Pearl’s Hyperbola/e and God’s Spotless Spot: Beautiful Excess and Deficiency

Arnold Sanders, Associate Professor of English, Goucher College

Medieval Institute International Congress, 2013

        This session’s theme, “New Perspectives on Pearl,” uses an optical metaphor which seems peculiarly applicable to the Dreamer’s vision problems.  He wants to see a perfect thing, but must use imperfect sight in order to apprehend what he desires to see and imperfect language in order to negotiate and report the vision to his readers.  The resulting poem bears the signs of these tensions between perfection and imperfection, signs in the poem’s content that are wedded to imperfections in its form.  I promise to try to limit this sort of riddling speech, but it is the price I must pay for trying to describe the poem as a manuscript and as a reader’s experience using academic prose.  Perhaps when I get to the geometry, things will appear more clearly.  For now, even textually purist New Critics would approve if I said that the poem’s aesthetic tensions between perfection and imperfection, divine and mortal, absence and presence, seek resolution in metaphors and formal strategies which create a marvelous proliferation of significance from the textual meaning of a single work of art. 

        Reader-response critics, who distinguish between the text as a program or “sheet music” for the mind and the “poem” which results from readers’ performance of the text, can give us a more radical way to view Pearl’s challenge to interpretation.[1]  The poem contains a “synchronic” meaning which is generally stable for most readers, though interpretive cruces are still numerous enough for ambiguity, irony and paradox to play their familiar roles in generating pluralities of sense.  The “diachronic” reading process, which follows the poem’s unfolding in time, discovers still other polysemous events as readers bump into three seeming errors of construction in the otherwise intricately rigorous form.  For a poem created with such close attention to formal perfection in its numerically precise stanza structure, concatenating link words between stanza groups, and stanza group structure, these three major imperfections in the sole surviving manuscript of Pearl are a striking challenge.  Readers can experience the poem as a dramatic event with three crises produced by the deficiency in stanza structure, the error in concatenation, and the excess in stanza group structure.  Our presence in this room today, and the sheer volume of scholarship on the poem, are a testimony to our general agreement that the poem is not a sadly flawed experiment in over-complex formal novelty.  I hope to persuade you that Pearl’s meanings continue to delight and instruct us because its three instances of deficiency, error, and excess are as necessary to the poem’s beauty as its imaginary shape, usually described as a 1212-line poem composed of twelve-line stanzas in five-stanza groups linked to one another by significantly concatenating words and phrases.  Pearl both is and is not that poem.

        Pearl’s missing line 472, which mars the poem’s numerical structure and linear geometry, has been described by many scholars as an intentional imperfection (Carlson, Condren, Edwards).  I have not been able to find any published critics who have discussed the dramatic cause of the line’s absence, a rhetorical trope that derives its modern name from the same Greek root as a geometric form: hyperbole and hyperbola, from the Greek “hyper”+”ballein,” “to throw over” or “to over-throw.”  The Dreamer leaps over the missing line to tell the Pearl-maiden, in line 473, “Thyself in heven over hygh thou heve,” that is, he asserts that she commits hyperbole or over-reaches in her description of her status as a queen in heaven.  The Dreamer’s charge is, itself, a hyperbolic act, over-reaching to substitute his faulty knowledge for her knowledge of the divine, and this hasty leap causes the missing line most editions assign the number “472.”  [Slide 2—folio 45v whole]   If we examine the facsimile of Cotton Nero A.x folio 45 verso, we see that the page contains three otherwise complete stanzas, the typical mise-en-page of all the leaves.  The “missing line” does not occur at the top of the page where a scribe’s “eye-skip” error might have omitted it as he began his new leaf.  [Slide 3—folio 45v “472 stanza” closeup]  A close-up of the stanza in facsimile reveals no damage to the document, only a faint crux marked beside line 471 by some later reader who may have been puzzled by the formal omission in the otherwise coherent syntax of the stanza. 

