On the Medieval Poem Pearl

This 14th century poem written by an anonymous author from the West Midlands region of England traverses 1212 lines of exquisite verse, describing the anguish of a bereaved father and a vision of his daughter in heaven.  As far as I know, no other poem employs theology so well in its verses, and few are as well constructed.  The first and last lines of each stanza repeat one topical word until a new canto begins.  There are twenty cantos with five stanzas each, adding up to the perfect number of 100.  Each stanza contains twelve lines, and the whole poem numbers 1212 lines.  (Pretty neat, I think.)  This Middle English verse is heavily rooted in the Old English alliterative tradition–similar to Piers Plowman by William Langland; however, its Middle English is substantially more difficult.  I soon stopped trying to read the original West Midlands dialect, and Casey Finch does a wonderful job of translation.


The main theme of the whole poem finds itself itself in the first and last lines of the poem: “Pearl, O pleasure for a prince” and “As precious pearls Our Lord to please.”  This establishes God’s love and the will of God as the central theme of the poem.  (I write theme above rather than themes, because St. Thomas Aquinas holds that God is completely simple, hence God’s love and God’s will must be one and the same in God.  Anyway, let’s get on with the analysis!)  How do we fulfill God’s will?  By knowing that God loves us and preserving our original innocence as far as we can.  God made us pure pearls without a spot in baptism, and we must do our best to remain pure, knowing that God continuously refines our souls even though we fall into sin simply because He loves us.


The father challenges this idea of salvation by grace alone in the vision he attains of his daughter in paradise.  Mysteriously, he is able to recognize a full grown woman as his daughter, even though his daughter died at the age of two!  He becomes shocked to learn that his daughter, without having done any good deeds, was rewarded by God making her his queen and bride.  Moreover, other women, who struggled their whole life long, received an equal reward with her!  To answer her father’s objections, his daughter skillfully uses the Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard to show that good works cannot merit heaven.  The performance of good works and penance rectify the will, but God is the one who saves each soul by His Blood shed upon the cross.  Rather than virtue, it is primarily innocence which God desires: innocence which can only be granted by God–even if preserved in cooperation with our will.

kells Christ Pantocrator

This reflects back on the nature of the pearl.  A jewel is desired not for its usefulness, but simply for its beauty or the pleasure it gives the owner in beholding it.  The imagery of the pearl hearkens to the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price, for which the merchant sold everything he had to obtain it.  The pearl here symbolizes heaven, but what would heaven be without God?  God makes heaven heaven.  Therefore, God may be likened to the pearl in this parable as all our striving tends toward the attainment of the Beatific Vision.  At the same time, we must become holy and pure as God is holy and pure for us to merit paradise, which can only be merited through God’s will and power.  How fortunate it is that, just as God is a precious pearl to us, we are pearls infinitely more precious to Him!  For which, God paid the ultimate price on the Cross of Calvary.

Christ and His Saints

My brief discussion of the main theme of the poem only scratches the surface of this beautiful and tightly composed work.  One could spend a lifetime investigating the numerous themes in this poem, and many have done just that!

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the Pearl-poet’s work Patience this Monday.


Wisdom of the Ancients: Aeneas Sees Dido for the First Time

While reading through The Aeneid this time around, I found myself struck by the way Virgil weaves foreshadowing into the passage where Aeneas sees Dido for the first time.  Aided by a mist thrown about him by his mother Venus, Aeneas has just been able to do a full inspection of Carthage.  The Carthaginians were busy building up the city, and Aeneas has just gazed upon some artwork describing the Trojan War when Dido appears on the scene.

