seat next to Chaucer is the anonymous author of the four poems: Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight, The Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience....

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Israel Gollancz (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: An introduction to Pearl: An English Poem of the XIVth Century, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1966, pp. xi-lii.

[In the following essay, Gollancz discusses the Pearl manuscript, its contents and date, the poem's place in English literature; the plan of the poem, its genre, and its relationship to its main sources; its imagery, meter, diction, and style; and the possible identity of its author.]

'Pearl' in the Lineage of English Poetry.—While Chaucer was still learning from Guillaume de Machault and his followers the cult of the Marguerite, flower of flowers, as symbol of womanhood, a contemporary English poet had already found inspiration in...

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René Wellek (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "The Pearl: An Interpretation of the Middle English Poem," in Sir Gawain and Pearl: Critical Essays, Indiana University Press, 1966, pp. 3-36.

[In the following essay, Wellek asserts that Pearl is a dream vision that uses allegory to present Pearl as the object of divine grace.]

A lucky chance has preserved to us two English poems of the fourteenth century which rank not far below the best we have from Chaucer's master hand. MS Cotton Nero A. X. (now A. X. 4) in the British Museum contains the only known text of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Pearl. Since Richard Morris's first edition in 1864 the Pearl...

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Charles Moorman (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "The Role of the Narrator in Pearl," in The Middle English Pearl: Critical Essays, University of Notre Dame Press, 1970, pp. 103-21.

[In the following essay, Moorman defines the poem's real subject as the narrator's mind: the stages of his conversation with the Pearl maiden represent stages leading to his personal redemption and acceptance of his situation.]

It is decidedly not the intention of this paper to introduce a radically new interpretation of the Middle English Pearl, a poem which has already been done almost to death by its interpreters. The criticism already devoted to the poem contains judgments as to its meaning and purpose so...

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Dorothy Everett (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "The Alliterative Revival," in Essays on Middle English, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1955, pp. 46-96.

[In this excerpt, Everett argues that the so-called alliterative revival was actually part of a continuous tradition and that Pearl can be compared to Milton's Lycidas and Dante's Divine Comedy.]

The Alliterative Morte Arthure and other poems

Nothing that has survived from the early Middle English period prepares us for that later outpouring of alliterative poetry which has conveniently, though probably inaccurately, been termed the 'alliterative revival'. Suddenly (so it appears to us), in the middle of the...

(The entire section is 5760 words.)

John Gardner (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Conventions and Traditions in the Poems," in The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet, The University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 13-36.

[In the following essay, Gardner places Pearl in the tradition of alliterative courtly verse and comments on the poet's skillful use of the elaborate ornamentation created with patterns of rhyme, alliteration, numeric symbolism, and the important symbolism emanating from the four-level system of biblical exegesis.]

In their selection of poetic forms, Chaucer and the Gawain-poet differ. Chaucer's parson disparages the ancient English "rum, ram, ruf" school of poetry, and whether or not Chaucer agrees with his...

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Ian Bishop (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: An introduction "The Maiden as an Innocent" and "The Priviledges of the Newly Baptized," in Pearl in Its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem, Basil Blackwell, 1968, pp. 101-03, 104-112, 113-21.

[In the following essay, Bishop finds that the liturgy in use during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries provides important information for understanding the poet's characterization of the Pearl maiden..]


In order to represent the apparition of the child's beatified soul, the author has to supply her with a visionary body of appropriate stature and appearance; with suitable clothing; and...

(The entire section is 8569 words.)

A. C. Spearing (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Pearl," in The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study, Cambridge at the University Press, 1970, pp. 96-170.

[In the following excerpt, Spearing describes Pearl as an extended dramatic narrative in which the literal-minded dreamer interacts with the celestial maiden in a way that reveals the difference between earthly human relationships and spiritual relationships.]

… In the fourteenth century the pearl could symbolize any of a very wide range of things; if a coherence is established within this variety, it is established by the poem itself, not by its sources and analogues.1 In some ways it may be that we can better take Pearl as a...

(The entire section is 13618 words.)

Anne Howland Schotter (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Vernacular Style and the Word of God: The Incarnational Art of Pearl," in Ineffability: Naming the Unnamable from Dante to Beckett. AMS Press, 1984, pp. 23-34.

[In the following essay, Schotter considers the theme of Pearl to be the inadequacy of both images and human language to convey the idea of the Divine.]

Any Christian visionary writer must confront the problem of how to convey the Divine in human terms. Throughout history theologians have spoken of two ways, the positive, which proposes analogies for God, and the negative, which denies that any analogies are valid. The two ways tend to work in a dialectical manner, the latter continually warning...

(The entire section is 5799 words.)

Lynn Staley (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Pearl Dreamer and the Eleventh Hour," in Text and Matter: New Critical Perspectives of the Pearl-Poet, The Whitston Publishing Company, 1991, pp. 3-15.

[In the following essay, Staley argues that because the poet placed the dreamer's experience in the month of harvest, the dreamer recognizes the importance of time as a catalyst for his spiritual transformation.]

In this essay I would like to examine the poet's handling of time in Pearl. His awareness, not only of various ways of considering time, but of the potential artistic uses of a temporal cycle or cycles, is apparent throughout his works. In Sir Gawain, he juxtaposes Camelot with...

(The entire section is 6159 words.)

Sarah Stanbury (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Gazing Toward Jerusalem: Space and Perception in Pearl" in Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 12-41.

[In the following essay, Stanbury describes the poem as an allegorical fiction and compares it to the pilgrimage-narrative genre of travel literature and to the tradition of medieval illustrated Apocalypses.]

Pearl is a story of a journey to Jerusalem. Like popular narrative accounts of actual pilgrimages—526 accounts of journeys to Jerusalem have survived from the period 1100 to 1500—Pearl's itinerary culminates in a sacred city and also takes its...

(The entire section is 12057 words.)

Jim Rhodes (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Dreamer Redeemed: Exile and the Kingdom in the Middle English Pearl," in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Vol. 16, 1994, pp. 119-42.

[In the following essay, Rhodes argues that instead of regarding the dreamer as a mere foil to the Maiden, the dreamer should be viewed as her equal and the poem should be seen as accurately reflecting the theological debate taking place in the fourteenth century.]

One might maintain, not too paradoxically, that every medieval poetic form (on whatever level one may define it) tends toward double meaning: and I don't mean the doubling deciphered by an allegoristic reading but, superimposing or...

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Further Reading

Aers, David. "The Self Mourning: Reflections on Pearl." Speculum 68, No. 1 (1993): 59-73.

Finds that the institution of the church is strangely absent in a poem that deals with the self and Christian teaching.

Andrew, Malcolm and Ronald Waldron, editors. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. York Medieval Texts, 2nd series. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, 15-17, 29-36.

Places Pearl in the dream-vision tradition and emphasizes spiritual transformation of the dreamer. Also has a select bibliography.


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