The Pearl Poem – from the Middle English

Posted: November 17, 2011 in Parameters
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The Pearl Poem is be found in a mid fourteenth century manuscript, that contains Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness and Patience; all four poems written down in a Midlands dialect of Middle English.

All except Sir Gawain are explicitly Christian in theme, But, Sir Gawain: a knight all in green, green skin, hair, and a challenge to die at midwinter – what, we think, could be more pagan!

Jane Draycott has currently published a version of the poem; it is a modern, contemporary rendering rather than a direct translation. That writers of this quality are now exploring the poem is very encouraging.

The Pearl Poem is unique in its technical expertise, rhyming ababababbcbc, and consisting of a hundred and one stanzas, divided into twenty sections. The tone is courtly, as opposed to everyday, the language discursive and, at times, impassioned; all is refined so that all the focus of the poem is on the subject matter. Latest academic assessments suggests the author of at least, this and Sir Gawain to have been a priest based in Stockport, near Manchester in the North West of England. This is based on use of local words, as well as, in Sir Gawain, possible local sites (the Green Chapel based on Lud’s Cave, on the edge of the White Peak part of the Peak District).

Addendum: 2/7/12

– Commentators on the authenticity of the writer’s background very convincingly point out that the writer, although using the dialect of the region, would most likely have been a member of the court, or some family attached to the court of the time. This makes sense: what ‘boggled’ me about the writer’s location was the quality of the work added to the isolated location. When a boggling like that occurs, I am now aware enough to see it as an indication of inconsistency. –

Back to the body: Middle English is an impossible read for many people, but the poem becomes more accessible if we acknowledge its Midlands dialect. The ‘jeweller’ narrating the poem has lost a pearl of great value, in the grass:

Sythen in that spote hit fro me sprange/ Ofte haf I wayted, wyschande that wele/

That wont watz whyle devoyde my wrange/ And heven my happe and al my hele. /

That dotz but thrych my hert thrange/….


Since in that spot it from me sprang/ often have I waited, wishing (all was) well/

That want was to while dispel my wrong/ And heaven my hope and my

 well-being./ That does but hurt my heart sore….

That ‘thrych’ is pure Midlands, as is the interchangeability of a and o sounds. The passage quoted, especially that third line, would need a page of explication to unwrap all its meanings.

There is much use of rhetorical forms and figures: all grasses are spices (’spysez’), that is, aromatic, varied, and the description of the dream landscape is a jeweller’s paradise. The access of writer and readers of this period, before the opening up of the world in the age of discovery, to a knowledge of the range and types of jewels is intriguing. The description of the dream vision of the heavenly city, built up of tiers of precious jewels (jasper, sapphire, emerald, ruby etc) is all based on the descriptions in the St John Gospel.

We think of all this as extreme artificiality, rhetoric-gone-mad; but for the time this was the accepted structure of the world, from base to noble metals; from iron to gold; from earth to heaven and the transcendent qualities. It is the ideology and semiotics behind the magnificence of stained glass windows.

The child who died, the jeweller’s two year old daughter, is transformed into a pearl, perfect and ‘matchles’; that is, there is found no match for her on earth. This is achieved by the writer’s insight into the passionate loss of a father. Already there is a play of imagery: pearl and young girl; jeweller and father, that draws us in, entangles us in a developing gestalt. Our imaginations are engaged, and our empathetic responses directly addressed. The precision of the language is invigorating.

The father/ jeweller has lost his perfect young daughter/ pearl. In his utter grief he finds himself in a jewelled dreamscape, and spies her across a stream. She seems older and even more serenely beautiful. They discourse; she instructs him, in a reversal of a parent to a child, in God’s teaching. He has to accept, but cannot lose her again. In trying to cross over to her he violates God’s law and loses the vision. His lesson, though, is learned. And ours with it.

We read the poem now as a courtly piece, whose rhyme scheme constrains expression. And yet there is an argument that the very artificiality of the form was intended, was a part of the expressive intent. Not only does the form aid the poet’s ability to handle the grief of the loss, but the courtly and intricate, almost dance form, brings dignity, gravitas and, ultimately, joyous praise to the handling of the theological content.

It is very much a show, not tell: we learn with him through following the question and answer of the religious discourse, that we have to suffer, whether it is the loss of a loved one or whatever our burden is to be. We learn also, that grief can bring a vision of the order of things.

