Heartbroken and in mourning, a man describes the terrible sorrow he feels at the loss of his beautiful and irreplaceable "Perle." In August, with flowers and herbs decorating the earth and perfuming the air, he visits a green garden, the scene of his bereavement. Tormented by images of death and decay, devastated by grief and overpowered by the intoxicating scent of the plants, he falls into a sudden sleep and begins to dream, embarking on an out-of-body experience that will lead to an encounter with his departed pearl, who we learn is his child, and a journey to the gates of heaven.
Probably composed in the 1390s, only one copy of the untitled poem that has come to be called Pearl remains in existence. It was originally housed in the library of Henry Savile of Bank, in Yorkshire, then later in a collection belonging to Sir Robert Cotton, and is now held in the British Library as MS Cotton Nero A.x (each bookcase in Cotton's library was overlooked by a bust of a famous historical figure, including several Roman emperors). Pearl is the first poem in a manuscript that also includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness (or Purity). All four poems are in the same hand, and although the writing probably belongs to that of a scribe rather than the original author, most scholars believe they were composed by the same person, about whom we know very little. The historical context leads us to assume he was a man, and from the content of the poems we can deduce that he was well educated, well read, and very well acquainted with the Bible, though not necessarily a man of the cloth. The same type of linguistic sleuthing that proves the author to be a contemporary of Chaucer also suggests he was a native of the English Midlands or the North West, and both his language and his literary style are very different from his metropolitan counterpart. Chaucer's strain of Middle English is closer to today's speech and much of his vocabulary can be grasped or guessed at, whereas the vocabulary of the Pearl- or Gawain-poet is at times completely foreign to the modern reader, and may well have been somewhat obscure or antiquated even in its day. Theories and countertheories have developed around the identity of the Pearl-poet, some based on the subject matter of the poems, others on dialect words within them, but the truth is that the author of MS Cotton Nero A.x remains a mystery. What isn't in dispute, however, is his brilliance as a poet, and it is a sobering lesson to any writer that the name of someone so adept in the art can simply vanish from history.
Although less than half the length of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, in my view and in my experience, represents a greater challenge to the translator, largely because of the poem's unique form and intricate structure. Presented in twenty sections, each section consists of five stanzas of twelve lines, except for section XV which consists of six stanzas, bringing the total number of lines to an enigmatic 1212, thus mimicking not only the number of lines in each stanza but also the structure of the heavenly Jerusalem (twelve by twelve furlongs), with twelve gates for the twelve tribes of Israel, as specified in the Book of Revelation. Such number symbolism is indicative of a recursive symmetry practiced throughout the poem. The work is alliterative, often boasting three alliterating syllables per line, for example: "To clanly clos in golde so clere" (line 2), and although the poem doesn't have a strict meter or rhythm, most lines are constructed around four beats or stresses (that is to say, four emphasized syllables occur within each line). The lines are particularly compact and intense; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also made up of (arguably) four-beat lines but is noticeably "wider" on the page by comparison, suggesting that the author of Pearl was consciously fashioning a highly ornate and detailed piece, more lyrical than his other works, though one that still required all the necessary components of narrative. The echoing, sonic qualities of the poem brought about by alliteration are heightened through use of repetition, or "concatenation," in which a word or phrase in the last line of the first stanza in each section is repeated in the first and last line of each stanza throughout that section, then once more in the first line of the following section, thus producing a sort of poetic passing of the baton. To complete the effect, the opening line of the poem is recalled in its final line, representing a circularity or spherical endlessness reminiscent of a pearl stone itself. Some of the repeated words or phrases operate as puns or homonyms in the original, for example the word "mone" used throughout section XVIII, which can mean either moon or month. "Deme," in section VI, has multiple meanings (e.g., judge, estimate), and in cases such as this, where no direct contemporary equivalent exists, the latter-day translator is faced with some hard choices. The same is true where the original definition is difficult to pin down, as with "adubbemente" in section II, which has been translated variously as adornment, splendor, wonderment, embellishment, and (by me) ornament. Each of those definitions might seem to be little more than a minor variation on a theme, but choosing one, then working it into the text on nine further occasions, has serious ramifications for the words that precede and follow.