        Although some editors invent their own lines to supply 472’s deficiency, many editors now ask us to accept an “absent” line 472 as one of our compensatory strategies to enable the imaginary existence of the perfected 1212-line poem.  I believe that decision is correct because Pearl’s logic and rhetoric consistently bring beauty into being through imperfections.  The fruit of this error is the Pearl-maiden’s explanation of the Parable of the Vineyard, which begins to enlighten the Dreamer and the readers almost immediately as an explanation of the peculiar moral economy that “pays” the newly arrived worker the same rate as the veteran.  When measured by fourteenth-century English laborers’ logic, this reward is unfair, but when the explanation measures the novice’s and the veteran’s rewards in terms of an inexhaustible supply of moral capital, the explanation transmits more than just an economic paradox.  Because of the Dreamer’s hyperbolic rhetoric, readers have been given a way to imagine infinity.  As Julian of Norwich says, “sin is behovley.”  Had the Dreamer not committed the hyperbole, the Pearl-Maiden would not have been moved to explain the parable.  [MS illumination slide] 

        The Dreamer’s rhetorical hyperbole, his “over hygh . . . heve[ing],” occurs in a dramatic situation that physically separates him from the Pearl-maiden by a river that also represents a theological division that the poem’s manuscript illustrates twice.  [Hyperbola Slide] The two speakers’ locations on opposite sides of a space they are forbidden to cross, but across which they must communicate, also physically resembles the twin foci of a geometric hyperbola, two lines that curve toward and away from each other without touching.  [Conic Section Slide]  The hyperbola is one of four shapes that a flat plane can carve out of a cone, the other three being the circle, ellipse, and parabola.  Known since the fourth century BCE Greek mathematician, Archimedes, the hyperbola was given its name by Apollonius, a geometer and mathematician of the next generation (Cooke 277, 304-5).    Knowledge of conic sections was preserved in Arabic and Greek manuscripts, and were referred to by authors better known to medieval European scholars like Ptolemy and Pappus (Cooke 305).  Although the Greek terms, “hyperbole” and “hyperbola,” do not enter recorded English usage until 1529 and 1668, the concepts may have been known to English mathematicians such as Nicoli Oresme (1320-25-1382) and the mathematician and theologian, Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349), both of Merton College, Oxford.  I have found no direct link between Pearl and the “Oxford calculators,” as they were known, but I will conclude this talk with some comparisons between the poem’s discussion and use of imperfections like hyperbole and the mathematicians’ attempts to trace God’s creation in number, logic and form.

        Once we accept the possibility that line 472’s absence might be a deliberate flaw designed to dramatically disrupt readers’ performance of the poem in a symbolic fashion, the poem’s other two major imperfections of form can be shown to work in the same way.  [Fol. 48v-49r slide]  David Carlson has argued for the existence of a perfecting imperfection in the “failed” concatenating link word in the first line (721) of stanza group XIII, where the manuscript’s readers encounter “Iesus” instead of the expected link word, “Ryght” (Carlson 760-2).  In the previous stanza group, the Pearl-maiden has just answered the Dreamer’s earth-bound insistence upon the importance of “ryght” as the standard by which the order of Heaven must be judged, telling him that in the divine court’s judgment he will be “tryed / By innocens and not by ryght” (706-7).  The final stanza before the link word’s seeming mistake introduces both the importance of readers’ performance of the text and the speech of Jesus as the final authority in the matter—“Ryghtwysly quo con rede, / He loke on bok and be awayed / [ . . . ] The innocent is ay saf by ryght” (709-10, 720).   [Fol. 48v l. 720-Fol. 49r l. 721-4 slide]  That last word is the connection to the manuscript’s link word, “Iesus,” which appears just where the poem’s formal perfection would demand words which read “Ryght con calle to Hym Hys mylde, / And sayde Hys ryche no sygh might wynne / Bot he com thyder ryght as a chylde” (721-3).  The scribe’s enthusiastic capital “I” leaves little doubt that the word is intentional and not a dubious reading.  In the scribe’s hand, the words “right” and “Iesus” look nothing like each other.  This paraphrase of Matthew 13 uses pronouns referring “Hym,” “Hys” and “he,” that make sense only with a human referent, the so-called “mistaken” link-word, “Iesus.”  I believe we must conclude that the reader who “Ryghtwysly . . .  con rede, / [his] bok” will see both the visible “Iesus” of the manuscript and the invisible “Ryght” demanded by competent performance of the poem’s formal plan.[2]  Once again, the physical poem’s seeming imperfection can lead readers to a performed poem of greater perfection only if they accept the flawed concatenation as a price worth paying for a higher meaning.  [Fol. 38r-v slide]

