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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