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The 'Pearl' Poet

lunes, 26 de septiembre de 2016

The 'Pearl' Poet

From A Literary History of England (ed. A. C. Baugh), ch. XIV, "The Alliterative Revival", by Kemp Malone and A. C. Baugh.

In the last few chapters—on the romance, the religious omnibus, the lyric, and the writings of the mystics—we have become increasingly aware of the intense literary activity that marks the whole fourteenth century, and activity that reaches its culmination for most readers today in the great narrative poetry of Chaucer. It is an activity that extends from one end of England to the other, an activity in which London and the court participate to no overwhelming extent but rather share along with many other sections of the country. The widespread distribution of the ferment that was at work is indicated perhaps nowhere more plainly than in the emergence about 1350 of the Old English alliterative tradition after it had lain hidden for nearly two hundred years.

Alliterative verse

Roughly between the years 1350 and 1400 there appeared a score of poems, ranging from a few hundred lines to several thousand, in a metre which had clearly evolved in an unbroken development from the old four-beat alliterative measure of Beowulf and Cynewulf. It is not an antiquarian revival, but the reappearance of a metrical pattern which has undergone considerable change. The line has become in most cases the unit of thought, and the alliteration is therefore not so much structural as decorative. With some poets hunting the letter becomes a passion, and the alliteration falls on three syllables in a half-line or is carried through several consecutive lines. Verse of this sort was obviously associated in Chaucer's mind with the north, as is indicated by the well-known words of the Parson:

But trusteth well, I am a Southern man,
I can not geste—rum, ram, ruf—by lettre.

And most of the poems in the alliterative revival belong to the north and to the northwest Midlands. While one of the most important—Piers Plowman—has its origin in the west Midlands, we may think of the alliterative revival as occurring in the north and more particularly the northwest of England.

Three of the earliest poems in the revival, Alexander A, Alexander B, and William of Palerne, have already been discussed in the chapters on the romance. There we have likewise treated other later romances in alliterative verse, such as The Wars of Alexander, The Destruction of Troy, the Morte Arthure, and the religious romance The Destruction of Jerusalem. It is not practicable to include them again here, where as part of the alliterative movement they would be fully entitled to a place. (NOTE 1)  We shall have to be content with this brief reference, and confine ourselves in this and the following chapter to the other classes of alliterative poetry. In the present chapter we shall treat the works of the Pearl poet and one or two poems in some ways related to his. In the chapter which follows we shall consider a group of poems concerned with social and ethical questions, of which the most important is the great social document Piers Plowman.

NOTE 1: See above, pp. 182 ff. On the later alliterative movement in Scotland see Sir William Craigie, "The Scottish Alliterative Poems," Proc. Brit. Acad. xxviii (1942): 217-236.

The Pearl Poet

Of the many unique manuscripts gathered together in the seventeenth century by the famous antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, among which are the Beowulf codex, the two texts of Layamon's Brut, the Ludus Coventriae and others less famous, one is a modest quarto volume known as Nero A. X. (NOTE 2). The contents consist of four alliterative poems in a hand of the end of the fourteenth century. Acoompanying the text are twelve illustrations of quite crude workmanship depicing episodes in some of the poems. None of the texts is accompanied by any title, but they have been named, in the order of their occurrence in the manuscript, the Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness), Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

NOTE 2. It is reproduced in facsimile in EETS, 162 [Early English Text Society series].

The Pearl (NOTE 3) is not only first in the manuscript but shares with the Gawain the first place in the interest of modern readers. In a hundred stanzas of twelve lines each (NOTE 4), ingeniously linked in groups of five by repetition and a refrain, the poet tells how a lovely pearl, smooth and white, slipped from his hands into the grass and was lost in the ground. In his grief he often visits the spot which covers his pearl, and one August day, lulled by the fragance of herbs and flowers, he falls asleep on the little mound. There as he slumbers he dreams that he is in another world, a world of crystal cliffs, bright woods, and strands pebbled with precious stones. Such sights make him forget his grief, and he wanders about in sheer delight. Finally he comes upon a stream, clear and sparkling, beyond which he thinks must be Paradise. It is backed by a crystal cliff, at the foot of which sits a child—

A gracious maiden full debonaire;
Glistening white was her robe:
I knew her well; I had seen her before.
NOTE 3. Edited by Richard Morris (2ed, 1869; EETS, I). Sir Israel Gollancz (1891; 1921) and Charles C. Osgood (1906; Belles-Lettres Ser.). A translation is included in Gollancz's edition, and there are modern renderings by G. G. Coulton (1907), Osgood (1907), Sophe Jewett (1908), and Stanley P. Chase (1932).

