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.