The Pearl-Poet

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508

First transcribed: Late fourteenth century

Edition(s) used: The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Meditation and contemplation; narrative poetry

Core issue(s): Children; death; revelation; salvation


Pearl survives in only one manuscript, which contains two of the greatest poems in Middle English, Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as two other poems, Cleanness and Patience. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an Arthurian romance infused with Christian concerns, while Pearl and the other two poems deal with explicitly Christian matters. The poems may be the work of the same, unknown author, referred to as the Pearl-Poet or the Gawain-Poet. The poems are written in a northern dialect; therefore, although the poems are contemporary with Chaucer, they are much more challenging to read in their original language.

However, their being written in the provincial dialect does not mean that these poems are inferior literature. Rather, they are the work of a skillful and well-educated poet who is familiar with the new fashions in poetic construction as seen in Chaucer, but who chooses to write primarily in older forms. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the preeminent example of long-line alliterative poetry of the so-called alliterative revival (William Langland’s Piers Plowman, c. 1362, c. 1377, c. 1393, is the other major example).

Pearl is a tour de force of poetic construction. First, the poet blends the newer fashion of rhyming poetry with the older alliterative forms. Each stanza has a rhyme scheme and usually divides into units of meaning along the fissures (abab, abab, bcbc). Alliteration is also used consistently, underscoring core concepts. Both poetic strategies can be seen from the first lines of the work: “Perle plesaunte, to princes paye/ To clanly clos in golde so clere:/ Oute of orient, I hardyly saye,/ Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.” The line-end rhymes and mid-line alliteration coexist, creating poetry rich in both beauty and meaning.

Pearl’s sophisticated structure extends beyond the integration of rhyme and alliteration. The poem is divided into twenty sections, each a group of stanzas connected thematically. The linking concept is seen in the concatenating word that appears in the first and last lines of each stanza. These concatenating words underscore the core concerns of the poem itself. For instance, in the first stanza group, the linking word is “spot.” The narrator speaks of his grief for his child, whom he thinks of as having been a “precious pearl without spot,” raising the question of why God allows the death of innocents. The unblemished “pearl” is contrasted with the dirt in which it is now buried. The “spot” where the narrator lies is envisioned as a garden, but the presentation is ambivalent. Soil is life giving, but the dead are buried within it. New plants grow, but only if a seed dies. Using the various meanings (“place,” “blemish”) of the concatenating word “spot,” the poem begins its multifaceted consideration of death, mourning, and one’s relationship to God.

A final arc of structural complexity can be seen in the poem’s linking of its first and last lines. The opening line of the poem (“Perle plesaunte, to princes paye”) is echoed in its final line (“Ande precious perlez vnto His pay”). Structurally, the poem becomes, like its predominant image, the pearl, round and perfect. Here, as with the rhyme, alliteration, and concatenating words, the form and content of the poem complement one another.

However, this strategy of echoing the first line of the poem in its last, creating a circular structure, does not imply that essentially nothing happens in the poem. In fact, the echoing underscores precisely what has changed. At the beginning, the narrator envisions his lost daughter as a pearl, so precious as to have been desirable to a prince. He is thinking in solely earthly terms—an earthly prince and earthly worth. By the end of the poem, the narrator’s understanding has matured. The prince of the final stanza, for whom we are to become like “precious pearls,” is Christ.

Indeed, the relationship of the earthly and the heavenly is a central concern in the poem. As the Pearl-maiden makes clear to the narrator, it is necessary that we develop our understanding beyond the merely earthly; we need to begin seeing things through a heavenly perspective, even though we can never fully do so. Moreover, the majesty of Heaven is ultimately incomprehensible to the merely human. In the second stanza group, for instance, the narrator asserts that what he has seen is more beautiful than he can possibly describe. However, the earthly is what we know, and the poem shows how the earthly can be used to help us reach toward and better understand the heavenly.

The poem is constructed as a dream-vision, a common medieval genre. Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess (c. 1370), and the anonymous Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood” (written before c. 700) are other well-known medieval dream-visions.

Christian Themes

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.

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.

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