The Pearl-Poet’s Patience

Forgive me, my dear readers, for running a day late on this post.  Hopefully, the delay will make this post all the better!  With the poem Patience, the first thing one notes, especially having just read Pearl, is that it lacks the same precise construction.  The first and last lines repeat each other exactly, and themes are repeated throughout the poem; but, the craftsmanship falls short of the level of Pearl.  One gets the impression that this poem is more a meditation of the poet on the virtue of patience, which he claims to need because of the sufferings brought on by poverty.

Medieval Town

In order to aid his meditation, he uses the story of Jonah to illustrate the advantages of patience, especially how the sufferings we experience call for patience.  It is impossible to avoid suffering, because suffering purifies the soul and is often mandated by God for this purpose.  The avoidance of suffering, like how Jonah tried to avoid God’s mission, only brings more suffering.  Worse, one ends up having to do what one wished to avoid anyway.

Both Pearl and Patience highlight something I enjoy about his depiction of religious men: they can be terribly flawed and wayward, even though possessing great faith.  The father in Pearl wishes to enter heaven before its proper time and shows a Pelagian streak.  (Not that he is a Pelagian.  He just sees grace in too worldly a fashion.)  Jonah, as shown by sleeping on the boat during a terrible storm and permitting himself to be thrown overboard, has great faith in God.  While in the whale, Jonah makes a heartfelt confession of his waywardness in refusing the mission to Nineveh, and it seems as though he’s done complaining once the whale coughs him up.  Yet, as soon as he sees the Ninevites repent upon his preaching and the tree which offered him good shade wilting, he starts whining about his misfortunes and wanting to die.  God has to constantly correct Jonah and drag him into doing the right thing.

Jonah and the whale

In this way, God manifests Himself as exemplar of patience, because of His patience with us sinful and stubborn people.  The Pearl-Poet expands God’s speech to Jonah at the end in order to highlight all the types of people in the city of Nineveh with whom He has patience.  The poem ends with the same line as it begins: “Patience, though displeasing, is proof of goodwill.”  Surely, God has the greatest goodwill towards us, and we are called to imitate it.

The next poem I discuss will be Cleanliness on Friday.  The poem essentially praises the virtue of chastity.  I wonder whether it can touch the heart of modern man, who tends not to care a fig for this virtue?

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Works of the Pearl-Poet Series

While digging through some of my old books, I came across The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet translated by Casey Finch.  As an undergraduate, I purchased this work for the class on Medieval English literature, which was then taught by Prof. Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale College.  He made us cover the poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The Pearl offers a beautiful vision of heaven, and Prof. Jackson offered some interesting insights into Sir Gawain.  You might have caught by now why this poet is referred to as the Pearl-Poet: he wrote anonymously in the 14th century, so some academics chose to call him by one of the five poems attributed to him.  He also wrote Cleanliness, Patience, and Saint Erkenwald.  Of these poems, Pearl, Cleanliness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are the longest.

Pearl Poet

My dear readers might see what’s coming now.  I intend to review all five of these works within the next two weeks.  Each book shall be read once or twice, time permitting.  I shall give myself four days for the longer works and two days to digest the shorter.  This gives me a schedule that looks like this: review of Pearl on Sept. 13th, Patience on Sept. 15th (We all need a little patience on Mondays, don’t we?), Cleanliness on Sept. 19th, St. Erkenwald on Sept. 21st, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on the 25th.  Of course, I shall try to follow along in the Middle English as best as I can to discern the rhyme and rhythm of the pieces, but this Middle English is not Chaucer’s London dialect, but a West Midlands dialect.  Compare the well known beginning of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth          5

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye,

That slepen al the night with open yë,                10

Chaucer

That wasn’t too hard to understand, was it?  Now compare that to the West Midlands dialect:

Siþen þe sege & þe assaut wat3 sesed at Troye,

Þe bor3 brittened & brent to bronde3 & aske3,

Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wro3t,

Wat3 tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe;

Hit wat3 Ennias þe athel, & his highe kynde,                           5

Þat siþen depreced prouinces, & patrounes bicome

Welne3e of al þe wele in þe west iles,

Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyþe,

With gret bobbaunce þat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,

& neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;                         10

Sir Gawain beheading the Green Knight.  Hey, the guy asked for it!

Sir Gawain beheading the Green Knight. Hey, the guy asked for it!

If you understood all that without flipping back and forth from a Modern English translation, you’re pretty good!  The West Midlands dialect is much closer to Old English than the London dialect.  They even use the word athel for prince!  Any idea what the word bobbaunce means?  Gret bobbaunce gets translated as “pride,” and I’m pretty sure any etymological relatives of bobbaunce have been completely and utterly buried in the sands of time.  So, I shall try to read from the Middle English as much as I can, but I know that the language will exhaust me pretty quickly.

Look forward to my thoughts on these medieval English works!