Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Poetics of Grief: Considering Pearl and Wm. Paul Young's The Shack.

Grief has a funny way of choking out your perspective and balance. It's so easy to let that creeping vine take hold, and once you do, it's so very hard to wrench yourself free.  Grief can become, during our darker moments, a trickster-friend. You get so used to its presence that you forget how to live without it, insidious though the relationship might be.

Having spent the better part of this Fall attempting to journey forward after an intensely personal and awful loss (I miscarried right before the start of the term), I've found myself thinking a lot about how humans grieve, and on the literature that has been born out of these moments of agony. So much has been written on this topic, but for me, poetic works and their explorations of how we suffer and grapple with loss have always moved me the most and have helped to transport me (or at least begin the journey) out of those dark spaces.  The journey to a place of peace and balance after experiencing a profound loss is always a difficult one, and I have grown fascinated with, and taken considerable comfort from, those who have written about their own journeys through grief as a result.

Given that most of what I study these days is medieval, I have found myself thinking a lot about Pearl of late. The poem has been one of my favorites ever since I first encountered it as an undergraduate.  Nearly a decade later and particularly in light of my most recent loss, I have returned to the poem with a fuller awareness of the grief that gives Pearl its initial fuel and momentum.

Simultaneously, I've found myself thinking as well about a far more recent work: The Shack. The novel is, at its core, a framed dream vision. The first eighty pages or so chronicle the protagonist's (Mac's) loss of his youngest daughter, Missy. This portion of the novel is agonizing, and it ends in the very place where the authorities find clear evidence of Missy's murder – a dilapidated shack in the wilds of Oregon. Mac returns to the shack after receiving a cryptic invitation from "Papa" – the name that his wife, Nan, uses for God.  He falls asleep in the shack after a fit of rage and an ensuing mental breakdown, and when he "wakes" he enters into a dream vision in which he finds the comfort he's been searching for and his release from grief and anger.   

What strikes me the most about both of these works is the candor with which they recount the deeply personal and awful grief that comes with the loss of a child (or any loved one). Both Mac and the narrator of Pearl are angry, lost, and utterly encased in their grief at the outset of these works.  As I returned to them both over the past few weeks, I immediately identified with these characters because of that. Their questions, their hurt, but most of all, their journeys through grief to a place of balance felt so deeply familiar and so strangely comforting.

As I kept thinking about these two works (largely in isolation at first), I began to realize just how much they actually share. Granted, there are NUMEROUS differences (cultural, structural, and theological) that separate them, but I found certain aspects profoundly intertwined nonetheless. For starters, both the Pearl narrator and Mac have — as I mentioned earlier — allowed their grief to consume all aspects of their lives by the time that we're introduced to them. Take, for instance, stanza five of Pearl:

Bifore that spot my honde I spenned
For care ful colde that to me caght.
A deuely dele in my hert denned
Thagh resoun sette myselven saght.
I playned my perle that ther was penned
Wyth fyrce skylles that faste faght.
Thagh kynde of Kryst me comfort kenned,
My wreched wylle in wo ay wraghte.
I felle upon that floury flaght -
Suche odour to my hernes schot,
I slode upon a slepyng-slaghte
On that precios perle wythouten spot. (49-56)

Before that spot my hands I clasped / For care full cold that seized upon me / A desolating grief in my heart lay deep / Though reason would have reconciled me. / I mourned my pearl that there was trapped / With fierce arguments that fast contended, / My wretched will in woe nature wrought . . .

The speaker here kneels over the very spot where he "lost" his pearl — which is often interpreted as a young daughter — and laments that the awareness of this loss "does nothing but pierce my heart sharply, / Swell and burn my breast painfully" (17-18).

Mac's grief after Missy's abduction and and murder is similarly all-consuming:

Little distractions like the ice storm were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt.  The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair, and he had somehow become part of it. He ate, worked, loved, dreamed, and played in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if he were wearing a leaden bathrobe – trudging daily through the murky despondency that sucked the color out of everything.

