The Pearl - Encyclopedia

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THE. PEARL The Middle-English poem known as Pearl, or The Pearl, is preserved in the unique manuscript Cotton Nero Ax at the British Museum; in this volume are contained also the poems Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight. All the pieces are in the same handwriting, and from internal evidences of dialect, style and parallel references, it is now generally accepted that the poems are all by the same author. The MS., which is quaintly illustrated, belongs to the end of the 14th or the beginning of the 15th century, and appears to be but little later than the date of composition; no line of Pearl or of the other poems is elsewhere to be found.

Pearl is a poet's lament for the loss of a girl-child, "who lived not upon earth two years" - the poet is evidently the child's father. In grief he visits the little grave, and there in a vision beholds his Pearl, now transfigured as a queen of heaven - he sees her beneath "a crystal rock," beyond a stream; the dreamer would fain cross over, but cannot. From the opposite bank Pearl, grown in wisdom as in stature, instructs him in lessons of faith and resignation, expounds to him the mystery of her transfiguration, and leads him to a glimpse of the New Jerusalem. Suddenly the city is filled with glorious maidens, who in long procession glide towards the throne, all of them clad in white, pearl-bedecked robes as Pearl herself. And there he sees, too, "his little queen." A great lovelonging possesses him to be by her. He must needs plunge into the stream that keeps him from her. In the very effort the dreamer awakes, to find himself resting upon the little mound where his Pearl had "strayed below": "I roused me, and fell in great dismay, And, sighing, to myself I said: Now all be to that Prince's pleasure." The poem consists of one hundred and one stanzas, each of twelve lines, with four accents, rhymed ab, ab, ab, ab, bc, bc; the versification combines rhyme with alliteration; trisyllabic effects add to the easy movement and lyrical charm of the lines. Five stanzas (in one case six), with the same refrain, constitute a section, of which accordingly there are twenty in all, the whole sequence being linked together by the device of making the first line of each stanza catch up the refrain of the previous verse, the last line of the poem re-echoing the first line. The author was not the creator of this form, nor was he the last to use it. The extant pieces in the metre are short religious poems, some of the later (e.g. God's Complaint, falsely attributed to Scottish authorship) revealing the influence of Pearl. The dialect is West Midland, or rather North-West Midland, and the vocabulary is remarkable for the blending of native speech with Scandinavian and Romance elements, the latter partly Anglo-French, and partly learned French, due to the author's knowledge of French literature.

"While the main part of the poem," according to Gollancz, "is a paraphrase of the closing chapters of the Apocalypse and the parable of the Vineyard, the poet's debt to the Romaunt of the Rose is noteworthy, more particularly in the description of the wonderful land through which the dreamer wanders; and it can be traced throughout the poem, in the personification of Pearl as Reason, in the form of the colloquy, in the details of dress and ornament, in many a characteristic word, phrase and reference. ` The river from the throne,' in the Apocalypse, here meets ` the waters of the wells ' devised by Sir Mirth for the Garden of the Rose. From these two sources, the Book of Revelation, with its almost Celtic glamour, and The Romaunt of the Rose, with its almost Oriental allegory, are derived much of the wealth and brilliancy of the poem. The poet's fancy revels in the richness of the heavenly and the earthly paradise, but his fancy is subordinated to his earnestness and intensity." The leading motifs of Pearl are to be found in the Gospel - in the allegory of the merchant who sold his all to purchase one pearl of great price, and in the words, so fraught with solace for the child-bereft, "for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." Naturally arising from the theme, and from these motifs, some theological problems of the time are touched upon, or treated somewhat too elaborately perhaps, and an attempt has been made to demonstrate that Pearl is merely allegorical and theological, and not really a lament. Those who hold this view surely ignore or fail to recognize the subtle personal touches whereby the poem transcends all its theological interests, and makes its simple and direct appeal to the human heart. Herein, too, lies its abiding charm, over and above the poetical talent, the love of nature, colour and the picturesque, the technical skill, and the descriptive power, which in a high degree belonged to the unknown poet.