        Similarly, the “otiose” sixth stanza in group XV over-reaches in the Dreamer’s hyperbolic declaration of mortal weakness, adding twelve lines to the only imperfect stanza group and overflowing for two more stanzas into group XVI.  Most recent scholars follow E. V. Gordon in identifying lines 901-912 as the third formal flaw.  The lines begin, but do not fully contain, the Dreamer’s interrogation of the Pearl-maiden immediately following her description of the 144,000 voices’ heavenly song that unites them to the Lamb as a “motles meny” (l. 899).   His admission of mortal imperfection spills over into stanza group XVI’s first two stanzas to ask for the sight of New Jerusalem through which the poem’s final flowering of ecstatic vision achieves existence.  [Fol. 51v ll. 901-19 slide]  No marginal crux marks the manuscript, and the manuscript’s mise-en-page follows the same three-stanza-per-page layout we see on all other pages.  The imperfect stanza has at its center lines 905 to 908, the Dreamer’s admission of his own mortal imperfection and his recognition of the Maiden’s immortalized perfection, both of which are the rationale for why she should grant his request. 

I am bot mokke and mul among,
And thou so ryche a reken rose
And bydes here by thys blysful bonc
Ther lyves lyste may never lose.

The Dreamer’s metaphorical admission of mortality repeats the poem’s initial description of the physical Pearl’s descent into rotting earth.  Group I’s descent into corruption was necessary for his first vision, the stunning riot of summer flowers which carried him away to the vision’s next level.  In group XV’s reiteration of the motif, the Dreamer shows he has learned from the Pearl-Maiden to use a language of double entendre.  To attempt to bridge the gap between her understanding and his, he speaks of mortality and divinity, the fallen and the risen, in metaphors of mud and roses.

            The vision which generated the poem we are reading, therefore, comes to us via the “mokke and mul” of the Dreamer’s perception and the poem’s marred form.  The clarity born of his mortal confession occurs in an excessive stanza made of fallen language that strives toward revelation of that which it can perceive but not fully reveal.  The Maiden’s divine response to the Dreamer’s earthly confession allows the poem to approach its most beautiful shape, the 1212 lines of its imaginary form in readers’ minds, or the 1211 lines of its real but imperfect manuscript form.  Readers are invited to see both poems at once, but they cannot hold either poem without awareness of the other one.  This paradox is produced by our urge to partake in the poem’s striving toward perfection as we perform its imaginary union of the dual arcs of dialog.  One speaker addresses perfection from imperfection, while the other address imperfection from perfection, but neither can touch either across the line of the manuscript’s flawed form.

         “Mote” and “moteless,” the link words of stanza group XVI, which follows group XV’s excessive admission of imperfection, give readers a paradoxical name for the location of the two poems we call “Pearl,” a textual place held in the hand and a poetic performance held in the mind.  The first two stanzas of group XVI speak of the “motelez meyny” or “spotless crowd” that must inhabit the poem’s spotless dwelling, a place “wythouten mote.”  These repeated figures of speech use “mote” or “spot” both as place and as imperfection, and they are paralleled by uses of “motlez” or “spotless” as something placeless or perfect, and a “meney that is withoute mote,” a crowd without a place and without imperfection.  The Lamb’s city or “mote” is a spot without a spot, both perfect and nowhere.  Similarly, readers are suspended between the manuscript’s flawed but actual tangibility and the performed poem’s imagination of a perfection which does not exist in ordinary space and time.