NOTE 4. The rime scheme is abababab bcbc. There are 101 stanzas, but one is considered spurious or was canceled by the author.

The longer he looks at her the better he knows her. He has an impulse to call her, but seeing her in so strange a place deters him. She is spotless, and her dress is trimmed profusely with pearls. She wears a crown, from beneath which her hair falls loosely on her shoulders. No tongue could fittingly describe the sight:

So clean was it and clear and pure,
That precious pearl where it was set.

Thus arrayed she comes down to the brink. She was nearer to me, he says, than aunt or niece. Finally she speaks to him and he then addresses her:

O Pearl, quoth I, in pearls bedight,
Art thou my pearl that I have 'plain'd,
Regretted when all alone at night?
Much longing for thee have I restrained
Since into the grass thou didst from me glide.

Grown in stature and in wisdom, she reveals to him her life as spouse of the Heavenly Bridegroom. The dreamer's pearl was not lost when it was put in a coffer so comely as is this gracious garden. Along with thousands of others she shares a most happy lot. When the poet objects that she did nothing to deserve so great a reward, since she "lived not two years in our land" and knew neither her Paternoster nor Creed, she enters upon an elaborate discourse on the part played by merit and grace in salvation and the equality of the saved before God (NOTE 5), illustrating her views at length by biblical parables. The poet is finally granted a view of her abode—the New Jerusalem—vividly adapted from the Apocalypse. His effort in trying to cross the stream and reach the heavenly city wakens him from his dream, and he rises from the mound on which he had slumbered, filled with a new spiritual strength.

NOTE 5. The orthodoxy of the poet's views was questioned by Carleton F. Brown, "The Author of The Pearl Considered in the Light of His Theological Opinions," PMLA, XIX (1904), 115-53, and defended by James Sledd, MLN, LV (1940), 381. While his attitude toward grace has been shown to be good doctrine, equality of reward appears to be stressed beyond medieval orthodoxy.

The Allegory

This beautiful and seemingly transparent allegory has been interpreted in various ways and has led to considerable controversy. The traditional view sees in the poem an elegy in which the poet grieves for the death of a two-year-old daughter and is consoled by her in a vision of a common medieval type. This view was challenged by Schofield in 1904, who denied the autobiographical interpretation and suggested that the poet was merely upholding the virtue of purity under the symbolism of a pearl, with appropriate personification (NOTE 6). While his view has not found much favor (NOTE 7) his example has led others to attempt new explanations and various modifications of the original interpretation. The Pearl has been taken as symbolizing the Eucharist (NOTE 8) and more recently as recording a state of "spiritual dryness" experienced by the poet and not unknown to religious and to mystics (NOTE 9). Still others have sought to reconcile the elegiacal and symbolical interpretations (NOTE 10). There is symbolism, to be sure, in incidental ways in the poem, and the problems of divine grace and the equality of heavenly rewards constitute the major theme for discussion, but there are too many features which are meaningless on any other assumption than that the poet mourns the loss of a real child (NOTE 11). The poem treats certain aspects of salvation in the framework of a personal elegy, employing the medieval conventions of vision and debate.

NOTE 6. W. H. Schofield, "The Nature and Fabric of The Pearl," PMLA, xix (1904). 154-215; "Symbolism, Allegory, and Autobiography in The Pearl," PMLA, xxiv (1909). 585-675.

NOTE 7. Schofield's interpretation was opposed by Coulton in MLR, ii (1907). 39-43.

NOTE 8. R. M. Garrett, The Pearl—An Interpretation (Seattle, 1918; Univ. of Wash. Pub. in English, (Vol. iv., No. 1).

NOTE 9. Sister M. Madeleva, Pearl: A Study in Spiritual Dryness (1925).

NOTE 10. Jefferson B. Fletcher, "The Allegory of the Pearl," JEGP, xx (1921). 1-21., and René Wellek, "The Pearl: An Interpretation of the Middle-English Poem," Studies in English (Charles Univ., Prague), iv (1933). 1-33. Both these papers stress the complex character of the symbolism.