But the biggest dilemma concerns the principal technique by which the poem operates, namely that of rhyme, with each stanza adhering to a strict rhyme scheme of ababababbcbc. Some translators have stuck to the rhyme scheme by preserving many of the poem's original end words, most of which are archaic to the modern reader or even obsolete (e.g., "spenned," "sweven"). Some, like Marie Borroff, have made use of old-fashioned terms such as "demesne," "descried," and "agleam," then manipulated the surrounding sentence structure so as to position those rhyme words at the end of lines. Others have introduced new material into the poem in order to complete acoustic partnerships. For example, Tolkien offers "I vow that from over orient seas" as line 3 to chime with "please" at the end of line 1, yet as nifty as his solution appears, line 3 actually reads, "Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye," (roughly: in all the Orient, I confiidently say), with no mention at all of the sea. A more radical approach is to forgo all the formalities of the original and aim for something far more impressionistic, a version rather than a translation, with all the associated excitements and disappointments. Or to sacrifice the harmonies of the poem in pursuit of literal definitions, thereby securing a more faithful rendition, semantically speaking, but offering an impoverished poetic experience lacking atmosphere and character. I draw attention to the shortcomings of these different methodologies not out of criticism but out of sympathy. While working on the poem, every decision feels like a trade-off between sound and sense, between medieval authenticity and latter-day clarity, and between the precise and the poetic. My own response has been to allow rhymes to occur as naturally as possible within sentences, internally or at the end of lines, and to let half-rhymes and syllabic rhymes play their part, and for the poem's musical orchestration to be performed by pronounced alliteration, looping repetition, and the quartet of beats in each line. So formalists and technicians scanning for a ladder of rhyme words down the right-hand margin of this translation will be frustrated, though hopefully my solution will appeal to the ear and the voice.
So what is Pearl about? Notice is given from early on in the poem that the pearl is both a jewel and a young girl, referred to as "it" and "her," both a prized object and a beloved child. However, readers should not expect the poem to develop straightforwardly into an extended metaphor or "conceit." Because although the young woman has pearl-like qualities—paleness, purity, radiance—from the moment she reveals herself to the dreamer she is very much a person, albeit a spirit version of her earthly existence, an apparition. (In fact at line 483 we discover she "lyfed not two yer," so has become in death a being capable of mature thought and articulate speech.) She is the dreamer's maiden, his girl, nearer to him than "aunte or nece;" so by implication his daughter, though interestingly that particular word is never actually used. What follows is a dialogue, conducted between bereft father and deceased child across an unfordable stretch of water, in which the girl eventually explains how heaven is now her home and that she stands beside Christ Himself, as one of his brides. At first overjoyed, then incredulous, and at times skeptical that his pearl should have risen to such exalted heights, the dreamer is eventually persuaded by the force and persistence of the girl's argument and by the evidence of his own eyes. Toward the end of the poem, the girl presents an almost hallucinatory description of the palace of heaven, outlining its opulent geological foundations, its dazzling architecture and its glorious inhabitants, and invites the dreamer to steal a glimpse of the magnificent citadel. Awestruck by such a tantalizing prospect, the dreamer rushes forward to join his pearl on the other side of the water, leaping from the riverbank only to be jolted awake, and for the vision to break, and for his loved one to disappear once again. His grief has not lessened and he still swoons with longing. But through the lessons of scripture, delivered ironically from the mouth of his own lost child, he has arrived at a philosophical acceptance of his earthly predicament. Pearl is a poem of consolation, a reminder of the life that waits, especially for those who place spiritual values over cherished possessions. It begins and ends in a real garden, framing a visit to a more extraordinary paradise where the dreamer's outlook is transformed by the depth and power of the revelation.
So on one level the poem is a lesson in Christian doctrine, crammed from beginning to end with biblical allusions. Some are subtle and fleeting; some are reported almost verbatim, as with the repeated references to the Book of Revelation (or "the Apocalypse" as it appears in the poem); others are recounted and explicated in full, such as the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) which occupies six of the poem's stanzas. The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46) might be thought of as the catalyst for the entire poem.
But Pearl is also a tense, fascinating, and at times extremely poignant duologue, especially if viewed as one between an actual father and his daughter, and the extent to which the poem is drawn from autobiographical circumstances is another matter for speculation. The dream vision as a method of religious instruction was certainly a well-established poetic convention of the period, providing a similar starting point for Langland's Piers Plowman, for example. Equally, encounters with characters from the afterlife have always been staples of myth, and a generative literary device in a tradition that includes Dante, Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. Yet the poem has the feel of the real, as if genuine grief provided the impetus for such a poetic undertaking, or as if a desire to describe and share the solace brought about through faith and spiritual reasoning had encouraged the author to broadcast his experience through the written word. The presentation of the poem in the first person—not an automatic choice for writers of the day by any means—reinforces the suggestion that the poem deals with personal history and a lived experience. Tolkien, in the introduction to his translation, repeats Sir Israel Gollancz's notion that "the child may have been actually called a pearl by baptismal name, Margarita in Latin, Margery in English. It was a common name at the time, because of the love of pearls and their symbolism, and it had already been borne by several saints." If the poem is nothing more than an invented allegory, then I salute its creator and readily admit to being moved by the fiction, not least at the misplaced elation the dreamer experiences when he believes himself reunited with his child, the emotions of which I found harder to bear than the weight of the grief. And if true sorrow and anguish do lie behind the poem, then as the parent of one child—a daughter—I offer this translation in memory of the lost pearl, as a tribute to the poetic courage of her father, and as an act of condolence.
* * *
About the Author
Simon Armitage is the award-winning poet and translator of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur, as well as the author of several works of poetry, prose, and drama. He is the Oxford Professor of Poetry.
Pearl: A New Verse Translation
Liveright - A Division of W.W. Norton & Company