        Considered as theological ideas, the poem’s paradoxical reconciliation of presence and absence, mortality and divinity, finitude and infinity, have delighted many literary scholars.  The ideas to which Pearl’s divided debaters refer, however, also may have been under consideration as geometric concepts by the Merton College mathematicians of Oxford in the same century in which the poem was written (ca. 1385).  In particular, Nicole Oresme’s (1323-82) well known “Treatise on the configurations of qualities and motions” proposed graphing “qualities” such as “temperature, pain, and grace” (Mumford 6).  His visual representation of how to calculate the area of a “rough and difform” quality resembles, for modern mathematical historians, the graph of an integral function in calculus, and he uses the terms “rough and difform” to discuss “a soul ‘occupied by many thoughts and affected by many passions’” (Mumford 6, Mumford’s italics).  Elsewhere in the same treatise, Oresme writes: “I suppose, therefore, that pain or sorrow is a certain quality of the soul which is extended in time and is intensifiable by degrees.  Hence it is possible for two such qualities to be simply equal and yet for one to be more shunned and worse than another” (trans. Mumford 7).  Oresme’s calculations of emotional and philosophical qualities routinely invoke infinity as a concept, as did the works of Thomas Bradwardine and William of Ockham, all colleagues at Merton (Donlikowski 126-8).  In a treatise on the commensurability of the orbits of the planets, Oresme found himself at an impasse created by the philosophical assumption of the universe’s perfection, because God created it, and the mathematical evidence that planetary orbits are forever hopelessly out of synchronization.  They will never cycle back to their original states in the classical mathematicians’ “Great Year” (Edwards).  The harmonious motions of the planets was central to the famous “music of the spheres,” and to the Aristotelian view of the relationship between number and order.  Still baffled, Oresme says he fell into a dream in which Apollo brought to him the allegorical figures of Arithmetic and Geometry, each of whom promised to resolve the contradiction.    Arithmetic tried, unsuccessfully, to explain away the evidence of incommensurability, but Geometry answered with a surprising counter-argument, which I will quote in Edward Grant’s1971 paraphrase of the treatise’s Latin:

If there really is celestial music, [. . . and] if celestial music resulted from the celestial motions themselves, there is no evidence for assuming that the principal harmonic concordances would be produced.  Furthermore, no one has yet determined whether celestial music is sensible or merely intelligible (III.392-99).  But if it is sensible and created by fixed and rational ratios, it would be monotonous; only infinite variation is capable of producing interesting sounds (III.402-6).  [ . . . ]  Man cannot attain to exact knowledge of astronomical phenomena and must rest content with approximations (III.435-40).  Indeed, acquisition of exact knowledge would serve to discourage man from making continual observations (III.442-44); and if man had precise knowledge of future celestial positions he would become like the immortal gods themselves, a repugnant thought (III.451-54).  (Edwards 68-9)

For Oresme, striving for perfect knowledge inevitably would lead to confusion.  Nevertheless, in his dream’s end, we encounter a dénouement familiar to all readers of Pearl.  The Dreamer remains confused, unable to reach the truth, and awakens undecided and perplexed, though fully able to deliver the perplexing narrative to his readers.  The orbits he sought to calculate were circles within circles, varying infinitely, and their incommensurability represented the problem of using human knowledge to understand the divine.  My reading of Pearl suggests that, even if the poem was written with no awareness of Oresme’s thought, Oresme and the Pearl-Poet shared a common goal, to involve readers in the attempt the apprehend the unattainable and to record the result, accepting imperfection as the price of our attempt to approach perfection.

