The Pearl-Poet Analysis
All four poems attributed to the Pearl-Poet reflect a great concern with establishing the distinctions between the temporal and sublunary viewpoint of human beings and the eternal and unvarying positions of God. This outlook is not uncommon in the art and thought of the later Middle Ages. It is the foundation of scholastic thought. Like scholasticism, furthermore, the arts were not content to establish only the distinctions between human and divine; they sought also to merge and synthesize the sacred and the secular. As long as the hierarchy of values was kept clear, allegiance to the divine and the human need not be in contradiction; it was possible to serve, for example, both the Virgin Mary and the courtly lady. However, if human sinfulness and obstinacy reversed the hierarchy, placing the earthly garden of delights above the promise of paradise regained, then the synthesis of earthly and divine was shattered and humans were left to inherit the results of their folly.
The Pearl-Poet was thus an artist of his time not only in distinguishing between the earthly and the heavenly but also in showing how the two spheres could merge and interrelate. His greatness, however, lies in his sympathetic investigation of humanity’s situation in the face of the divine. Humans as creatures are subordinate to their creator, and there is no room for doubt that human rebelliousness is disastrous, because the Lord can become “wonder wroth.” However, as Andrew and Waldron conclude, the poet shares “a spirit of sympathetic identification with human frailty besides a zealous dedication to ideal virtue.”
The distinctions between, yet juxtaposition of, human desires and divine standards are explored by the Pearl-Poet by concentrating on three ideals. These encompass a variety of social and Christian values, best summed up by the concepts of cleanness (understood as the divine requirement of purity in both body and soul), of truthfulness to duty and to God (and thus including loyalty, obedience, and faithfulness), and of courtesy (a chivalric ideal given religious significance by the poet).
In three of the four poems, the poet creates a major character with whom readers sympathize yet who must come to learn of the differing values of humankind and the divine. In these poems, the major characters undergo a three-part mysterious journey: in Patience, a voyage in the belly of a whale; in Pearl, a visionary pilgrimage glimpsing the New Jerusalem; and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fantastic quest to meet an enchanted opponent. The characters face a divine or supernatural demand or challenge and are left quite befuddled, surprised, or overwhelmed by what they experience. More important, in each poem, the character is moved from a narrowly human and basically self-centered outlook to an awareness of humanity’s essentially subordinate and often ignorant position in relation to the divine. Surprisingly, none of the characters has changed drastically by the end of the poems, although readers are left to assume that the new perspectives they have gained will lead to such change.
The fourth poem, Cleanness, also shares this three-part movement, but it presents not a journey of a single character to a mysterious or foreign land, but the history of humankind as outlined in the Old Testament and interpreted within the context of the New Testament. By concentrating on three key moments when the divine intervened in human history, the poem highlights the results of humanity’s unwillingness to conform to the divine.
The four poems of the Pearl-Poet are of great artistic merit. In verse of great beauty, they include passages of vigorous narrative, realistic description, and dramatic intensity. They describe extremely violent situations as well as peaceful gardens, sailors as well as an enchanted green knight, the suffering of the dying as well as the joy of the saved. Drawing from a wide range of sources yet including much that is original, the poems are...
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