At times he could feel The Great Sadness slowly tightening around his chest and heart like the crushing coils of a constructor, squeezing liquid from his eyes until he thought there no longer remained a reservoir. Other times he would dream that his feet were stuck in cloying mud as he caught brief glimpses of Missy running down the wooded path ahead of him, her red cotton summer dress gilded with wildflowers flashing through the trees. She was completely oblivious to the dark shadow tracking her from behind. Although he frantically tried to scream warnings to her, no sound emerged and he was always too late and too impotent to save her. He would bolt upright in bed, sweat dripping from his tortured body, while waves of nausea and guilt and regret rolled over him like some surreal tidal flood.  (27)

Both protagonists find themselves utterly consumed by their awareness of what they have lost. It dominates their thoughts and oppresses any capacity for joy.  Seeking (whether they realize it or not) an end to their suffering, both journey to origin point of their pain: to the places where they lost their beloved children.  The Pearl narrator moves into a garden (often interpreted as a graveyard) where his pearl "sprang away" from him, while Mac journeys to the shack where they found Missy's dress and an awful blood-stain, clear evidence of her murder.

It is through this return to a place of complete pain that their dream visions occur. The dreamer in Pearl "awakens" to find himself in a transcendent and beautiful landscape, where he soon encounters the Pearl Maiden — a figure who both represents the child he lost and the Divine Wisdom he so desperately needs. Mac, in turn, wakes from his despair-induced slumber inside the shack and exits in complete frustration, only to find the landscape slowly transform itself from Winter to Spring and the desolate shack reshape itself into a warm and inviting log cabin, with clear signs of life inside. Mac is soon greeted by three humans, each of whom is revealed as an aspect of the Trinitarian God. 

From here, The Shack diverges markedly from Pearl in a number manner of ways, but a pivotal moment in the second half of the novel shares much with the medieval dream vision as well.  In this particular episode, Mac finds himself and his outlook — overshadowed as it is by The Great Sadness — challenged and questioned by Sophia.  Just as the Pearl Maiden challenges the narrator's misguided, grief-stricken perceptions, chiding him at one point for having misinterpreted and incorrectly contextualized his loss (5.265-76), Sophia forces Mac to face his destructive worldview in a similarly blunt and masterful way.  At the end of their dialogue — which proves as cathartic and transformative as the dialogue between the Pearl narrator and the Pearl Maiden — Mac is given a glimpse of Missy in the afterlife. He sees her playing with his other children (who are, themselves, experiencing dream visions of their own), and she eventually runs directly towards him. An invisible force (represented by a waterfall) separates them, but Mac is told that she knows that he is there "on the other side of the waterfall." Mac tries desperately to get to her, but the invisible force won't let him move. Once he stops, however, and simply gazes on her, taking in "every detail of her expression and hair and hands" she smiles at him and mouths "It's okay, I . . . love you." Sophia tells him at this point that while Missy cannot see him, she knows that he is there, and that she herself chose for their meeting to be this way. Eventually "the water roared down from above, directly in front of him, and obliterated all the sights and sounds of his children" and he finds himself in a grotto behind a waterfall (exactly where he had entered to talk with Sophia). Like the Pearl narrator, then, Mac is challenged in this portion of the narrative by a female counselor who speaks with Divine authority.  His resulting vision of his daughter, in turn, challenges his attachment to The Great Sadness and affirms what he has learned from Sophia. Just as the Pearl Maiden chides the narrator for becoming too attached to his limited perception of the world, Mac learns that he cannot – in the end – be the world's, or God's, judge, and that the more he accepts the limitations of his perception, the more free and more joyful he will become. The Great Sadness, then, loses its power because it can only hang over him so long as he convinces himself that his perceptions are wholly accurate. 