        Hyperbolas and the space between them can be used to represent not only the formal structure of the poem’s situation (the Dreamer and Maiden separated by the River), but they can help us understand readers’ yearning toward the divine and the divine’s yearning toward us.  Scholars have developed many good insights from considering the poem as a “pearl,” a circle arriving where it began.  We may discover still more if we think of the poem’s dialogic structure as two halves of a circle that curve to face each other, i.e., accepting a second formal analogy to see the poem as both the perfected circle and the imperfect hyperbola ) (.  In our reading experience, as the Dreamer “yerned” to cross that forbidden River (1190) to overcome his mortal limits, the Pearl-maiden and the New Jerusalem vanished from his sight, and from ours.  The poem’s dramatization of mortal and immortal minds communicating creates two desires, each seeking an infinitely delayed reunion, two arcs of over-reaching which strive toward each other before falling away at the poem’s end. 

        Language alone cannot communicate divinity seen from mortality and mortality seen from divinity.  The poem cannot give us the Eschaton, but it overloads our experience with semantic and formal meaning to approximate an approach to the event.  While we parse the manuscript’s grammar and rhetorical drama, our imaginations strive to visually account for the rhyme scheme, concatenation, and stanza structure, a phonological, numerological and geometric overflow of ordinary textual meaning.  Scholars arguing for the relevance of number to the poems’ beautiful meanings have cited the example of cathedral sculpture placed high above the ground by masons who evidently sought to use their art to communicate with God, who sees all, and to leave no perspective of the structure unadorned by beautiful significance.[3]  We also might compare reading the manuscript of this poem to worshipers’ experience of the Mass in such a cathedral, an overload of sensory communication via stained glass and sculpture, incense, song, words, and dramatic performance.  The full mystery of the event is beyond the communicative power of any single medium.  In this perfectly imperfect Pearl, the images of the present/absent lines, 472 and 901-912, visually present the poem’s paradoxical attempt to show us God’s “mote wythouten moote” (948), the “spotless spot” which holds the poem’s hyperbolic yearnings in tension.  The necessary spot, an imperfection necessary to the poem’s and our existence, makes possible our imagination of spotlessness, a perfection beyond existence that the Dreamer desires and the poet is trying show us.


Works Cited

Bishop, Ian.  Pearl in its Setting.  1969.

Bogdanos, Theodore.  Pearl: Image of the Ineffable. 

Carlson, David.  Pearl’s Imperfection’s.”  Studia Neophilologica 63 (1991) 57-67.

Chapman, C.O.  “Numerical Symbolism in Dante and the Pearl,” Modern Language Notes 54 (1939).

Condren, Edward I.  The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet: Beyond Phi.  Gainesville, FL: UP of Florida, 2002.

Dolnikowski, Edith Wilks.  Thomas Bradwardine: A View of Time and a Vision of Eternity in Fourteenth-Century Thought.  N.Y.: Brill, 1995. 

Edwards, Michael.  “Geometric Theology and the Meaning of Clannesse in the Poems of the Pearl Manuscript.”  Unpublished dissertation.  U California Davis, 2004.

Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature.  Ed. Caroline Eckhardt.

Grant, Edward.  The Nature of Natural Philosophy in the Late Middle Ages.  Washington, D.C.: Catholic UP, 2010.

Hopper, Vincent.  Medieval Number Symbolism: its sources, meaning, and influence on thought and expression.  Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1938.

Kean, P.M.  The Pearl; An Interpretation.  N.Y.: Barnes & Noble, 1967.

Macrae-Gibson, O.D.  Pearl: The Link-Words and the Thematic Structure.”  Neophilologus (1968) 54-64.

Mailloux, Stephen. Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction. Cornell, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1982

Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain: Reproduced in Facsimile from the Unique MS. Cotton Nero A.x in the British Museum.  Sir Israel Gollancz, ed. and intro, London : E.E.T.S., 1923, rpt 1956.

