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.

evangelists

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.

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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.

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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!