NOTE 11. For an attempt to identify the child, see Oscar Cargill and Margaret Schlauch, "The Pearl and Its Jeweler," PMLA, xliii (1928), 105-123.

A personal elegy

Viewed as a personal elegy the Pearl is a poem of deep feeling, the poet's grief yielding gradually to resignation and spiritual reconciliation. In its sensuous beauty, its artistic restraint, its skilful manipulation of a complex and difficult metrical pattern, and its imaginatively beautiful descriptions of the garden, the pearl-maiden, and the New Jerusalem, it is in its best parts unsurpassed by anything in Middle English poetry.


In two respects Purity (NOTE 12), the second poem in the manuscript, resembles the Pearl—in its preoccupation with an ethical question and in its predilection for extended paraphrases of biblical incident. For here we have a discourse on purity, showing how impossible it is for one who is unclean to approach God's pure presence, and enforcing the point by the parable of the man without a wedding garment. This and other episodes such as the fall of Lucifer and the Expulsion from Paradise are merely preliminary, however, to the main purpose, which is to tell the stories of the Flood, the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the profanation of the holy vessels in Belshazzar's Feast. The homiletic purpose is plain, and at the end the poet not only reminds us that "upon thrynne wyses" he has showed the sorrow that uncleanness causes our Lord but he closes with a prayer for grace. The stories are vividly told, but the poem suffers by comparison with the Pearl through the lack of any framework or artistic motivation.

NOTE 12.  Edited by Richard Morris (2ed., 1869; EETS, i)., Robert J. Menner (1920; Yale Stud. in English, 61), and Sir Israel Gollancz (1921).

This is also true of its companion piece, Patience (NOTE 13), which devotes all but the first sixty of its 531 lines to the story of Jonah and the whale. But concentration upon a single subjet gives greater unity to the piece, and the poet has allowed his imagination freer rein in embellishing his theme. He shows us the activity in getting under sail, describes vividly the storm at sea, pictures with realistic detail the slimy insides of the whale, and reports dramatically Jonah's conversations with God. God's rebuke of Jonah for his impatinece leads the poet to his closing reflection. He who is too hasty in tearing his clothes will often sit sewing them up. Even poverty must be borne with patience, which "is a noble point, though it displease oft." In both Purity and Patience the poet's principal indebtedness is to the Bible, and the Pearl not only draws its parables from the same source but derives its description of the New Jerusalem from the Apocalypse. Other sources in Tertullian, an eclogue of Boccassio, and even the Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry have been suggested but with the possible exception of Boccaccio's eclogue, must be described as very doubtful. The poet refers once to Jean de Meun and his part of the Roman de la Rose, and he has drawn scattered details in Purity from Mandeville's Travels in their French form. But while the author of these poems was apparently well read, we have not been very successful in tracking down the sources of his inspiration outside of the Scriptures.

NOTE 13.  Edited by Richard Morris (as above), Hartley Bateson (Manchester, 191; 2ed., 1918), and Israel Gollancz (1913).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

There seems to be no reason to doubt that the three poems the Pearl, Purity, and Patience are the work of one man. The fourth poem in the transcript is of such a different kind that if it were not found in association with the others we might well hesitate to attribute it to the same authorship, in spite of obvious stylistic resemblancs (NOTE 14). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (NOTE 15) is a courtly romance, the finest Arthurian romance in English. Though it exemplifies the knightly virtues of courage and truth, it is in no sense a stroy told to enforce a moral. It is quite in the spirit of French romance, told for its own sake.

NOTE 14. Apart from the stylistic features common to all four poems, there are noteworthy parallels between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Purity. It should be remembered, however, that the romance also shows many striking parallels in phrases and lines with the Wars of Alexander.

NOTE 15. There are older editions by Sir Frederic Madden for the Bannatyne Club (1839) and Richard Morris (1864; EETS, 4); revised by I. Gollancz (1897 and 1912), but the romance is best studied in the edition of J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon (1925) or the new edition of Sir Israel Gollancz with introductory essays by Mabel Day and Mary S. Serjeantson (1940; EETS, 210). Modern renderings by Jessie L. Weston (1898), often reprinted, T. H. Banks (1929), G. H. Gerould (1934), etc. are available separately or in anthologies.

