An interesting introduction to a medieval elegy
Pearl is one of the jewels in the crown of medieval English poetry: a real gem of a poem. Part-elegy, part dream-vision (a popular kind of poem in medieval literature: see Piers Plowman for another prominent example), and part Christian allegory, the poem is by an unknown author who may or may not have been (but probably was) the same writer who gave us Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A brief introduction to the poem’s plot (offered as a short summary below) and an analysis of the poems’ history, language, and themes, will help to open up this fantastic poem to the reader.
Composed in the late fourteenth century, Pearl was of the same period in English literary history as Gawain, Chaucer’s poetry, Langland’s Piers Plowman, and Gower’s Confessio Amantis. F. W. Bateson speculated that the Black Death caused this sudden surge of creativity among English poets: rapid historical change is bound to make everyone from kings to peasants rethink the nature of their society.
Pearl is an elegy for a dead child, a daughter who died at just two years of age. She is the ‘pearl’ of the poem’s title, and the poet uses this image for her throughout. The poem is narrated by the grieving parent of the lost child, who tells the reader of how he lost his pearl in a garden. After he falls asleep, his spirit is transported to a bright and wonderful land. On the other side of the stream by which he stands, he sees a beautiful maiden, dressed in white (a symbol of purity, of course) and wearing pearls – the spirit form of his lost daughter. Telling him that he should not grieve for her death, the maiden reminds the poet that though the earthly form dies, the spiritual form will be kept alive in heaven, thanks to the Lord.
Indeed, the maiden tells our poet that she has become a bride of the Lord (or ‘Lamb’, after his name, Agnes dei, or ‘Lamb of God’), and she has been crowned one of his queens in heaven. The poet isn’t sure about all this. Can this vision be trusted? What about the Virgin Mary, well-known Bride of Christ? Everyone, the maiden answers, is a king or queen in heaven. (In fact, the maiden tells our poet that she is but one of some 144,000 brides of Christ.) Through baptism, the innocent child – who did not have the chance to perform good deeds while on earth – can be saved.
Where does she live with the Lamb and all his other brides? the poet asks her. She leads him along the stream to the city known as the New Jerusalem, a twelve-gated city of light. There the poet sees all of the other brides of the Lamb, also clad in white and wearing crowns, following the Lamb to his throne, where angels wait to sing of his greatness. So enchanted does our poet become by this vision that he wishes to cross the stream and join the maiden in the city of New Jerusalem, but at that point – he wakes up. He is back in the garden where he fell asleep, reconciled to his grief now he knows that his daughter, his precious pearl, is in heaven with the Lord.
That, in short, is what happens in the poem. What about its form and style? It’s arranged in 101 stanzas, each of twelve lines, with these 101 stanzas being grouped into twenty different sections, each of which adopts a different refrain which closes each stanza in that particular section. It’s one of the most sophisticated poems in the whole canon of medieval English poetry. The language used is a form of Middle English associated with the Midlands of England: J. R. R. Tolkien identified from analysis of the poet’s language that he was almost certainly from the West Midlands. He may have been a John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire; at any rate, he was not, unlike John Gower or Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet based in London or the south of England.
If you’re looking for a modern translation of the poem, Simon Armitage has recently produced a modern translation of Pearl; to read the poem in its original Middle English, we recommend Sir Gawain And The Green Knight/Pearl/Cleanness/Patience (Everyman’s Library (Paper)), which also contains three other classic Middle English poems from the fourteenth century.
Continue to explore the world of medieval literature with our short introduction to The Canterbury Tales, our interesting facts about Magna Carta, the fascinating story of the Vinland sagas (or how Iceland discovered America 500 years before Columbus), and the fascinating early medieval English poem The Owl and the Nightingale.
Image: Gawain Poet (fl. c.1375–1400), manuscript painting [as the father in Pearl], author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.