Posts Tagged ‘the Middle Ages’

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