Subject Matter and Treatment

 The plot itself is so well known as to need no retelling. The main adventure is the challenge, which Gawain accepts of an exchange of blows with the Green Knight, in which he beheads the challenger but must submit to the same hazard a year later. With this is combined the adventure at Bertilak's castle, in which Gawain is tempted on three successive mornings by his host's wife and in which his only fault is concealing the magic girdle which she gives him. Both of these stories are found separately either in Celtic or in Old French romances (NOTE 16). They are first found combined in the English poem (NOTE 17), and whether we owe the combination to the English poet or to hes source we must grant that it was a happy inspiration which tied the three temptations to the three blows offered Gawain at the Green Chapel and made the wound received from the third blow the result of his concealing the girdle. Accepting the supernatural as a prerogative of medieval story, we have a skilfully contrived plot (NOTE 18), a feature always worthy of remark in medieval romance. But it is only one, and that perhaps the least, of the qualities which give this remarkable poem its high place among English romances. From the beginning almost to the end it proceeds by a succession of scenes and situations full of color and movement and vivid detail. We begin with the New Year's feast, the guests exchanging greetings and gifts, the maidens laughing and making mirth till it is time to eat, then washing and seating themselves at tables. Just as the music ceases and the first course has been served the Gren Knight enters. He is fully described—stature, appearance, dress, armor, horse, trappings—as he rides straight up to the daïs. And so it goes from episode to episode like a succession of tapestries or medieval illuminations. The descriptions of the seasons as they mark the passing of the year and bring Gawain to the time when he must set out to keep his pledge are no mere literary exercises, and the hunting scenes have all the excitement and lifelikeness of first-hand experience or observation. Striking, too, is the poet's mastery of dialogue, always easy and natural, but particularly skilful in the extended conversations between Gawain and the lady of the castle, as she seeks an opening and he adroitly evades and parries each thrust. Finally, one should remark the dexterous way in which the poet keeps the various actions moving forward simultaneously, passing from the dalliance of the lady to the husband's adventures in the chase and back again to the bed chamber until all parties are brought together naturally at the end of the day. But there is no end of things to exclaim over and we can only hint at the enjoyment to be had from reading and rereading this fine romance (NOTE 19).

NOTE 16. The fullest study of the sources of the romance is George L. Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge, Mass., 1916). The challenge or beheading game is found in an episode inown as The Champion's Bargain which closes the Irish romance (at least as old as the eleventh century) of Fled Bricrend, or Bricriu's Feast. From there it passed into French where it was embodied independently into four separate romances (the Livre de Caradoc, incorporated in the first continuation of Chrétien's Perceval, the short thirteenth-century romance La Mule sanz Frain, the prose Grail romance known as the Perlesvaus in which the adventure is attributed to Lancelot, and another thirteenth-century romance entitled Gawain et Humbaut in which the ending has been completely changed). Parallels to the temptation motif are not so clsoe, but in one form or another it is found in the Old French Ider, in the late English Carl of Carlisle, and elsewhere.

NOTE 17. There are many theories accounting for this combination. Kittredge believed that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was based on a lost French romance in which the adventures were combined. J. R. Hulbert, "Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knygt," MP, XIII (1915-16). 433-462, 689-730, believes they were originally joined in a Fairy Mistress story as the conditions which the hero must fulfill. Else von Schaubert, "Der englische Ursprung von Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knygt," ESt, LVII (1923). 330-446, maintains that they were first combined by the English poet. This is also the view of Miss Day in the essay noted above. O. Löhmann, Die Sage von Gawain und dem grünen Ritter (Königsberg, 1938), likewise believes in the English origin of the romance, but argues that a Fairy Mistress story has been changed into a test of the hero.

NOTE 18. The idea that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is connected in some way with the Order of the Garter is most fully advocated in Isaac Jackson, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight considered as a 'Garter' Poem," Anglia, XXXVII (1913). 393-423, and opposed by J. R. Hulbert in the article already referred to (MP. XIII, especially pp. 710 ff.).

