(ca. 1375)
   Pearl is an important Middle English DREAM VISION poem preserved in a single late 14th-century manuscript known as Cotton Nero A.x, the same manuscript in which survive three other long poems: SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, CLEANNESS, and PATIENCE. On the basis of vocabulary and style, most scholars attribute all four poems to the same writer. All four poems are written in the same Northwest Midland dialect, and all belong, to some extent, to the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL that characterized much English poetry of the time. Interpretation of the poem has varied. Many consider the poem to be autobiographical, concerned with the death of the poet’s own infant daughter. Others see the dead girl, the Pearlmaiden, as a literary device enabling the poet to teach a number of important doctrinal truths. Essentially the poem moves from the narrator’s inconsolable grief for the loss of his precious pearl, to the real understanding of Christian precepts that he had previously known in his mind but had not embraced with his heart.
   The poem begins with the narrator despondent over losing a pearl, and he searches in vain the grass in which the jewel has been lost. His inordinate grief suggests something more than a literal gem, and it is only gradually that the reader becomes aware that what has been lost is the dreamer’s two-year-old daughter, who now, in his dream, appears to him as a grown woman bedecked in pearls. The Dreamer sees her across a stream in a paradisal land, and slowly comes to realize she is the adult, spiritual version of his lost child.He is overjoyed to see her, and she convinces him that his excessive grief is inappropriate—that she lives a blessed life now as Queen of Heaven and Bride of Christ. Against the Dreamer’s fears about infant salvation, the Pearl maiden reveals that baptism is sufficient for a child to attain salvation, and when the Dreamer fears that she was too young to have received the reward she describes, the maiden recounts for him the parable of the vineyard from Matthew 20.1–16: All are exalted equally in heaven. Excessive grief over his daughter must be assuaged by faith and patience, and the Dreamer must be taught that the real pearl he needs to be seeking is the “pearl of great price” of Matthew 13.45–46: the Kingdom of Heaven. The Dreamer’s obstinacy and ignorance are gradually, through the patient teaching of the pearl-maiden, somewhat satisfied, and he wishes to have a glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem itself. Thus the last fifth of the poem is devoted to a lengthy description of the heavenly city as described in Revelation 20–21, and of his beloved Pearl in the train of 144,000 virgins that pass before the throne of the Lamb in Revelation 14. Overcome by longing and a desire to reunite with his Pearl, the Dreamer impulsively attempts to cross the stream and enter the heavenly city, at which he immediately awakens. Presumably a more patient man after his vision, the Dreamer awakes better able to cope with his loss. But Pearl is admired not only for its content but also for its complex form. The poem is written in four-stress, octosyllabic (eight-syllable) lines that generally also use alliteration. The lines form 101 12-line stanzas, rhyming ababababbcbc. These are arranged into 20 groups of five stanzas each (except section 15, which contains six). The c-rhymes are the same in all five stanzas, and the final word of the last line is identical in all five stanzas of any given section. In addition, the first line of the last four stanzas in each section contains this same repeated word somewhere in the line, and that word is used in the first line of the succeeding section, linking the sections together. The final line of the poem ends with the word “paye” (roughly translated as “content”), which is also the final word of the first line. Thus line 1212 of the poem links to line 1, and the poem forms a complete, perfect circle— a pearl.
   This elaborate rhyme scheme is used elsewhere in Middle English in shorter poems, but to attempt it in a poem of 1,212 lines was a remarkable undertaking. There is some question as to why the poet broke the pattern in section 15 with an extra stanza. Some scholars believe that the poet intended to eliminate one of the stanzas from this section, though there is no agreement as to which. Others suggest that the poet meant to demonstrate that nothing of man’s making is perfect, and deliberately introduced a defect in the poem. Still others believe that, unlike 1,200, 1,212 lines suggests the multiple 12 x 12, or 144, reflecting the 144,000 virgins among whom the Pearl maiden is now counted. Whatever the cause, readers have found little to criticize in the elaborate structure of the poem, and much to admire in its skillful depiction of a man whose dream reveals to him the answers to the theological questions that have added to his grief.
   ■ Andrew,Malcolm, Ronald Waldron, and Clifford Peterson, ed. The Complete Works of thePearlPoet. Translated by Casey Finch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
   ■ Bishop, Ian. Pearl in Its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem. Oxford: Blackwell, 1968.
   ■ Boroff,Marie, trans. Pearl. New York: Norton, 1977.
   ■ Brewer, Derek, and Jonathan Gibson, ed. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet. Woodbridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1997.
   ■ Gordon, E. V., ed. Pearl. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953.
   ■ Kean, P. M. “The Pearl”: An Interpretation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.
   ■ Prior, Sandra Pierson. The Pearl Poet Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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