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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XV. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawayne

§ 1. Sources and Metre of Pearl

AMONG the Cottonian manuscripts in the British Museum, a small quarto volume, numbered Nero A. x, contains the four Middle English poems known as Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight. The manuscript is in a hand which seems to belong to the end of the fourteenth or the early years of the fifteenth century; there are neither titles nor rubrics, but the chief divisions are marked by large initial letters of blue, flourished with red; several pictures, coarsely executed, illustrate the poems, each occupying a full page; the writing is “small, sharp and irregular.” No single line of these poems has been discovered in any other manuscript.

The first of the four poems, Pearl, tells of a father’s grief for a lost child, an infant daughter who had lived not two years on earth. In a vision he beholds his Pearl, no longer a little child, transfigured as a queen of heaven; from the other bank of a stream which divides them she instructs him, teaches him the lessons of faith and resignation and leads him to a glimpse of the new Jerusalem. He sees his “little queen” in the long procession of maidens; in his effort to plunge into the stream and reach her he awakes, to find himself stretched on the child’s grave—

  • Then woke I in that garden fair;
  • My head upon that mound was laid,
  • there where my Pearl had strayed below.
  • I roused me, and felt in great dismay,
  • and, sighing to myself, I said:—
  • “Now all be to that Prince’s pleasure.”
  • Naturally arising from the author’s treatment of his subject, many a theological problem, notably the interpretation of the parable of the vineyard, is expounded. The student of medieval theology may find much of interest in Pearl, but the attempt to read the poem as a theological pamphlet, and a mere symbolical allegory, ignores its transcendent reality as a poet’s lament. The personal side of the poem is clearly marked, though the author nowhere directly refers to his fatherhood. The basis of Pearl is to be found in that verse of the Gospel which tells of the man “that sought the precious margarities; and, when he had found one to his liking, he sold all his goods to buy that jewel.” The pearl was doomed, by the law of nature, to flower and fade like a rose; thereafter it became a “pearl of price”; “the jeweller” indicates clearly enough the reality of his loss.

    A fourteenth century poet, casting about for the form best suited for such a poem, had two courses before him: on the one hand, there was the great storehouse of dream-pictures, The Romaunt of the Rose; on the other hand, the symbolic pages of Scripture. A poet of the Chaucerian school would have chosen the former; to him the lost Marguerite would have suggested an allegory of “the flour that bereth our alder pris in figuringe,” and the Marguerite would have been transfigured as the type of truest womanhood, a maiden in the train of love’s queen, Alcestis. But the cult of the daisy seems to have been altogether unknown to our poet, or, at least, to have had no attraction for him. His Marguerite was, for him, the pearl of the Gospel; Mary, the queen of heaven, not Alcestis, queen of love, reigns in the visionary paradise which the poet pictures forth. While the main part of the poem is a paraphrase of the closing chapters of the Apocalypse and the parable of the vineyard, the poet’s debt to The Romaunt is noteworthy, more particularly in the description of the wonderful land through which the dreamer wanders; and it can be traced here and there throughout the poem, in the personification of Pearl as Reason, in the form of the colloquy, in the details of dress and ornament, in many a characteristic word, phrase and reference; “the river from the throne,” in the Apocalypse, here meets “the waters of the wells” devised by Sir Mirth for the garden of the Rose. From these two sources, The Book of Revelation, with its almost romantic glamour, and Romaunt of the Rose, with its almost oriental allegory, are derived much of the wealth and brilliancy of the poem. The poet’s fancy revels in the richness of the heavenly and the earthly paradise; but his fancy is subordinated to his earnestness and intensity.

    The chief episodes of the poem are best indicated by the four illustrations in the manuscript.

    In the first, the author is represented slumbering in a meadow, by the side of a beflowered mound, clad in a long red gown, with falling sleeves, turned up with white, and a blue hood attached round the neck. Madden and others who have described the illustrations have not noticed that there are wings attached to the shoulders of the dreamer, and a cord reaching up into the foliage above, evidently intended to indicate that the spirit has “sped forth into space.”

    In the second, there is the same figure, drawn on a larger scale, but without the wings, standing by a river. He has now passed through the illumined forest-land:

  • The hill-sides there were crowned
  • with crystal cliffs full clear,
  • and holts and woods, all bright with boles,
  • blue as the blue of Inde,
  • and trembling leaves, on every branch,
  • as burnished silver shone—
  • with shimmering sheen they glistened,
  • touched by the gleam of the glades
  • and the gravel I ground upon that strand
  • was precious orient pearl.
  • The sun’s own light had-paled before
  • that sight so wonderous fair.
  • In the third picture, he is again represented in a similar position, with hands raised, and on the opposite side is Pearl, dressed in white, in the costume of Richard II’s and Henry IV’s time; her dress is buttoned tight up to the neck, and on her head is a crown.

    In the fourth, the author is kneeling by the water, and, beyond the stream, is depicted the citadel, on the embattled walls of which Pearl again appears, with her arms extended towards him.

    The metre of Pearl is a stanza of twelve lines with four accents, rimed according to the scheme ababababbebe, and combining rime with alliteration; there are one hundred and one such verses; these divide again into twenty sections, each consisting of five stanzas with the same refrain—one section exceptionally contains six stanzas. Throughout the poem, the last or main word of the refrain is caught up in the first line of the next stanza. Finally, the last line of the poem is almost identical with the first, and rounds off the whole. The alliteration is not slavishly maintained, and the trisyllabic movement of the feet adds to the ease and music of the verse; in each line there is a well-defined caesura. Other writers before and after the author used this form of metre; but no extant specimen shows such mastery of the stanza, which, whatever may be its origin, has some kinship with the sonnet, though a less monumental form, the first eight lines resembling the sonnet’s octave, the final quatrain the sonnet’s sestet, and the whole hundred and one stanzas of Pearl reminding one of a great sonnet-sequence. As the present writer has said elsewhere—

  • the refrain, the repetition of the catchword of each verse, the trammels of alliteration, all seem to have offered no difficulty to the poet; and, if power over technical difficulties constitutes in any way a poet’s greatness, the author of Pearl, from this point of view alone, must take high rank among English poets. With a rich vocabulary at his command, consisting, on the one hand, of alliterative phrases and “native mother words,” and, on the other hand, of the poetical phraseology of the great French classics of his time, he succeeded in producing a series of stanzas so simple in syntax, so varied in rhythmical effect, now lyrical, now epical, never undignified, as to leave the impression that no form of metre could have been more suitably chosen for this elegiac theme.
  • The diction of the poem has been considered faulty by reason of its copiousness; but the criticism does not appear to be just. It should be noted that the author has drawn alike from the English, Scandinavian, and Romance elements of English speech.

    The attention of scholars has recently been directed to Boccaccio’s Latin eclogue Olympia, in which his young daughter, Violante, appears transfigured, much in the same way as Pearl in the English poem; and an ingenious attempt has been made to prove the direct debt of the English poet to his great Italian contemporary. The comparison of the two poems is a fascinating study, but there is no evidence of direct indebtedness; both writers, though their elegies are different in form, have drawn from the same sources. Even were it proved that such debt must actually be taken into account in dealing with the English poem, it would not help, but rather gainsay, the ill-founded theory that would make Pearl a pure allegory, a mere literacy device, impersonal and unreal. The eclogue was written soon after the year 1358.