(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.