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.
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.
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.