Pearl: Middle English Poem - Summary and Analysis

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      In the same manuscript with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are found other remarkable poems written about 1350 and known to us as Pearl, Purity and Patience is an intensely human and realistic picture of a father's grief for his little daughter Margaret. It is the saddest of all early English poems. On the grave of his little one, the father falls asleep and sees vision. In spirit, he comes upon a stream which he cannot cross and wanders along the bank. He sees the vision of a crystal cliff beneath which he is seated, a maiden who raises a happy bright face - the face of his little Margaret. She comes to him and tells him of the happy life of Heaven. Then the heart of the man cries out for his own and he struggles to cross the stream to join her. In the struggle, the dream vanishes.


Critical Analysis

      The poem is allegorical and tells of a vision in which the poet seeks his precious pearl. Its allegory has been variously interpreted. The traditional view sees the poem as an elegy in which the poet grieves for the death of his two-year-old daughter and is consoled by her in a vision of common medieval type. This view was challenged by Schofield in 1904 who denied the autobiographical interpretation and suggested that the poet was upholding the virtue of purity under the symbolism of Pearl. The Pearl has been taken as symbolizing the Eucharist and more recently as recording a state of spiritual dryness experienced by the poet. There is symbolism in incidental ways in the poem, and the problems of divine grace and the equality of heavenly rewards constitute the major theme for discussion. The poem treats certain aspects of salvation in the framework of personal elegy employing the medieval conventions of vision and debate.

      It has highly alliterative lines with four accents in a very marked iambic rhythm. The poem here mainly glorifies purity and innocence and at the same time a human emotion. The poem vibrates with sincere pathos. The poet adopts the difficult and complicated stanza (twelve-lined octosyllabic stanza) in order to express his wealth of imagination. The stanza has twelve lines as rigorously disposed as the lines of a sonnet. It is indeed a sonnet which concluded with two couplets. Further, the hundred stanzas of the poem are in groups of five, associated, because the last line of the first of them recurs in the others like a refrain. The unknown author who is also credited with the composition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is indeed the one genius of the age who stands between Cynewulf and Chaucer as the worthy follower of one and the forerunner of the other. In its sensuous beauty, its art pattern, its difficult metrical pattern and its imagery of the 'crystal' and pearl, it is unsurpassed by any in Middle English Literature.

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