Other literary forms
Even though the Pearl-Poet experimented with a variety of genres, he is best remembered for his four Middle English poems.
The work of the Pearl-Poet (also called the Gawain-Poet after his other major poem) was essentially lost until the nineteenth century. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was first edited in 1839, to be followed twenty-five years later by the other three poems of the manuscript. Over the past hundred years, these poems (whose titles are modern, not found in the manuscript) have gained a secure place in Middle English poetry. Although attention has focused on Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, considered masterpieces of their respective genres, the two verse homilies have more recently been the objects of much critical study as well.
A contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Pearl-Poet has often been compared to medieval England’s most famous poet. Like Chaucer, he worked in a variety of genres and experimented with various verse forms. His poetry, like Chaucer’s, shows a knowledge not only of the Bible and its commentaries but also of the new vernacular literature of the Continent. Again like Chaucer, he analyzes moral issues in narratives that create characters who are often unaware or confused by their situations. However, the Pearl-Poet must be judged apart from Chaucer, for he worked in a distinctly different poetic tradition, that of the alliterative revival, not Chaucer’s French courtly style.
The poetry that flourished in northern and western England in the second half of the fourteenth century probably continued and modified (rather than reinvented) the Old English accentual and alliterative line. In contrast to the verse forms employed by Chaucer, which became the usual patterns of most English poetry after his time, the alliterative long line concentrates on stresses alone and does not count syllables. The unrhymed long lines of Cleanness and Patience, for example, include four key stresses generally separated into two half lines by a caesura, the first three stresses falling on alliterating syllables. The pattern may be diagramed as follows: Á Á ns Á x́. These alliterative long lines (sometimes grouped in quatrains), skillfully developed by the Pearl-Poet, impart a surprisingly dramatic and active feeling to Cleanness and Patience. The alliterative tendency toward variation and realistic description prevents the verse homilies from disappearing into the mist of abstraction.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet turns again to this traditional form, but arranges the lines in descriptive and narrative stanzas of varying length, rounded off by five shorter alliterating lines comprising a “bob and wheel,” a device not unique to the poet but most skillfully employed by him. The one-stress line of the “bob” and the four three-stressed lines of the “wheel” rhyme ababa. These rhyming lines impart rhythmic variety to the poem and serve to sum up the major topic of the stanza and to emphasize key images and themes.
The mixture of alliteration and rhyme is more thorough in Pearl. Departing more freely from the tradition of the alliterative long line in the direction of the octosyllabic line of Chaucer’s early poetry, Pearl is composed of 101 twelve-line stanzas, which resemble in both form and spirit the sonnet of later English poetry. Each stanza develops three rhymes in linked quatrains (ababababbcbc). These tightly structured stanzas are further grouped into twenty larger sections through the concluding repetition of key words and phrases forming a refrain for each stanza. The larger sections are also linked by concatenation, the device of repeating a key word from the final line of a previous stanza in the first line of a following stanza. These intricate poetic devices perfectly mirror the intricacy of the themes and arguments of the Pearl, a poem highly admired for its form and considered by Thorlac Turville-Petre in The Alliterative Revival (1977) to be “the finest of all the poems in...
(The entire section is 1,313 words.)