Dido receives Aeneas

Haec dum Dardanio Aeneae miranda videntur,
dum stupet, obtutuque haeret defixus in uno,
regina ad templum, forma pulcherrima Dido,
incessit magna iuvenum stipante caterva.
Qualis in Eurotae ripis aut per iuga Cynthi
exercet Diana choros, quam mille secutae
hinc atque hinc glomerantur oreades; illa pharetram
fert umero, gradiensque deas supereminet omnis:
(Latonae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus):
talis erat Dido, talem se laeta ferebat
per medios, instans operi regnisque futuris. (Book I, 494-504)

Aeneas at Carthage

While these marvels are viewed by the Dardanian Aeneas,

While he is astounded and fixed upon one vision, he is stuck to the spot.

The queen, Dido of beautiful curves, to the temple

strides with a great crowd of young men thronging her.

As if Diana training her chorus on the banks of the Eurota

or through the passes of Cynthus, one whom a thousand attendant

mountain nymphs gather about on this side and that; she bears

a quiver on her shoulder–stepping forward, she stands above all the goddesses.

(Rejoicings master the silent breast of Latona):

Such a woman was Dido, the happy woman bore herself so

through the middle of them, devoting herself to the work and the future kingdom.


Well, I know that I generally dislike translations of the Aeneid, and I doubt that mine is much better than what professional translators have accomplished.  But, it does the job.

While reading this passage a few interesting thoughts came to my mind.  Aeneas has been examining a procession of wonders after his advent in Carthage, which stupefy him (stupet); yet, he now sees one wonder to top them all: the goddess-like Dido.  Though Dido is compared to a goddess, she is oddly compared to the goddess Diana.  This seems disconcerting: Diana is a virgin, and none of the men she associates with meet a happy fate. Aeneas’ stupefaction on seeing her recalls how Actaeon caught sight of the goddess Diana naked, whose beauty, no doubt, stunned him.  For this mistake, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag and has him torn apart by hounds.  However, The Aeneid relates a story where the Diana meets an unlucky end instead.

Also, being compared to a god or goddess can often be a bad thing, because the Greek gods were so easily moved to jealousy.  Misfortune often happens to people who excel in talent or beauty.  A little more foreshadowing that Aeneas and Dido will not have a happy romance.

Suicide of Queen Dido

Interestingly, the crowd of young men thronging her indicate that Dido has a ton of admirers, so there is no need for her to take an interest in the foreigner Aeneas.  As a matter of fact, the last two lines along with her comparison to Diana indicate that Dido would have been happiest dedicating herself to the building of her kingdom.  Of course, her efforts at building Carthage into a brilliant city or even an empire (the plural form regnis futuris suggests an especially great kingdom) cause Aeneas to identify with her.  This no doubt featured as part of their attraction, though Virgil shows Cupid as inspiring Dido with love later on in the story.

But, line 492 reveals the great genius of Virgil: Latonae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus.  A five word line with the verb in the center and surrounded by a chiasmus or interlocking word order is known as a golden line.  And Virgil could have made line 492 a golden line had he wished; yet, he declines to do so.  The reason for this lies in that he meant this line to foreshadow the way Dido met her end.  It suggests “Didonis tacitum pertemptat gladius pectus“–“The sword of Dido masters her silent breast.”  (Of course, gladius does not fit the fifth foot of dactylic hexameter, but gaudia and gladius strike one as very similar in appearance.)  His refusal to make this line golden points to the tragic nature of Dido’s death, which is pretty cool.  Not something an English reader is going to see!

Wisdom of the Ancients: Martial Book 8, Epigram 23

Today, I looked for an epigram which fulfilled the conditions of being short and simple.  Though the twenty-third epigram of Martial’s eighth book does not offer as complicated ideas as the last one I examined, it has a great punch line.

Esse tibi videor saevus nimiumque gulosus,
Qui propter cenam, Rustice, caedo cocum.
Si levis ista tibi flagrorum causa videtur,
Ex qua vis causa vapulet ergo cocus?


Culinary things in Rome

I seem to you to be savage and too dainty,

Rusticus, I who, on account of dinner, beat my cook.

