The New Yorker
The medieval poem “Pearl” was written by someone whose identity we do not know, and is set mostly within a dream. Neither of these facts is unusual in medieval poetry. Authorship is often unclear for works from that period, and dreams were popular as literary devices: then, as now, dreams allow poets to illustrate ideas that might otherwise be inexpressible. The “Pearl” poet used the technique to account for an experience that still seems impossible to describe—the loss of a child.
In the poem, the narrator visits the spot where a pearl once slipped from his grasp and got lost among “Gilofre, gyngure, & gromylyoune, / & pyonys powdered ay bytwene” (“ginger, gromwell, and gillyflower / with peonies scattered in between”). Swooning into unconsciousness, he comes to in a dream, in a place he has never been before, where cliffs split the sky (“ther klyfez cleven”). Across a river, he sees his pearl again, but now the “perle” is no mere thing—she is a young girl, richly arrayed in an elaborate outfit covered in pearls. Pearl also seems to be her name, or at least it is how the man addresses her: “ ‘O perle,’ quod I . . . ‘Art thou my perle?’ ” In reply, she calls him a jeweller, and he refers to her as a gem (“ ‘Jueler,’ sayde that gemme clene”).
Overcome with joy at finding his lost pearl, and unable fully to understand the complicated things she says to him, the dreamer plunges into the river to swim toward her. He is desperate to “swymme the remnaunt, thagh I ther swalte”—to swim across, or die trying. This angers the ruler of the celestial land, called the Prince: the dreamer does not belong there. He is flung out of his dream as punishment. He wakes up, and the poem ends with a short meditation on the glory of God, and then the words “Amen. Amen.”
“Pearl” was written, of course, for a specific audience, and some of its symbols and techniques have become, for contemporary readers, barriers to understanding. The poet relies, for instance, on his readers’ detailed familiarity—and presumed sympathy—with the New Testament. The central image of the poem is taken from the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” The poet’s descriptions of the New Jerusalem, where his pearl lives after her earthly death, draw on the Book of Revelations. At one point, the girl delivers a long excursus on the parable of the vineyard, also from the Book of Matthew, in which all the laborers in a vineyard are paid the same amount of money, no matter what time of day they show up, as a way of explaining why a girl of two holds equal status in the New Jerusalem as the longest-lived nun. It’s an odd message for a modern reader, who is not likely to doubt the inherent worth of a two-year-old child.
And yet there is something about the very strangeness of the poem that magnifies its emotional power. When we look at a Byzantine mosaic, for instance, we may not grasp the precise meaning of its images without scholarly help—but that remoteness lends such artworks the marvellousness of something just beyond our understanding. In his new translation of “Pearl,” Simon Armitage, who is currently the Oxford Professor of Poetry, conveys that feeling of the almost-but-not-quite comprehensible, the feeling that can make medieval art at once eerie and wonderful.
Armitage previously translated “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” one of the three other poems contained in a document known as the Pearl Manuscript. (Its precise shelf mark—the bibliographic index that scholars use to cite rare papers—is London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x., which originally meant that you could find it, in Sir Robert Cotton’s library, by locating the bookshelf under the bust of Nero, then scanning for the tenth book on the top shelf.) Armitage has also translated “The Death of King Arthur” (another medieval work) and Homer, and he has adapted Euripides for the stage. But he is a decidedly modern poet—one of his first books is called “Zoom!”—albeit one who is known for his accessibility and his respect for the performative aspect of poetry. He also has a child, a daughter. While the dreamer of “Pearl” never says that the pearl is his daughter, he does explain that “Ho watz me nerre then aunte or nece,” meaning that she was closer to him than an aunt or a niece. Something about this connection, perhaps, has pulled Armitage toward the emotional heart of the poem.
The story of “Pearl” is simple, and the poem is, by late medieval standards, concise: just twelve hundred and twelve lines. But the language is complex, full of repetition, echo, and wordplay. Again and again, the poet throws a word up into the air, so to speak, and then sees how the light hits it as it falls into different positions. (As Sarah Stanbury writes in the introduction to her 2001 edition of the poem, 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.”) Each stanza has an ababababbcbc rhyme scheme and is structured by concatenation, so that “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,” as Armitage explains in his introduction. These repetitions are sometimes punning, sometimes mournfully dirge-like, or incantatory. Finally, the last line of the whole poem repeats words from the first line: “pearl,” “pleasing,” “prince.” This looping gesture, Armitage argues, makes the repetitions less like a set of echoes and more like the “spherical endlessness reminiscent of a pearl stone itself.”
Armitage allows “rhymes to occur as naturally as possible within sentences,” and he leaves the “poem’s musical orchestration to be performed by pronounced alliteration, looping repetition, and the quartet of beats in each line.” Consider these lines, from the fifth section of the poem, first in the original, and then in his translation (it helps to say them out loud, pronouncing the “E” at the end of the Middle English words):
Pensyf, payred, I am forpayned,
& thou in a lyf of lyking lyghte,
In paradys erde, of stryf unstrayed.
I am hollow with loss and harrowed by pain,
yet here you stand, lightened of all strife,
at peace in the land of Paradise.
There are more obvious modern cognates to the Middle English that Armitage could have chosen. “Pensyf” relates to the modern word “pensive,” etymologically, but semantically it doesn’t quite fit. Similarly, Armitage doesn’t force three “L” sounds into that second line, the way that it occurs in the original. Instead, the vowels in “lightened” and “strife” chime.
Armitage addresses these mechanical details matter-of-factly in his introduction—and he brings the same pragmatic approach to the question of whether the little girl of the poem ever existed. Fiction it may be, he grants, but “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.”
Armitage manages to communicate that “feel of the real” from across the gulf of centuries. The saddest part of the whole sad poem, for me, is when the dreamer has just caught sight of the girl. He can see “A mayden of menske ful debonere; / Blysnande whyt watz hyr bleant— / I knew hyr well, I hade sen her ere.” Armitage picks out that moment of recognition with heartbreaking care, as his dreamer spies “a noble girl, a young woman of grace, / wearing a gown of iridescent white. / And I knew her so well—I had seen her before.” First she’s a girl; then she’s a young woman in a dress; and then the dreamer realizes, with the full knowledge of emotion, not logic, that he “knew hyr well”—even before he can remember where he knows her from.
Armitage finds another moment in the poem more painful still: “the misplaced elation the dreamer experiences when he believes himself reunited with his child.” That’s when the dreamer wonders if the girl is really who he thinks she is. “ ‘Art thou my perle that I haf playned, / Regretted by myn one, on nyghte?’ ” (“ ‘Are you really my pearl, whose passing I mourn, / and grieve for alone through lonely nights?’ ”). It is her, but she can never come back. Armitage finds this initial joy “harder to bear than the weight of the grief.”
On the chance that “true sorrow and anguish do lie behind the poem,” Armitage offers his translation up “to the memory of the lost pearl, as a tribute to the poetic courage of her father, and as an act of condolence.” There is nothing historically contingent about a parent’s grief. The term “precious perle,” after all, doesn’t really say much about pearls; the pearl is just an object the poet finds on the way to describing preciousness.
Strange art of this kind can give voice to the inarticulable—and the difficulty of Middle English makes this paradox particularly clear. For most readers of this new “Pearl,” “luf-longyng” will not mean anything at first. But, by the end of the poem, via Armitage’s translation (“longing for her”) and the unfolding of the allegory, that sad phrase—literally, love-longing—makes emotional sense. Across centuries, across languages, from dreams into waking life: the speech of the heart invites translation of many kinds.