This is where Sir Gawain fits in. It is through the reader witnessing Sir Gawain’s learning of self-sacrifice, humility, and self-constraint that mankind’s weakness is revealed to itself; and that it is through repentance and suffering that mankind is redeemable.

In our emphatically non-religious culture the religious experience may be coming to seem increasingly alien to our sense of the world. That may be so; but the bases of the poem remain: we all experience grief, loss; we all have concepts of goodness, right, honesty.

Our experiences are always going to challenge our ideals. It is the ways in which we make sense of this, our ways of coping, which are the main stories of all times.

There is a freshness about this poem: the father’s grief is authentic; its overpowering emotions force him into direct confrontation with his beliefs. The jewelled landscape can still charm and surprise us.

The stanzas of religious discourse can be trying but if we approach them as an example of technique, skill, in using form and content whilst juggling sense, mood, atmosphere, it is surprising how really consummate was the poet.

Ps Readers of this post will also probably be interested in my THE DREAM OF THE ROOD Parts 1 and 2, on this site

  1. Giles Watson says:

    It’s good to see a really informative piece about the Pearl poet on the internet. I would be very grateful for any responses to my own illustrated translation of Pearl, just completed, and available in draft form here:

    • Excellent work – the photographs/pictures are superb and set the poem off excellently. A translation can only be a version: the version by Jane Draycott, although beautifully modulated looses out on dynamic and impetus. This is one of the areas you have retained, to great effect. A lovely piece of work. I would certainly buy it!!

      Not only that, but you have taken on Dafydd ap Gwilym as well!! One of my favourites. The Rachel Bromwich trans makes work-a-day and humdrum what is lively, consummate, and above all, funny.
      Good man!!!!!!!

      • Giles Watson says:

        Thank you! That is very encouraging indeed. I deliberately didn’t read Draycott’s version before doing mine, although I have dipped into it since, and need now to read it properly. I am glad you found my Dafydd paraphrases too; those have been a project which has now spanned about ten years. Yes, Bromwich’s translations are very prosaic, but they have been very useful to me, and her book, ‘Aspects of the Poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym’ is an invaluable study.

        I have now recorded a reading of the whole of ‘Pearl’, which begins here:

        Thanks again for reading my version of ‘Pearl’. It is very much appreciated.


      • Well, thank You for reading my bits!
        I shall look to the your youtube asap!

        What’s your latest project?

      • Giles Watson says:

        I have been thinking of doing a translation of Audelay’s ‘The Three Dead Kings’, and illustrating it with pictures of wall paintings of ‘The Three Living and the three Dead’. It is nowhere near as sophisicated as ‘Pearl’, but some of the Middle English is quite a challenge! After that, I will probably return to Dafydd ap Gwilym for a while… Exploring more of your site now…

      • Ah, caught me there – I don’t know the Audelay AT ALL!
        Have to come back to you on that one – when a little less embarrassed!

        Best wishes

      • Giles Watson says:

        I only discovered it recently too :o) There is a good version of it here (you have to scroll down about half-way…

      • Hmm, seems a bit of a polemicist – I kind of prefer the more open, or who contextualise it in something less dictatorial.

        Be interesting to see what you do with him.


  2. Giles Watson says:

    Hmmm indeed – he is rather didactic, isn’t he? I am hoping that the description of the three dead kings will be ghoulish enough to be suited to a modern alliterative rendering. Subtle it won’t be!

  3. Giles Watson says:

    Here are the first two stanzas – at an experimental stage… It occurs to me that whilst the poem is didactic in tone, its critique of irresponsible leaders is not without contemporary relevance either…

  4. […] interest can read a superb discussion and overview of the Pearl and the Pearl Poet here, here and here. This Grabhorn-Hoyem book is stunning.  It has a goat vellum leather spine and turquoise silk […]

  5. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Michael this was really useful. I just attempted a new poem about a child born in the fifth century (or maybe sixth). I’ve written it as a sonnet and in alliterative long line, but keeping modern vocab etc. Very interested in trying to work out if it succeeds as alliterative long line …

  6. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Oh! Now it is … c

  7. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Oh! It is you, Giles Watson, late of Wantage! I hope New Zealand is all you hoped it would be. Cathyx

    • Giles Watson says:

      Hi Cathy – I’m in Australia, and it’s working out fine. What a small world it is on the internet – yes, late of Wantage, and I do wish it was just down the road from here. Would be very interested to see your poem!

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