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Notes on the ME Pearl

Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn

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Even more than with most poems, Pearl’s formal and thematic structures are tightly integrated. For a graphic representation of the poem’s closed symmetry, see Pearl: Closure & Symmetry.

A. Formal Structure

  1. Sections: The poem has twenty sections, each containing five stanzas (except section XV [stanzas 71-76], which has six); stanzas are of twelve lines each, rhyming ABABABABBCBC.
  2. Linking Words (1): The stanzas within each section are linked by words or phrases set in the last verse of the first stanza in each group and then appearing in the first and last lines of the remaining stanzas. (This is called concatenation; see the list below.)

    The larger sections are linked to one another by the repetition of the linking word or phrase from one section in the first line of the next section. In one instance only does this linking system fail—between sections XII and XIII (i.e., lines 720 and 721, stanzas 60 and 61). The links are sound links, primarily, as one may see in the link of innoghe / now between lines 612 and 613 (stanzas 51 and 52): these words rhymed in the fourteenth century.

    The links do seem to be thematically significant at times, too: e.g., section VII (stanzas 31-35) links with “grounde of alle my blysse,” a phrase uttered by both the Dreamer and the Pearl; that which is denoted by the phrase in each case significantly contrasts the values or at least the level of spiritual development of the two. In the second stanza of this section (st. 34, lines 383-84), the Dreamer claims that Christ’s mercy (etc.) is the ground of all his bliss; but in the first stanza (st. 31, lines 371-72), the Pearl is the ground of bliss, and in the third (st. 33, lines 393-96), the Pearl’s good estate is the ground of his bliss. For the Pearl, on the other hand, the “chere” (Tolkien translates “mien”) loved by the Lamb is ground of bliss (st. 34, lines 407-08); and in the fifth stanza (st. 35, lines 419-20), “Hys prese, hys prys, and hys parage / Is rote and grounde of all my blysse.” The child’s “grounde of blysse,” then, is certainly more immediately “Lamb-centered” (and more stable) than the Dreamer’s. Unlike the Pearl, the Dreamer, even when he refers his happiness to Christ, must do so in a desperate way (lines 381-84); in addition, he makes no difference in level or value (if we can trust these links) between Christ’s mercy (st. 31) and the “astate” of the child (st. 33). (See O. D. Macrae-Gibson, “Pearl: The Link-Words and the Thematic Structure,” rpt. in Conley, ed., The Middle English Pearl: Critical Essays. See also Andrew & Waldron’s notes to each section.)

  3. Linking Words (2): The poem, of course, turns full circle in its linking words: the last part of line 1—“Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye”—becomes the linking phrase for section XX (sts. 97-101, lines 1164, 1176, 1188, 1189, 1200-01), and, in an almost pure echo of line 1, beautifully concludes the poem: “And precious perlez vnto his pay” (st. 101, line 1212).
  4. Linking Images: A symmetrically linking image—that of the bright river—connects the early part of the poem with the end. The Dreamer reaches the water in section II (st. 9, lines 107-08): “I wan to a water by schore þat scherez; / Lorde, dere watz hit adubbement!” And though the river is present throughout the poem, its source and glory again become particularly important in section XVIII (st. 88, lines 1055-56): “A reuer of þe trone þer ran outryȝte / Watz bryȝter þen boþe þe sunne and mone.” Finally, of course, the Dreamer awakens when he in a frenzy tries to cross the stream before his time (see section XX, sts. 97-98, lines 1169-70).

B. Thematic Structure

Thematically, the poem has three main parts, the second part being “subtripartite.”

  1. Introduction (sections I-IV, sts. 1-20, lines 1-240): The Dreamer introduces his grief, falls into his dream, and sees the child.
  2. Dialogue (sections V-XVI, sts. 21-81, lines 241-972):
    1. Rebuke (V-VII/VIII, sts. 21-35/40, lines 241-420/480): § V (sts. 21-25): Pearl instructs “jeweler” and rebukes him for three things: (1) relying on senses alone (lines 295-96), (2) presuming to decide he can stay (lines 297-98), and (3) brashly assuming he can cross the water freely (“fre”; lines 299-300). (But see also the Jeweler’s statements of inadequacy, lines 145-56.); § VI (sts. 26-30): Again, the Jeweler’s “judgment” and presumption are taken to task; § VII (sts. 31-35): Dreamer’s attitude seems to begin changing (see links), and the Pearl’s tone also changes.
    2. Parable and Lessons (VIII/IX-XIII.744, sts. 36/41-62, lines 421/481-744): This is the center of the poem and contains most of the doctrinal discussion. The parable takes up sections IX-X (sts. 41-50), based on Matt. 20:1-16. Section XI, st. 51, is the thematic core of the poem.
    3. “Heaven” (XIII.745-XVI, sts. 63-81, lines 745-972): This section of the dialogue begins with the Dreamer’s avowal that “Þy beauté com neuer of nature” and is primarily a discussion of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalems and of the harmonious life of the latter.
  3. Heavenly Vision (XVII-XIX, sts. 82-96, lines 973-1152) and Resolution (XX, sts. 97-101, lines 1153-1212): Stanza 100 (lines 1189-1200), the penultimate stanza, summarizes the theme of the poem, concurring with the other poems by the Gawain-poet: that God’s ways and will are inscrutable and should not be gainsayed even when they appear unreasonable:

    Lorde, mad hit arn þat agayn þe stryuen,
    Oþer proferen þe oȝt agayn þy paye.

    As A. C. Spearing has remarked, these poems isolate “the central fact of the human condition: that man lives in a world he did not make, and is at the mercy of non-human powers” (The Gawain-Poet 31). In the face of such a world and such a God, the poem ends, not in conversion (as some have held), but in acceptance.

C. Concatenation Words/Phrases

Section Word/Phrase
I (stanzas 1-5) wythouten spot 'without spot'
II (sts. 6-10) adubbement 'adornment'
III (sts. 11-15) more and more
IV (sts. 16-20) pyȝt 'set, fixed, adorned (with gems)'
V (sts. 21-25) juelere 'jeweler'
VI (sts. 26-30) deme '(to) judge, deem'
VII (sts. 31-35) grounde of alle my blysse
VIII (sts. 36-40) Quen of cortaysye 'queen of courtesy'
IX (sts. 41-45) dere þe date 'noble/costly the end [= point to reach]'
X (sts. 46-50) more
XI (sts. 51-55) þe grace of god is gret inoghe 'the grace of God is great enough'
XII (sts. 56-60) ry3t 'right, justification (?)' and innosent 'innocent'
XIII (sts. 61-65) perle ma(s)kelles 'spotless/matchless pearl'
XIV (sts. 66-70) Jerusalem
XV (sts. 71-76) neuer þe less
XVI (sts. 77-81) mote 'city' and 'spot'
XVII (sts. 82-86) apostel John
XVIII (sts. 87-91) sunne and mone/mone
XIX (sts. 92-96) gret delyt 'great delight'
XX (sts. 97-101) princes paye 'prince's pleasure'

Some Paradoxes in Pearl §§VIII-XIII

Two Biblical Reference Points

John 12:24-25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

I Cor. 1:27-28: “. . . but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . . .”

Paradox in Pearl


§ IX

§ X

§ XI