Pearl, its Source MS., Structure, and Themes

Source: British Library MS. Cotton Nero A.x (unique), where it is the first of four alliterative poems written in West Midlands dialect (Pearl, Pacience [Jonah], Cleanesse [Falls of Lucifer & Adam; Flood; Abraham and Sarah; Lot & his family; destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Nebuchadnezzar's profanation of the vessels & punishment; Belshazzar's feast & doom; Daniel on Nebuchadnezzar's conversion; concluding peroration], and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). All emphasize moral issues, expressing spiritual values in courtly and chivalric terms, especially those unique to its local dialect.

Manuscript: MS Cotton Nero A.x has been digitized and is available for free on the Web at  Pearl is the first poem in the sequence, beginning after the four full-page illuminations of scenes from the poem.  Because there is only one manuscript, and because the poem contains some apparent flaws in its otherwise beautifully complex construction, you might want to look at the manuscript leaves on which the "flaws" occur.  Several of the flaws, perhaps all of them, appear to be intentional errors related to the main themes of the poem.

Genre and Plot: dream vision; dialogue in a bejewelled landscape between Dreamer and "Pearl" separated by a swift-flowing river; Dreamer's understanding of Pearl's identity shifts from his lost pearl to his lost daughter to (perhaps) his lost faith or soul, or perhaps all of our souls; Pearl's instruction of the Dreamer leads him from despair and disputation to a vision of the Eschaton's marriage of souls/maidens with God, the rise of the New Jerusalem, and the end of time (Revelation books 7 and 19-22)

Structure: 101 stanzas, all but one in five-stanza groups (group XV=6), comprising twenty groups which contain 1212 lines, arranged in 12 four-stress alliterating lines in each stanza.

Rhyme scheme: ababababbcbc; the "c" rhyme words often are thematically important, and the last word in the last stanza in each group is among the first words in the next.

"Link" words/phrases: I-"spot"; II-"adubbemente" [enobling splendor]; III-"more and more"; IV-"pyght" [adorned] except #2, "umbethyghte" [set round with]; V-"X + juelere" [joylez, gentyl, no kynde, weren joyful, may no joyful]; VI-"deme"; VII-"grounde of alle my blysse"; VIII-"Quen of cortaysye" [except #5, D's rebellion, "kyng by cortayse'"]; IX-"date"; X-"more"; XI-"grete inoghe"; XII "ryght" [saf and, saf by, saf by, not by, saf by]; XIII- "maskellez" [spotless]; XIV-"Jerusalem"; XV-"never the les" [except #5, "neverthelese"]; XVI-"wythouten mote" [without spot, except #2, "myry mote," dialect play on "city"]; XVII-"the apostel John" [i.e., St. John, Apocalypse]; XVIII-"mone" [moon, play on month in #4]; XIX-"delyt" [delight, powerful urging]; XX- "paye" [pleasure, pleasing].

Sound Files:

Symmetry and Plot Development:

I & XX take place in the Garden, Dreamer is alone

II to IV describe an Earthly paradise vs. XVII to XIX New Jerusalem

V to XVI contains the debate between Dreamer and Pearl

V to VIII-Dreamer's errors; Pearl's rebuttal

IX to XII-Pearl's parable of Vineyard; doctrine of grace

XII to XVI-application of parable & doctrine to Dreamer, to souls in New Jerusalem.

XVII to XIX contains Dreamer's vision of New Jerusalem drawn from Apocalypse of St. John, leading to "delyt"

XX Dreamer tries to cross the river, fails, is returned to Garden and awakens alone, saddened/saved/doomed/resigned?

Concatenating Link Words and Phrases:  each stanza-ending phrase eventually chains the stanza group at its end to the first phrase of the next group (except for XII to XIII, which substitutes "Jesus" for "Ryght" in the MS):

I.    "withouten spot" (spotless ["clean"] or placeless ["nowhere," like one of Utopia's meanings])

II.    "adubbement" (adornment, splendor, ritual elevation in courtly rank [being "dubbed" a knight])

III.    "more and more" (what it looks like, mirroring the Dreamer's rapidly amplifying mental state "more and more")

IV.    "py3t" (pron. "pight" rhymes with ModE "kite"--adorned, beautified, stuck, placed)

V.    "jueler" (jeweler--successively modified "joylez," "gentyl," "no kynde," "joyfol," "no joyfol")

VI.    "deme" (judge, evaluate--successively modified by who judges: an unbeliever, God, "men," God, and God)

VII.    "my blysse" (my bliss or joy, but also, blessing)

VIII.    "quene of cortaysye" (queen of or by courtesy, noble behavior, proper manners, rightfulness, but varied in the fifth ["deficient," l. 472] stanza to "king by cortaysye")

IX.    "date" (limit, time-point, beginning, end, ModE "date," season, rank, and mod. "dere a," "dere şe," "no," "passed," "apassed"

X.    "more" (ModE "more," and mod. "to take," "and ask," "much şe," to-3ere," şe lasse şe more")

XI.    "God is gret innoghe" (God is great enough, but in the fourth stanza describing the Incarnation and Crucifixion as remedies for Adam's Fall, "God wex [grew] great enough")

XII.    "by ryght" (right, just, justice, righteous, justified by faith, the first stanza modified "saf and ryght," and the concatenation to XIII seemingly "broken" by the substitution of "Jesus" in l. 721, see Finch note p. 351)

XIII.    "maskellez" (spotless, flawless--stanza about biblical "Pearl of Great Price," Matthew 13: 45-6)

XIV.    "Jerusalem" ("in" except for first stanza, "o" [of], and last stanza "In helle, in earşe, and")

XV.    "never şe lesse" (never less except stanza five, "neverşelesse," as in "in spite of that," "all the same")

XVI.    "wythouten mote" (spotless, unblemished, except stanza 3 "myry mote" or "merry spot/place/city" l. 935)

XVII.    "şe apostel John" (the Apostle John, brother of James, identified by Medieval theologians as the same John who wrote both the fourth gospel and the "evangelist" or later teacher who wrote Revelation on the island of Patmos--it is in the latter text that the vision of the New Jerusalem occurs)

XVIII.    "mone" (moon, mod. "nawşer sunne ne," "sunne and," "spot anvnder," "vche a," and "loste anvnder")

XIX.    "gret delyt" (great delight, but mod. in stanza four and five to "hadde had" and "luf-longyng in gret")

XX.    "paye" (please, satisfy, pay, pleasure, mod. "my Pryncez paye" in stanza one, "şat Pryncez paye" in two and three, "Şy paye" in four, and "His pay" in five, the last words of the poem and linked to the end of the first line of the poem, "Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye")

Structural Anomalies: missing line in Group VIII, stanza 5 (l. 472) where the Dreamer begins to doubt Pearl's high status in the New Jerusalem because she died before having performed many good works; Group XV, "extra" stanza 6 (ll. 901-912) begins the Dreamer's request that he be allowed to ask where the blessed souls live in New Jerusalem (overflows into XVI, 913-72), which leads in turn to his request to cross the river and to enter Heaven before his time (XX, 1153-76); "broken" concatenation between stanza groups XII and XIII when the first line of XIII substitutes "Jesus" for the link word, "ryght."  Faulty capitalization of the first word in a stanza which does not begin Group XVI (l. 961--the capitalized word is "Motelez" or "spotless," "perfect").  See Finch's edition for notes discussing how various scholars have suggested that these interpretive cruces might be resolved.