Introduction to Pearl: Points of Connection to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

          As we shift poetic modes to Pearl, it might help to compare its stanza structure with the stanzas of SGGK.  The Gawain romance's "bob and wheel" stanzas begin with longer unrhymed, usually three-stress alliterating narrative stanzas of varying line lengths.  These long, unrhymed line groups connect to compressed, often witty commentary that occurs in the one-foot "bob" and the four line, trimeter "wheel," all five line of which rhyme "ababa."  If you do close reading analysis of passages from the poem, pay attention to what the narrator drops into the bob-and-wheel.  Pearl, by contrast, is made up of 12-line stanzas, eleven of which rhyme "abababababa."  What's with the twelfth line?  It ends in a "link word or phrase" by which it "concatenates" or is chained to the first words or phrases of the following stanza.  Stanzas occur in five-stanza groups, each of which is unified by a thematic link-word that is relevant to what is being debated or described.  See the first reading's Web page for Pearl for a list of the link words and you will see they outline a pattern of thematic development that parallels the Dreamer's emotions in his psychological encounter with his vision's guide figure, the enigmatic entity critics tend to call the "Pearl-Maiden."  In the poem, she has no name and parries each of the Dreamer's attempts to identify her.  She has, it would appear, gone to a place where some kinds of language no longer make sense to the Dreamer, or perhaps to us.  The poem's numerological program has been widely discussed by critics, and at least two assert that the entire manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x) is unified by a numerological scheme (Condren 2002, and Edwards 2004).  I do not go so far, but I do think that Pearl is undeniably concerned with numbers, and perhaps geometry, as a way to understand things inexplicable in ordinary language.  If SGGK uses the dialogue between Gawain and the Host's Wife to shift the terms of the original beheading game "forward" or agreement, in Pearl a dialogue between a man and a woman is the poem's entire dramatic focus.  In both, the woman knows things that the man cannot know, but would dearly desire to know.  How she "tells him" and how he "asks" will frustrate and fulfill that desire to know.  In SGGK, the answers might affect one man's fate or the reputation of Arthur's court.  In Pearl, the answers definitely affect the Dreamer's fate, but also, perhaps, our own.