The water imagery in this scene, I should add, also parallels Pearl, because in both the protagonists meet their lost children but are separated from them by an impassable body of water. The water prevents the dreamer from completely accessing the afterlife and those within it.  Both Mac and the Pearl narrator try frantically to cross these bodies of water at certain points and rejoin their beloved children, only to realize that their reunion cannot come to pass while they are both alive. Both find their attempts to ford the barrier to be in vain — the Pearl narrator is held back initially by the maiden's words, and eventually wakes up because he tries to ford the stream. Mac, in turn, tries repeatedly to force his way through the invisible barrier, but to no avail, and Sophia eventually explains that the barrier is truly impenetrable. The fact that they want so desperately to experience the physical presence of their lost ones speaks, rather poignantly, to their reliance upon their limited sensory perceptions.  What they learn — in no small part through these vain attempts — is that true vision and wisdom lie in a state beyond the senses. They learn, as a little prince once said, that "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

As Pearl winds its way to a close, as the narrator comes to discover a world and a worldview much larger than his grief, the word "delyt" appears frequently, suggesting that the narrator has begun to move forward from the place of grief that brought him into the dream vision. Mac too finds a way to reclaim his life from The Great Sadness and to live in joy not in spite of his loss, but because of it. Both works, in their own way, explore the ways in which we can locate a sense of purpose in the midst of these awful losses. And this isn't to say, as Mac mistakenly observes, that these events come to pass for the benefit of our souls and psyches, but rather that "grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors" (The Shack, 188).

Ultimately, I'm not seeking to argue here that the author of The Shack drew inspiration from Pearl. Rather, my point in drawing out this comparison is to suggest that both of these works — separated as they are by centuries, by theological nuance, by culture — tap into the same mysteries of loss in uncannily similar ways, and that these similarities can — if we let them — remind us that we are never truly alone in our grief, deeply and intensely personal as those experiences always are. Considering these works alongside each other can offer us the deep and abiding comfort of knowing that when we experience the intensity of loss and grief, that we are entering into a strange and beautiful communion with all who have (and all who will) endure the same. This may seem terribly bleak at first, but it's actually — in my mind at least — quite beautiful to know that even with full knowledge of the pain that will come with the loss of our beloved "pearles," that we can never quite keep ourselves away from love. That we are always invited and drawn back into relationship with others and with ourselves because of these risks. Pearls of great price, indeed.


  1. Very interesting (and personal) blog entry. I've also been highly interested in the notion of literary grief, particularly that of parent for child. With the Renaissance being my specialty, that's where I immediately notice similar examples of such literary grief.

    Three pieces particularly spring to mind--two by Ben Jonson and one by Shakespeare. Jonson wrote two poems on the deaths of two of his children:

    On My First Daughter

    Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
    Mary, the daughter of their youth;
    Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
    It makes the father less to rue.
    At six months’ end she parted hence
    With safety of her innocence;
    Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
    In comfort of her mother’s tears,
    Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
    Where, while that severed doth remain,
    This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
    Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

    On My First Son

    Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
    Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
    Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
    To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age !
    Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
    For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.

    I’ve always been struck by these two Jonson poems—first, I’ve often wondered at the more emotional tone Jonson strikes in the poem about his son (the one on his daughter seems far more controlled). Then, I’ve wondered why Jonson would commit such a personal grief to verse. I think your blog entry does a good bit to explain these ideas.

    From a modern standpoint, we spend our lives mentally preparing (and more often than not, failing in said preparation) for the deaths of our parents. We are wholly unprepared for the death of a child. Medieval and Renaissance parents, however, would have been more than familiar with the loss of children, which leads me to think that the grief magnifies based on how long the child survives (ie- once Renaissance children reach a certain age, their survival might become more expected). This would explain the disconnect in Jonson’s poems (his daughter was less than a year old, whereas his son was seven).