Various theories have been advanced as to the authorship of Pearl and the other poems in the manuscript. The claims of Huchown "of the Awle Ryale" have been vigorously (but unsuccessfully) advocated; the case in favour of Ralph Strode (Chaucer's "philosophical Strode") - the most attractive of all the theories - is still, unfortunately, "not proven." By piecing together the personal indications to be found in the poems an imaginary biography of the poet may be constructed. It may safely be inferred that he was born about 1330, somewhere in Lancashire, or a little to the north; that he delighted in openair life, in woodcraft and sport; that his early life was passed amid the gay scenes that brightened existence in medieval hall and bower; that he availed himself of opportunities of study, theology and romance alike claiming him; that he wedded, and had a child named Margery or Marguerite - the Daisy, or the Pearl - at whose death his happiness drooped and life's joy ended.

The four poems are closely linked and belong to one period of the poet's career. In Gawayne, probably the first of the four, the poet is still the minstrel rejoicing in the glamour of the Arthurian tale, but using it, in almost Spenserian spirit, to point a moral. In Pearl the minstrel has become the elegiac poet, harmonizing the old Teutonic form with the newer Romance rhyme. In Cleanness he has discarded all attractions of form, and writes, in direct alliterative metre, a stern homily on chastity. In Patience - a homiletic paraphrase of Jonah - he appears to be autobiographical, reminding himself, while teaching others, that "Poverty and Patience are needs playfellows." He had evidently fallen on evil days.

It is noteworthy that soon after 1358 Boccaccio wrote his Latin eclogue Olympia in memory .of his young daughter Violante. A comparative study of the two poems is full of interest; the direct influence of the Latin on the English poem is not 'so clear as has been maintained. Pearl cannot be placed earlier than 1360; it is most probably later than Olympia. Bibliography. - Texts and Translations: Early Alliterative Poems in the West Midland Dialect of the Fourteenth Century (edited by Richard Morris, Early English Text Society I. 1864; revised, 1869, 1885, 1896, 1901); Pearl, an English Poem of the Fourteenth Century, edited, with a Modern Rendering, by Israel Gollancz (with frontispiece by Holman Hunt, and prefatory lines, sent to the editor by Tennyson); revised edition of the text, privately printed, 1897; new edition of text and translation, "King's Classics," 1910-1911; Facsimile of MS. Cotton Nero Ax, 1910-1911; The Pearl, (edited by C. G. Osgood; Boston, 1906). Translations by Gollancz (as above); G. G. Coulton (1906); Osgood (1907); Miss Mead (1908); Miss Jewett (1908); part of the poem, by S. Weir Mitchell (1906). Literary History: Tenbrink, History of English Literature (translated by H. M. Kennedy, 1889, i. 33 6 -35 1); G. Nelson, Huchown of the Awle Ryale (Glasgow, 1902); Carleton Brown, The Author of the Pearl, considered in the Light of his Theological Opinions (publications of the Modern Languages Association of America, xix. 115-153; 1904); W. G. Schofield, The Nature and Fabric of the Pearl (ibid. pp. 154-215; 1904); also Symbolism, Allegory and Autobiography (ibid. xxiv. 585-675; 1909); I. Gollancz, Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. i. ch. xv.

Works connected with Pearl: Sir Gawayne, a Collection of Ancient Romance Poems (edited by Sir F. Madden; London, 1839);1839); Sir Gawayne (re-edited by Richard Morris, E.E.T.S., 1864, 1869; text revised by I. Gollancz, 1893); The Parlement of the Thre Ages, and Wynnere and Wastoure (edited by I. Gollancz: London, 1897); Hymns to the Virgin and Christ (edited by F. J. Furnivall, E.E.T.S., 1867); Political, Religious and Love Poems (edited by F. J. Furnivall, E.E.T.S., 1866, 1903).


Clark S. Northup, Study of the Metrical Structure of the Pearl (publications of the Modern Languages Association, xii. 326-340).


W. Fick, Zum mittelenglischen Gedicht von der Perle (Kiel, 1885). (I. G.)

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