The anonymous poem Pearl, is one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature. It was composed in the West Midlands region of England at the end of the 14th century and written down at the start of the 15th. It only survives in one manuscript – the same manuscript which contains the unique copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The poem is a moving work about grief and loss, complete with vivid imagery. In it, the narrator, distraught at the loss of his ‘perle’, falls asleep and wakes in a garden with a jewelled stream. Looking across the stream he sees a beautiful maiden in white robes stitched with pearls. After a time, he realises that this woman is his dead two-year-old daughter. They engage in a discussion, as he attempts reconcile his grief for her. The poem culminates in a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, derived from the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. In this final part of the poem the dreamer sees his daughter as a bride of Christ.
Some time after the texts were copied some images were added to the empty pages between the poems. They are not the work of a great artist: the figures are awkward, with oversized heads, and the use of perspective is rudimentary. But the visual character of the manuscript is not why generations of scholars have been captivated by it – it is the linguistic finesse and metrical dexterity of the poems that makes the manuscript one of the most important in the British Library’s collections.
Pearl has an astoundingly complicated structure and makes use of the symbolism of numbers, or ‘numerology’. The poem is 1,212 lines long and is composed of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem which is 12 furlongs long, and to its 12 gates, each of which are set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 – the same number of stanzas contained in Gawain.
The poet uses a number of rhyme schemes in the poem. It is end-rhymed, but also contains internal, alliterative rhymes within the unit of the lines themselves. As well as this, it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a ‘concatenation’ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. The first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous one – the final line of the poem echoing the first, and this connection between the first and last lines creates a circular, round structure – echoing the poem’s subject. Simon Armitage, who translated the poem in 2016, writes that this is ‘a sort of poetic passing of the baton’. As in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is thought to be by the same author, the use of such sophisticated rhyme schemes over 1212 lines is a demonstration of the poet’s skill.