There's a crack - a crack in everything. That's where the light gets in.
Pearl is a 14th-century religious dream poem of 1212 lines found in the same manuscript as the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with Cleanness (which is on cleanliness) and Patience (about Jonah). The manuscript in which the poem survives is known as Cotton Nero A.x, so called because it came from Sir Robert Cotton's legendary library, in which manuscripts took their shelf mark from the emperor's bust on the top of their shelf, viz. Beowulf at Cotton. Vitellius A xv. Other Cotton manuscripts include the Magna Carta and the Doomsday Book. All the Cotton manuscripts are now property of the British Library. Pearl is titled arbitrarily, as are all the poems in the Gawain manuscript. Authorship is similarly unknown. We assume a single author for all four texts (I think people have done stylistic and metric analysis) and we refer to this author as 'the Gawain poet' because that is just how little we know about them. Except that they came from the West Midlands.
The poem is very structurally sophisticated indeed. The 1212 lines are made up of 101 stanzas of 12 lines each, and is in alliterative metre: this means that at least one alliteration occurs in line across the caesura. The stanzas are in nineteen groups of five and one group of six. There's also a rhyme scheme: a b a b a b a b b c b c. To give you an example of how the text looks, here is the first stanza:
Perle, pleasaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her syde3 were,
Quere-so-euer I jugged gemme3 gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglere.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þur3 gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle wythouten spot.
If I were to take some liberties for clarity's sake and not worry about the rhyming or the alliteration, this would be, roughly:
Pearl, most pleasant to a prince's pay,
To cleanly enclose in gold so clear
Out of the Orient, I hardly dare to say,
Was never found her precious peer.
So round, so rich in such array,
So small, so smooth her sides were,
Where-so-ever I found gems so gay
I set her above in singularity.
Alas! I lost her in this garden!
From grass to ground it from me got.
I pine, wracked with heart-sickness
For that precious pearl without spot.
As you can see, some lines read easily to the modern eye, some less so. Knowing that the thorn character, Þ/þ, is pronounced 'th' helps: thus 'smoþe' is 'smothe' - or 'smooth'. Each of the poem's twenty stanza groupings has a link word. Though there are exceptions, this word appears at the start and end of each 12-line stanza, and then at start of the next grouping. So 'spot' is the first link word, and appears at line 61, the first line of the second section as 'Fro spot my spyryt þer sprang in space;'. For similar techniques, see John Donne's The Wreath. Also, the last section's word, 'paye', appears in the first line. See what he's done there? Over each section the link word is made to work pretty hard, and each takes on a multivalent fertility as another facet of the poem's subject.
So what is the poem's subject? Reading between the lines, the poem is a lament by a father for his lost daughter. She was lost to him, we learn, when only two years old. Whilst he is mourning his loss, he falls asleep on a grassy knoll where we can assume that his daughter is buried and begins to dream. In his dream he is transported to an extraordinary garden - blue trees with pearlescent leaves. He comes to a river and on the other side of it glimpses an extraordinarily beautiful woman, the Pearl Maiden, whom he realises, eventually, is his grown-up daughter and a bride of Christ. He desires her in peculiar terms, not least of which emotionally, epistemologically and, until he realises that he is her father there is some aesthetic admiration that just avoids eroticisation.
She does not go easy on her old man, and spends her time rebuking him for his ignorance. She teaches him about sin, atonement and the risen life and eventually shows him in a dream-within-a-dream vision the city of Jerusalem, fantastically adorned with diamonds, jaspers, onyx and sapphires. In it the Lamb of Christ, still with his pierced side on display and bleeding, marches - with his 144000 maidens march triumphantly. Now that's big pimpin'. The relevant passage in Revelations is specific about the number of maidens involved. To be honest, the maiden is pretty harsh to her dad, who loves her and wants her back and cannot understand that she is risen and saved (withouten spot) and that he is not: that it is he who is lost, not her. After his vision, he is overcome with longing for the Maiden and plunges into the river to cross and reach her. As he enters the water, he falls into wakefulness at resolves to take communion and devote all that he has to the Lord, giving 'precious perle3 vnto his pay'.
So. A pearl is a beautiful, impenetrable, unseeable object - formed around a piece of grit. This poem, with its perfectly flawed numerology, is like that: the dreamer's mistake, his misunderstanding in trying to cross the river to his daughter, is his salvation in that it permits him a life of godliness. I haven't even touched on the allegorical signifances of the Maiden or on - the extraordinary beauty of this poem. Don't get me wrong - it's a very smart poem and someone at the top of their craft produced this, and I am just holding back from the Henry James comparison paragraph. But more than cleverness, Pearl reverberates with a powerfully felt loss. The poem's faith isn't unempathetic: it insists on the necessity of pain and meditation to growth and to humanity. The poem speaks more clearly about grief and redemption than you would think over its distance of seven hundred years.
Go and buy the beautiful edition just published by Victor Watts. It has gold flypapers - clanly clos in gold so clere.