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...
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Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron, eds. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: “Pearl,” “Cleanness,” “Patience,” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Primarily a scholarly edition of the poems but includes a good bibliography and extensive introduction.
Blanch, Robert J., and Julian N. Wasserman. From “Pearl” to “Gawain”: Forme to Fynisment. Wasserman. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. Presents the thesis that works within the Pearl manuscript not only share a common author but are connected and intersect in fundamental ways. Explores interrelated themes such as language, covenants, miracles, and the role of the intrusive narrator. Includes bibliography and index.
Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, eds. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Arthurian Studies 38. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 1999. A collection of original analysis by an international group of medievalists. Explores a range of topics including theories of authorship, the historical and social background to the poems, the role of chivalry, and the representation of women. Includes illustrations and maps, and bibliography and index.
DeVries, David N. “Unde Dicitur: Observations on the Poetic Distinctions of the Pearl-Poet.” The Chaucer...
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