Oresme, Nicole.  Nicole Oresme and the Kinematics of Circular Motion: Tractatus de commensurabilitate vel incommensurabilitate motuum celi.  Ed. and trans. Edward Grant.  Madison, WI: U Wisconsin P, 1971.

Ovitt, George.  “Numerical Composition in the Middle English Pearl.  American Notes and Queries (1978) 34-5.

Pearl.  The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet.  Ed. Casey Finch.  Berkeley, CA: U California P, 1993.  44-100.

Peck, Russel.  “Number as Cosmic Language,” in Eckhardt, ed., Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature (1980).


Pearl-Poet Society (3): I. New Perspectives on Pearl; II. New Perspectives on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; III. New Perspectives on Cleanness and Patience

Kimberly S. Jack

1602 Alpha St.

Opelika, AL 36801

Phone: 334-887-8235

Fax: 334-844-4620

Email: ksj0004@auburn.edu

hyperbola, n.

Pronunciation:  /haɪˈpɜːbələ/

Etymology:  < modern Latin hyperbola, < Greek ὑπερβολή the name of the curve, lit. excess (compare hyperbole n.), < ὑπερβάλλειν to exceed (ὑπέρ over + βάλλειν to throw). In French hyperbole.

The hyperbola was so named either because the inclination of its plane to the base of the cone exceeds that of the side of the cone (see ellipse n.), or because the side of the rectangle on the abscissa equal to the square of the ordinate is longer than the latus rectum.

 a. One of the conic sections; a plane curve consisting of two separate, equal and similar, infinite branches, formed by the intersection of a plane with both branches of a double cone (i.e. two similar cones on opposite sides of the same vertex). It may also be defined as a curve in which the focal distance of any point bears to its distance from the directrix a constant ratio greater than unity. It has two foci, one for each branch, and two asymptotes, which intersect in the centre of the curve, midway between the vertices of its two branches. (Often applied to one branch of the curve.)

1668   Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 3 643   The Area of one Hyperbola being computed, the Area of all others may be thence argued.

1693   R. Bentley Boyle Lect. viii. 12   They would not have..moved in Hyperbola's..or in Ellipses very Eccentric.

1706   W. Jones Synopsis Palmariorum Matheseos 256   The Sections of the opposite Cones will be equal Hyperbolas.

1728   H. Pemberton View Sir I. Newton's Philos. 232   With a velocity still greater the body will move in an hyperbola.

1828   C. Hutton Course Math. II. 102   The section is an hyperbola, when the cutting plane makes a greater angle with the base than the side of the cone makes.

1885   G. L. Goodale in A. Gray Bot. Text-bk. (ed. 6) II. ii. xii. 381   If the outline of the growing point is a hyperbola, the periclinals will be confocal hyperbolas, with the same axis but different parameter.

 b. Extended (after Newton) to algebraic curves of higher degrees denoted by equations analogous to that of the common hyperbola.

1728   E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word),   Infinite Hyperbola's, or Hyperbola's of the higher Kinds, are those defin[e]d by the Equation aym + n = bzm(a + x)n.

1728   E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word),   As the Hyperbola of the first Kind or Order has two Asymptotes, that of the second Kind or Order has three, that of the third, four, &c.

1753   Chambers's Cycl. Suppl.,   Hyperbolas of all degrees may be expressed by the equation xmyn = am + n.

1873   G. Salmon Treat. Higher Plane Curves (ed. 2) v. 169   Cubics having three hyperbolic branches are called by Newton redundant hyperbolas.

hyperbole, n.

Pronunciation:  /haɪˈpɜːbəliː/

Forms:  Also 15 yperbole, hiperbole; aphetic 16 perbole.

Etymology:  < Greek ὑπερβολή excess (compare hyperbola n.), exaggeration; the latter sense is first found in Isocrates and Aristotle. Compare French hyperbole (earlier yperbole).(Show Less)

 1.  a. Rhetoric. A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.

 b. With a and pl., an instance of this figure.

