The Middle English Pearl

  • Colin Manlove


Strictly speaking Pearl (1375–95) is not a narrative but a visionary and consolatory episode,1 in which a man, lamenting the loss of a precious pearl — in part perhaps his daughter — is granted a vision of his pearl among the blessed in heaven, and bid to grieve no more. But as a piece of Christian supernaturalism, as a peculiar picture of the strong current of otherworldliness in medieval Christian literature already glimpsed in the Queste, and as a poem of rare beauty in its own right, it demands some consideration here.


Human Imagination Strong Current Opposite Bank Subjective Vision Precious Stone 
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  1. 1.
    On the backgrounds of the poem as ‘Vision of the Other World’ and ‘Consolatio’, respectively, see Thomas C. Niemann, ‘Pearl and the Christian Other World’, Genre, 7 (1974) 213–32;Google Scholar
  2. and John Conley, ‘Pearl and a Lost Tradition’, JEGP, 54 (1955) 332d–47,Google Scholar
  3. repr. in Conley (ed.), The Middle English ‘Pearl’: Critical Essays (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970) pp. 50–72.Google Scholar
  4. See also Howard Rollins Patch, The Other World: According to Descriptions in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950) chs 4, 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 2.
    References are to Pearl, ed. E. V. Gordon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953).Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    See Ian Bishop, ‘Pearl’ in its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968) pp. 51–61. Bishop, pp. 62–72, also finds present an ‘allegory of the poets’.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    On the pearl as symbol see also A. C. Spearing, ‘Symbolic and Dramatic Development in Pearl’, MP, 60 (1962) 1–12, repr. in Conley, Pearl, pp. 122–48;Google Scholar
  8. Patricia M. Kean, ‘The Pearl’: An Interpretation (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967) pp. 138–61; Bishop, ‘Pearl’ in its Setting, pp. 92–8.Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    It is even potentially heretical in the sense that the child was not even a late labourer: she never worked at all. On possible medieval precedent for this, see D. W. Robertson Jr, ‘The “Heresy” of The Pearl’, MLN, 65 (1950) 152–5, repr. in Conley, pp. 291–6; Bishop, pp. 122–5.Google Scholar
  10. 6.
    See also Wendell Stacy Johnson, ‘The Imagery and Diction of The Pearl: Toward an Interpretation’, ELH, 20 (1953), repr. in Conley, Pearl, pp. 46–9;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. and Charles Moorman, ‘The Role of the Narrator in Pearl’, MP, 53 (1955), repr. in Conley, Pearl, pp. 118, 120.Google Scholar
  12. 7.
    See for example Nikki Stiller, ‘The Transformation of the Physical in the Middle English Pearl’, ES, 63 (1982) 402–9.Google Scholar
  13. 8.
    There have been earlier suggestions that the dream expresses the psychology of the dreamer, but they tend to relate only to the ‘dreamlike’ structure and transitions of the poem: there is little idea of the content of the vision as symbolic expression of the moral nature of the dreamer. See Constance B. Hieatt, The Realism of Dream Visions: The Poetic Exploitation of the Dream-Experience in Chaucer and his Contemporaries (The Hague: Mouton, 1967) pp. 61–6;Google Scholar
  14. and A. C. Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) pp. 111–29.Google Scholar
  15. A recent partial exception on medieval dream-visions generally is J.A. Burrow, Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) pp. 206–12: Burrow remarks tentatively, for instance, of the second vision from the first part of Piers Plowman (V-VII) that the ‘quite unexpected twists in the allegorical fiction suggest imaginatively, it seems to me, the continuous corkscrewing movement of the spirit, adopting and then rejecting successive images, definitions and external observances as it works towards inwardness and truth.... The story and the meaning seem to interpenetrate, in a way that Neo-Romantic criticism is especially well fitted to describe’ (p. 212).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 9.
    There have been occasional remarks on the maiden’s coldness: for instance by Spearing, in Conley, Pearl, pp. 135, 138; by Kean, in The Pearl, pp. 198–9; and by Larry M. Sklute, in ‘Expectation and Fulfillment in Pearl, PQ, 52 (1973) 675. Kean, however, sees it as a function of the fact that she is ‘Reason’, and Sklute as an expression of her distance as a heavenly being from our merely human modes of feeling. No suggestion is made that her aspect expresses the dreamer’s way of seeing things.Google Scholar
  17. An exception here is Theodore Bogdanos, Pearl: Image of the Ineffable: A Study in Medieval Poetic Symbolism (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983) p. 87, which speaks of ‘the poets’ intentional accentuation of divine heartlessness... to elicit a powerful response in the reader as human sufferer. The poet wishes to heighten the dramatic tension between man in his frailty and the absolute, inscrutable decrees he must measure up to.’ My own interpretation of Pearl has, it should be said, certain affinities with Bogdanos’s fine account of the poem, particularly his treatment of the maiden’s parable and the picture of heaven; but Bogdanos is much more concerned to see the ‘unaccommodating’ aspects of the vision from the point of view of God’s ineffability rather than the dreamer’s particular frailty.Google Scholar
  18. 12.
    On the poem as a subversive, self-consuming artifact which continually tests the reader by undermining his espousal of the rational see Howard V. Hendrix, ‘Reasonable Failure: “Pearl” Considered as a Self-Consuming Artifact of “Gostly Porpose”’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 86 (1985) 458–66.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    On the significance of the stones see Milton R. Stern, ‘An Approach to The Pearl’, JEGP, 54 (1955), repr. in Conley, Pearl, p. 84. Stern notes latent significance in the three precious stones specified in the stream-bed (p. 81).Google Scholar
  20. 15.
    Previous commentators have seen it as a three-stage ascent reflective of the gradations of the narrator’s spiritual development: thus Louis Blenkner, OSB, ‘The Theological Structure of Pearl, Traditio, 24 (1968) 43–75 [repr. in Conley, Pearl, pp. 220–71], and The Pattern of Traditional Images in Pearl, SP, 68 (1971) 26–49;Google Scholar
  21. John Finlayson, ‘Pearl: Landscape and Vision’, SP, 71 (1974) 314–43; Stiller, in ES, 63.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Colin Manlove 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin Manlove
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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