If this cause seems trivial to you for whipping,

From what cause therefore do you wish that my cook be whipped?

Analysis of Poem

Not much to this poem.  I might add that this is the only place where the name Rusticus appears in Martial’s works, and the name implies that Martial’s guest is unsophisticated.  He’s a stoic on the level of Cato who does not recognize the importance of fine dining.  Therefore, he thinks that a cook does not deserve to be beaten for preparing inferior food, but Martial thinks otherwise.

The way Martial ends lines two and four with cocus seem to emphasize that he is speaking about a cook.  Though, caedo cocum mocks the opinion of Rusticus that his beating of the cook is savage.  For, caedo cocum could–in another context–mean “I cut down the cook” or “I killed the cook,” which is clearly an excessive punishment for making poor food!

Other than that, this poem features some nice use of alliteration which adds to the light feel of the poem.  The second line in particular is stuffed with k sounds.  The last features an interlocking order between the v’s and c sounds.  (Qua and causa have a similar consonantial quality.)  They serve to emphasize Martial’s point at the end: a cook’s only job is to cook.  Why else should he be punished except for making bad food?

Martial Book 1 Epigram 5

While in college, the Classics department of Hillsdale College, my alma mater, grew considerably.  I believe that people are starting to become more interested in Rome because the Roman Empire–often in very sad ways–bears much similitude to the modern United States. But, Classical studies have not reached the eminence they once had, which is a shame.  One of my delights is to read the old Latin poets, whose verses are among the most beautiful ever produced.  Among poets, I give first place to the Greeks (they do have Homer), second to the Latins, and third to the English.


But of these three, I think that Latins have the best sense of humor.  Look at the original and my translation of Martial below.

Exigis ut donem nostros tibi, Quinte, libellos.

non habeo sed habet bibliopola Tryphon.

‘aes dabo pro nugis et emam tua carmina sanus?

non’ inquis ‘faciam tam fatue.’  nec ego. (Martial Bk. 1, epigram 5)


You demand that I give my little books as a gift to you, Quintus.

Not I, but the bookseller Tryphon has it.

“I, a sane man, will give money for nonsense and buy your poems?”

You say, “I will not do something so idiotic!”  Nor will I.

This poem does many nice things which I, as the translator, was hardly able to duplicate.  For example, “Exigis ut donem” is a terribly forceful way to begin a poem–demanding a gift.  Gifts are supposed to be free, you know!  Then, the other half of the line becomes softer and more diminutive.  “Nostros” was often used by the Latins to mean “little old me” rather than a royal plural.  Then, the line ends with “libellos” (little books).  Imagine someone shouting “I demand your pamphlets!” and you have an idea of how silly Martial has made Quintus look.  As a matter of fact, juxtaposing “Quinte” by the “libellos” further highlights the ridiculous figure cut by Quintus.

Somehow, this picture seems to work, but I could be wrong.

Somehow, this picture seems to work, but I could be wrong.

The second line, with its alliteration of b’s and abundance of vowels has a frolicsome feel to it.  Then, we see “habeo” (I have) at the opposite end from Tryphon.  This gives the impression that Martial wishes to shoo Quintus as far away from him as possible.

The third line uses the separation between the first and last words in a remarkably similar manner.  “Aes” (money) is as far from “sanus” as possible; hence, only a crazy person would pay for Martial’s poetry.  That’s known as adding insult to injury!

In the fourth, placing “non” before “inquis” makes the refusal extra emphatic.  I could have translated it as “No!  I will not do something so idiotic!”  “Faciam tam fatue” has a nice alliterative feel and suggests further the very haughty attitude of Quintus.  “Nec ego” is so brief and laconic in order to show Martial’s exasperation with Quintus.  It was expected among Roman circles of friends to pass around books for free.  Quintus seems to have presumed upon an nonexistent friendship, and Martial wants Quintus to know it.

Well, I hope that you enjoyed my little explication of Martial’s poem!