1529   T. More Dialogue Heresyes iv. 110 b/1   By a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.

1579   W. Fulke Heskins Parl. Repealed in D. Heskins Ouerthrowne 340   He must note an hyberbole or ouerreaching speach in this sentence.

1598   Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost v. ii. 407   Three pilde Hiberboles, spruce affection, Figures pedanticall.

1656   J. Smith Myst. Rhetorique 58   Scriptural Examples of Hyperbole..Deut. 9. 4, Cities fenced up to heaven..Joh. 21. 25, The whole world could not contain the books.

1680   Dryden Kind Keeper iv. i. 46   Will you leave your Perbole's, and come then?

1680   Dryden Kind Keeper v. i. 54   Nay, and you are in your Perbole's again!

1727   J. Gay Fables I. xviii. 60   Hyperboles, though ne'er so great, Will still come short of self-conceit.

1808   L. Murray Eng. Gram. Illustr. I. App. ii. iv. 487   Hyperboles are of two kinds; either such as are employed in description, or such as are suggested by the warmth of passion.

1838   W. H. Prescott Hist. Reign Ferdinand & Isabella (1846) I. xi. 439   An Arabic interpreter expatiated, in florid hyperbole, on the magnanimity and princely qualities of the Spanish king. 

 c. gen. Excess, extravagance. rare.

1652   L. S. Natures Dowrie xviii. 45   [He] spared him out of an Hyperbole of clemency.

1678   J. Norris Coll. Misc. (1699) 6   Under the great Hyperbole of Pain He mourns.

1874   H. R. Reynolds John the Baptist iii. §2. 175   They agreed with the Pharisees in their extraordinary regard for the Sabbath, even pressing their rigour to an hyperbole. 

†2. Geom. = hyperbola n. Obs.(Perh. with e mute, as in French hyperbole.)

1579   L. Digges & T. Digges Arithm. Mil. Treat. 188   Whether..the sayde Curue Arke, be not an Hyperbole.

1717   J. Douglass in Philos. Trans. 1714–16 (Royal Soc.) 29 535   Within it hath an Angle or sharp Ridge which runs all along the Middle, at the Top of the Hyperbole [of its beak].


  hyˈperbole v. (nonce-wd.) (intr.) to use hyperbole, to exaggerate.

1698   Locke Let. to E. Masham 29 Apr. in H. R. F. Bourne Life J. Locke (1876) II. xv. 461   Your poor solitary verger who suffers here under the deep winter of frost and snow: I do not hyperbole in the case.

[1]   My use of Reader-Response methods is guided by Stephen Mailloux’s Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction (Cornell, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1982).

[2]   Readers’ simultaneous perception of “ryght” and “Iesus” in line 721 also might be influenced by line 720, which the Andrew and Waldron edition does not produce in quotation marks but which could paraphrase Matthew 18: 4-5: “The innocent is ay saf by ryght.”  The New International Version translates “qui susceperit unum parvulum talem in nomine meo me suscipit” as “whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”  The Dreamer’s interlocutor, therefore, might be “Iesus” as well as “Ryght” and a maiden like a pearl.

[3]   An important and influential instance of this metaphorical defense of numerical complexity in a verbal medieval text occurs in Charles Singleton’s 1951 defense of his contention that Dante’s “Purgatorio” locates a crucial discussion of love and free will in the complete poem’s central cantos 16, 17, and 18 (“Dante’s Comedy: The Pattern at the Center,”  Romanic Review, XLII (1951), 169-177 rpt., Dante Studies 1. Commedia Elements of Structure (73rd Report, 60-61).  Subsequent critiques of Singleton’s calculations have pointed out that he finds the poem’s center at two differing locations, seemingly based on what his thesis desired him to see.  See John Kleiner, “Finding the Center,” in Harold Bloom, ed., Dante Alighieri (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004) 272 and n. 6.