The poem known as Pearl came to us in the fourteenth century, c. 1370. It is the first of four poems copied by a single scribe. Patience and Purity retell stories from the Old Testament and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is part of the Arthurian legend. Paul Deane says, “We do not know who he is, but this author was one of the greatest English writers of the Middle Ages. But we know he exists only because of a single manuscript, containing four poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Purity. They appear to have been written by a single author; and of these, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered to be one of the classics of English literature.
“About all we know about him is what can be gleaned from the poems. The dialect is that of the north west Midlands of England. The content reveals someone who was familiar with aristocratic life, who took both Christianity and chivalry seriously, though not without a wry sense of humor and a well-honed sense of the ridiculous. This is an author who could go against medieval prudishness and present God praising sexual love (within marriage) in his poem “Purity” and who could flout all the romantic conventions of courtly love, presenting Gawain as a knight both chivalrous and chaste (but oh, all too human.) He represents a very different kind of Englishman than we see in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And though we do not know who he was, he has enriched English literature immensely. (Copyright © 1999 Paul Deane)
The fact that the author did not sign his name to these pieces was not uncommon at the time. We must recall that English was the language of “commoners,” in a time when French was the language of the educated, the cultured, and the court. Only one copy of the text in which all four poems can be found exists. The British Library holds a a vellum manuscript of the poems. Even so, the poems ranks as some of the most important pieces of English literature.
“Pearl” is a “crossing over” tale, similar in form to Middle Ages’ dream sequences. Authorities think the poet who created “Pearl” was familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, and some of Chaucer’s works. From the Robbins Library Digital Projects, we learn “In his dream the narrator of Pearl slips into an ‘aventure,’ which means ‘marvel’ or ‘quest’ (line 64)….Pearl opens in a setting that emphasizes limits: ‘clos,’ meaning ‘set’ or ‘enclosed,’ is a key word of the second line. In its staging of a dream vision, Pearl is explicitly situated within a courtly and aristocratic world; and indeed, the poem in many aspects takes its shape and particular power from the interplay between a courtly habits, a place of money, judgment, pleasures, and rules of behavior, and the uncanny yet familiar space of the crossing-over. Beginning with a precious object, the poem also opens with attention to location and surveillance, set in motion through acts of judgment in familiar kinds of spaces. The jeweler/narrator looks at and judges gems in general; he has one in particular in a splendid setting, so ‘cleanly close’ (line 2), but it falls from him and disappears into the ground; his ‘[a]llas’ (line 9) precipitates the poem backwards into the past through a memory of loss.” (TEAMS: Middle English Test Series)
The poem uses first person narrative. It also uses the “pearl” as a metaphor, but the metaphor changes throughout the piece. The metaphoric structures intermixes with a linear narrative. TEAMS tells us “The pearl is a gem, is a two-year-old child, is a beautiful young woman, is the immortal soul, is the heavenly city, as well as a collective of the properties that inhere to each term singly. The language of Pearl is unusually rich in the double entendre, also a form of metaphor.”
Wikipedia provides us a summary of the Structure and Plot of the poem.
“The poem may be divided into three parts: an introduction, a dialog between the two main characters in which the Pearl instructs the narrator, and a description of the New Jerusalem with the narrator’s awakening.
Sections I – IV (stanzas 1- 20) The narrator, distraught at the loss of his Pearl, falls asleep in an “erber grene” – a green garden – and begins to dream. In his dream he is transported to an other-worldy garden; the divine is thus set in opposition to the terrestrial, a persistent thematic concern within the poem. Wandering by the side of a beautiful stream, he becomes convinced paradise is on the other shore. As he looks for a crossing, he sees a young maid whom he identifies as his Pearl. She welcomes him.
Sections V – VII (stanzas 21 – 35) When he asks whether she is the pearl he has lost, she tells him he has lost nothing, that his pearl is merely a rose which has naturally withered. He wants to cross to her side, but she says it is not so easy, that he must resign himself to the will and mercy of God. He asks about her state. She tells him that the Lamb has taken her as His queen.
“Sections VIII – XI (stanzas 36 – 60) He wonders whether she has replaced Mary as Queen of Heaven. He also objects that she was too young to merit such a high position through her works. She responds that no one envies Mary’s position as Queen of courtesy, but that all are members of the body of Christ. Adopting a homiletic discourse, she recounts as proof the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. He objects to the idea that God rewards every man equally, regardless of his apparent due. She responds that God gives the same gift of Christ’s redemption to all.
“Sections XII – XV (stanzas 61 – 81) She instructs him on several aspects of sin, repentance, grace and salvation. She describes the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem, citing the Apostle John and focusing on Christ’s past sacrifice and present glory. She wears the Pearl of Great Price because she has been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and advises him to forsake all and buy this pearl.
Sections XVI – XX (stanzas 82 – 101) He asks about the heavenly Jerusalem; she tells him it is the city of God. He asks to go there; she says that God forbids that, but he may see it by a special dispensation. They walk upstream, and he sees the city across the stream, which is described in a paraphrase of the Apocalypse. He also sees a procession of the blessed. Plunging into the river in his desperation to cross, he awakes from the dream back in the “erber” and resolves to fulfill the will of God.”