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Even though the Pearl-Poet experimented with a variety of genres, he is best remembered for his four Middle English poems.

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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 rhyming alliterative stanzas.”

In addition to the four poems that constitute the unique British Library manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x. (c. 1400), Saint Erkenwald, an alliterative poem describing the miraculous life of a seventh century bishop of London, has been attributed to the Pearl-Poet. Since 1882, scholars have argued that Saint Erkenwald shares a common diction, a similar style and dialect, and a peculiar phraseology with the poems of the Pearl-Poet. They further argue that Saint Erkenwald may be dated 1386, when the feast days of the bishop saint were given special status in London, thus making it contemporary with the Cotton Nero poems.

One modern editor of Saint Erkenwald, Clifford Peterson, however, has suggested an early fifteenth century date for the poem, which is extant only in a late fifteenth century manuscript. Scholarship, furthermore, has cast doubt on the attribution by showing that the common language is not unique to these poems and by arguing that the similar stylistic elements are best understood as reflecting the formulaic character of alliterative poetry. Therefore, it is best to limit the corpus of the Pearl-Poet to the four poems of the Cotton Nero manuscript.

Bibliography

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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 Review 35, no. 1 (2000): 115-132. DeVries explores the way that the Middle English poem “Pearl” happens and what it does to the language in which it happens. The Middle English poet was able to wrench out of the recalcitrant facts of grief and the limitations of language a difficult and marvelous “vineyard” of a poem whose power continues to resonate through the centuries.

Gardner, John, ed. The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Gardner’s long introduction discusses what is known about the poet in question. Describes conventions and traditions in the poems, analyzes the poems themselves, and offers notes on versification and form. Gardner’s own modern verse translations of the poet’s works, including Saint Erkenwald, compose the body of this volume.

Howard, Donald R., and Christian Zacher, eds. Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. This collection of twenty-three essays includes two essays of introduction and background followed by discussions of critical issues, style and technique, characters and setting, and interpretations. Quotations are in Middle English with Middle English alphabet characters.

Moorman, Charles. The Pearl-Poet. New York: Twayne, 1968. This volume is an excellent introduction to the anonymous writer of Pearl, Patience, Purity, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Biographical information is by necessity replaced by more general information about the fourteenth century. Includes a chapter that examines each poem in turn, a chronology, and an annotated bibliography.

Spearing, A. C. The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. After a brief discussion of the Middle Ages, the alliterative tradition, and the question of authorship, this book devotes one chapter to each of the four poems attributed to the poet. The extensive quotations from the poetry have not been modernized, although only modern alphabet letters are used.

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