NOTE 19. In the absence of any objective evidence for determining the order of composition it has seemed best to treat the poems in the order in which they occur in the manuscript. Patience and Purity probably belong together, and since Purity has a number of parallels with the Gawain, it probably stands closer to the latter. On artistic grounds the Pearl and Gawain should follow the homiletic pieces, though this is not a safe criterion for pieces unlike in kind. One could argue for an order which would put the Gawain first, followed by the Pearl, the bereavement in which led the poet to the moral concerns of Purity and Patience. Such an order would have the advantage of putting Patience after Purity, to which it is superior in structure and unity.

green knight

The Author

All that we know about the author of these four poems is what can be cautiously inferred from his work, and all attempts to identify him with Huchown, Strode, or any other individual have failed. The dialect of the manuscrip, which there is no reason to think differs essentially from that of the author, would indicate that he belonged to the northwest Midlands, probably south Lancashire, and this general locality is supported by the landscape and local allusions in the poems. He need not have been a priest in spite of his preoccupation with theological and moral questions, though a position as chaplain in some nobleman's household would make such an interest natural and account for his familiarity with the ways of courtly life. Naturally, however, such knowledge could be otherwise accounted for. His vocabulary contains a large French element which might result from his social status or his acquaintance with French literature. This was certainly considerable. He impresses us as a man of cosmopolitan taste whose horizon was not bounded by the limits of a provincial neighborhood. That he was at once observant and imaginative is apparent. His literary activity coincides roughly with the earlier part of Chaucer's career, and in the absernce of more precise information we cannot do better than to date his work c. 1375.

St Erkenwald

Various other alliterative poems have from time to time been atrributed to the Pearl poet. Among them the one that has found most supporters is St. Erkenwald (NOTE 20), which attributes to the Old English bishop of this name a miracle not otherwise recorded. When St. Paul's in London was being rebuilt a tomb was uncovered in which was the body of a pagan judge. Since he had always been just in his awards, his body and clothing were still as fresh as at the time of his death. At Erkenwald's bidding the corpse reveals its identity, whereupon the bishop's tears fall on the body, constituting baptism and releasing the soul. Bodily decay at once sets in. The story is told in 352 clear and straightforward verses, but the present writer at least cannot accept the attribution to the Pearl poet.

NOTE 20. Edited by Horstmann, Altengliche Legenden (1881), Gollancz (1922), and Henry L. Savage (1926; Yale Stud. in English, 72).

Pistel of Swete Susan

Associated with the poems previously discussed is a short piece of twenty-eight tail-rime stanzas, each with thirteen alliterative lines, called the Pistel of Swete Susan (NOTE 21). It tells the story of Susanna and the Elders from the thirteenth chapter of Daniel (in the Vulgate), with the description of the garden embellished with details drawn from the Roman de la Rose. It is told simply and effectively, at times with the deft touches of an artist. When Susanna, allowed to speak to her husband, has avowed her innocence and fidelity to him,

Thei toke the feteres of hire feete,
And evere he kyssed that swete;
"In other world schal we mete."
     Seide he no mare. (lines 257-60)

A passage in Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil (c. 1420) asserts that the author was Huchown of the Awle Ryale (Royal Court), who is therre credited also with the Gret Gest off Arthure and the Awyntyre off Gawane (NOTE 22). The attribution cannot be accepted, but the passage has led some to believe that Huchown was not only the Pearl poet but the author of most of the poems in the alliterative revival (NOTE 23).  Naturally such extravagant claims have not met with much favor. While the six poems discussed in the present chapter are linked together by certain features of subject matter and treatment it seems best to hold to the conservative view which limites the work of the Pearl poet to the poems preserved in the famous Cotton manuscript.

NOTE 21. Edited by Hans Köster, Huchown's Pistel of Swete Susan (Strassburg, 1895; Quellen und Forschungen, LXXVI).

NOTE 22.
He made the Gret Gest off Arthure
And the Awyntyre off Gawane
The Pystill als off Swete Swsane....
The Gret Gest off Arthure is believed to be the alliterative Morte Arthure, presumably in its fuller form (see ch. X, above). The Awyntyre off Gawane is identified by those who believe Huchown to be the Pearl poet with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by others with the Awyntyrs of Arthur (see p. 190, note 22).

NOTE 23. George Neilson, 'Huchown of the Awle Ryale', the Alliterative Poet (Glasgow, 1902), who argues that Huchown is to be identified with the "gude Sir Hew of Eglintoun" mentioned by Dunbar in his Lament for the Makaris. In spite of the extravagance of his thesis Neilson's book contains much interesting matter.

Reading Notes on Some English Classics


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