The narrator, a “jeweler,” is lamenting the loss, in a garden, of a “pearl,” which symbolically represents the death of his young daughter. He falls asleep and in a marvelous dream finds himself in a paradiselike setting beside a river. Across the stream he sees a maiden both familiar and strange in a white gown set with pearls and wearing a splendid crown. It is his child, grown to maturity.

They converse across the river, he trying to understand the deprivation of his present life, she trying to reveal the mysteries of God’s will to him. She suggests that the “pearl of great price,” referred to in the biblical passage Matthew 13:46, is presently unavailable to him, for it is part of the eternal realm beyond the river. The rest of the poem presents the transformation of his grief by faith, the outcome of his desire to join her and the other blessed, and the ultimate acceptance of his loss.

In its form, PEARL is one of the most complex poems in the language. All but one of its twenty sections contain five twelve-line stanzas. The stanzas have an elaborate scheme of rhyme and alliteration, with those in each section linked by repeated words and phrases. Section 15 contains an extra stanza, giving the poem 1,212 lines, of which the last echoes the first. Thus, the poem is circular, like the pearl itself, and the structural use of the number twelve evokes the number symbolism of the Book of Revelation, such as the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem.

A contemporary of Chaucer, the Pearl Poet composed in a more difficult dialect. Brian Stone, Margaret Williams, and Marie Borroff are among those who have translated this poem into modern English while striving to retain the form of the original.

The Poem

Pearl is a poem employing both alliteration and end-rhyme, with 1,212 lines arranged in 101 stanzas of 12 lines each. It originally bore no title but has long been known by its first word. Its anonymous writer is usually referred to as either the Pearl-Poet or the Gawain-Poet after his or her two most widely acclaimed works, Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Pearl narrates a dream, a common strategy for medieval poetry, which incorporates elements of allegory and elegy. The first-person narrator of the poem visits a garden where he lost a valuable pearl. The reader soon realizes this “pearl” is a two-year-old girl, presumably a daughter, whose grave is marked by many flowers. Overcome by their rich scent and his own grief, the narrator falls asleep on the spot where the pearl was lost. The girl appears to him in a dream, at first rebuking his despair as self-indulgent, but then consoling his sorrow. The girl stands across a river from the narrator; although the latter sleeps in a sheltering garden, the dream landscape features a river, cliffs, hills, forests, and meadows.

Early in her conversation, the girl encourages the narrator to abandon self-pity for a more positive view of life, within the context of Christian teaching. After this, she tells him about her existence in New Jerusalem, the heavenly city of the biblical Book of Revelation. Finally, she grants the narrator a vision of her home to comfort him. When he sees the beautiful city, he wishes to join her there, but he cannot cross the river. He concludes the living must remain in the world until their own times come, preparing their “pearls” (themselves) for the prince of the city, Christ.

Forms and Devices

The central image in the poem is that of the pearl. It represents the girl, who was a pearl pleasant enough for a prince’s delight (“Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye”). The pearl also serves as a symbol of Mary. The girl lives as a queen, like all women in New Jerusalem, under the influence of Mary, their empress. To medieval perception, the round pearl was an image of perfect grace, for it has no sharp edges or corners but is beautifully smooth. It also is spotless, pure, and incorruptible, and so represents both Mary and all heavenly maidens: When the girl appears, she is arrayed in pearls. Her dress is ornamented with them, she wears a crown set with them, and a large pearl shines on her breast, the Pearl of Great Price, from a New Testament parable representing heaven.

In addition, pearls are mentioned in Revelation as constituting the gates of the New Jerusalem, which description the poem amplifies, describing vividly the glowing colors of the gems that make up the walls in section 17. Even the paths upon which the girl and the narrator walk boast pearls as gravel (section 2).

In contrast with the other gems, pearls (as the paths and gates to New Jerusalem) are white. The poet mentions whiteness many times, including the color of the child’s dress, as well as that of all the other maidens of New Jerusalem, where each shines more perfectly than the moon. Like perfect pearls, they have no spot, while the moon is marked by craters and seas. Similarly, the white flowers growing over the girl’s grave show brightly among the red and blue ones. The mixture of colors suggests...

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Sources for Further Study

Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 1997. Provides an introduction to scholarship about the author and historical information about the time of composition. See particularly pages 143-155.

Finch, Casey. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Accessible, newer, but not always literal translation that places the original on left-hand pages, and the modern English translation on right-hand pages. With introduction, explanatory notes, and glossary. Volume also contains Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness, Patience, and Saint Erkenwald.

Hillmann, Sister Mary Vincent. The Pearl: A New Translation and Interpretation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967. Older but reliable literal translation that places the original on left-hand pages, and the modern English translation on right-hand pages. With explanatory notes and glossary.

Putter, Ad. An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet. New York: Longman, 1996. See specifically chapter 4, “Pearl.” Putter is informed by and references prior scholarship on the poem but does not exclusively summarize. Designed for a student audience, so it is accessible for a general reader.

Rhodes, Jim. Poetry Does Theology: Chaucer, Grosseteste, and the Pearl-Poet. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. See particularly chapter 3, part 3. Scholarly, but difficult in places for the casual reader unfamiliar with some terminology.

Spearing, A. C. The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Older but classic study by a foremost scholar. See particularly chapter 4. Spearing’s audience is other scholars but his work is nevertheless accessible for a wider audience.