Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The poem’s central Christian symbol is the pearl itself, and the poem begins by developing a multifaceted presentation of what the pearl could mean. The narrator says he had a pearl so beautiful that princes would have loved it, but he lost it. At first the pearl seems to be merely an object (albeit valuable), but the pronouns used (both “it” and “her”) reveal that more is going on. The poem soon implies that the pearl is someone whom the narrator loved and who has died, and at line 483, it reveals that she was his infant daughter.

As the poem continues, the pearl-symbol acquires increasing significance. In the first section of the poem, the pearl is both precious gem and lost child. In the second, as the narrator’s dream-vision begins, the symbol of the pearl plays a core role in the poem’s depiction of Heaven. The marvelous landscape that the dreamer sees is both beautiful and so abundant that things that are precious on earth are common here; the “gravel” on the ground is “precious pearls.”

When the dreamer sees the Pearl-maiden, the meaning of the central symbol deepens further. The Pearl-maiden’s garment is adorned with pearls, symbolizing her purity. She wears a crown covered with pearls, the symbol of what is promised to the faithful as their reward in Heaven. The large pearl on the Pearl-maiden’s chest connects with the parable of the pearl of great price. Indeed, the Pearl-maiden is described as pearl-like, in words (line 190) previously used to describe the narrator’s lost pearl (line 6), making the connection between his loss and the girl he sees. By the end of the poem, the narrator has learned that he must submit to God, despite his grief, and strive to live according to his will, which will polish his soul like a spotless pearl, to be treasured and cherished by the prince.

The pearl is the central Christian and most developed image in the poem, but additional, related motifs can readily be located. The use of precious stones to symbolize the abundance and beauty of Heaven occurs later in the poem, in the description of the Heavenly Jerusalem. In addition, the concatenating words of each section draw attention to important Christian concepts of the poem.

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Pearl is considered a part of the Alliterative Revival, a rebirth of old poetic styles in the midlands of England during the fourteenth century. However, it employs the old structures with greater flexibility and skill than most works associated with that movement. The language of the poem is that of the northwestern midlands, although enriched with creative phrasing as well as borrowings from Latin and French. The poet is generally assumed to have been quite well read, in view of what seem to be echoes not only of the Bible but also of contemporary authors from Great Britain, France, and Italy. However, conjectural attempts to reconstruct the poet’s library differ widely. It is safest to say simply that the poet participated in the intellectual and artistic life of the time.

Critics debate over the extent to which the poem probably reflects the life of the poet, who some speculate may have lost a two-year-old daughter named Marjory or Margaret, both of which mean “pearl.” Early scholars even tried to identify the writer based on such an assumption. On the other hand, some critics aver that the little girl is an image of purity, of the baptized soul, or of comparable religious abstractions. Still others suggest that the situation of a grieving parent visiting the garden grave of the child is simply a dramatic way to begin a poem that speculates about heaven. Whatever is true, much of the charm of Pearl lies in its combination of...

(The entire section is 550 words.)