    Regardless of time period, the death of a child upends our whole world-view, sending it into a topsy turvy inversion of our understanding of the natural order. In order to restore the world to its proper state, we (both real and fictional) seem to struggle to find a way to undo that which caused the inversion. In some cases (your example of The Shack for one) such restoration is accomplished via religion. Friar Laurence (albeit for wholly selfish motivations) best explains this view in Romeo and Juliet:

    Peace, ho, for shame! confusion's cure lives not
    In these confusions. Heaven and yourself
    Had part in this fair maid; now heaven hath all,
    And all the better is it for the maid:
    Your part in her you could not keep from death,
    But heaven keeps his part in eternal life.
    The most you sought was her promotion;
    For 'twas your heaven she should be advanced:
    And weep ye now, seeing she is advanced
    Above the clouds, as high as heaven itself?
    O, in this love, you love your child so ill,
    That you run mad, seeing that she is well:
    She's not well married that lives married long;
    But she's best married that dies married young.
    Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
    On this fair corse; and, as the custom is,
    In all her best array bear her to church:
    For though fond nature bids us an lament,
    Yet nature's tears are reason's merriment.

  2. Friar Laurence, as a figure outside of parenting and childbirth, can more clearly see the religious and philosophical side of death. He uses this perspective to restore the inverted world of the Capulets, who were distraught over the “death” of their daughter (of note—the Capulets had lost many children, which further supports the idea that longevity and grief may have been interconnected in the Renaissance).

    Jonson, though he refers to his faith, seems to restore his world to its proper order by immortalizing his children on Earth in the form of poetry. By ensuring their Earthly legacy, Jonson may grieve without losing himself. I’m not quite certain where this analysis would fit (psychoanalysis, “death” studies, etc), but I want to thank you for sharing your own experience and your expertise. Your connecting of old and new helps us to not only understand the literature between the two poles, but also the shared humanity that infuses all of the literature across this spectrum.

  3. Kate, I really appreciate the honesty in your post. I found it very insightful and inspiring as well. First of all, I like how you were clear about your personal stake in the subject -- I can't say enough about how valuable and brave I think that is (my thoughts on that were getting long here, in fact, so I'm planning to turn it into another blog post). I also like that you've set up the kind of literary connections that could be really useful not only for personal reasons, but also for teaching. Such connections between modern and premodern texts, as long as the differences are acknowledged (as you did), can really help students enter into texts that could be difficult or hard to contextualize. Pearl is a difficult text, for a number of reason, but you've given us a way to introduce it to students that might make it more available to them.

    I also just really appreciated your analysis. I love how you discuss the connection between the trauma/loss and the location. I think this is a fascinating topic, and one that could be really interesting in terms of medieval literature specifically. For example, early drama begins with the quem quaeritis trope -- the Marys seeking Jesus in his tomb and being told by an angel that he is no longer there because he has risen. The fact that their moment of discovery is tied to their grief and that that grief is so specifically located seems to me to relate to a text like Pearl, where the loss is a bit more ambiguous but still clearly located. I also think that such a focus on specific locations, which I see over and over again in such texts, becomes especially interesting when those narratives are being performed in dramas. The locations in the narrative or in history get layered with the locations of the performance, perhaps in the city center or in the parish church. Such a way of locating may also help viewers make connections between faraway times and places and there own experiences and lives. In other words, the way that locations get used in medieval drama might encourage the very kind of empathetic reading that you've encouraged in your post.

    Ultimately, I think that kind of empathetic reading can be an important part of the healing process. As you say, our grief is always particular, and yet readings like yours can help us see the ways in which it is also connected to the larger realm of human loss and emotion. Your post turned both inward, to your own loss, and outward, connecting that loss to others who have lost. To me, that's a valuable lesson. As terrible as it is to suffer a loss or go through a trauma, it can, if you let it, give you greater empathy and understanding of the sufferings of others. This is not to say, as you explain so eloquently, that the loss occurred to teach us something, but rather that we can gain insight from even the most terrible of losses.

  4. Scott, I really like what you've said about the Jonson poems. I have wondered about the difference in tone before, and have thought that perhaps it was due to the gender of the children. I find myself convinced, however, that the length of the child's life may be more to the point. There was probably a sense that if a child made it to five or six, he or she had a good chance of reaching adulthood, so losing a child of seven would have been even more devastating. What really interests me, though, is your point about how losing a child undoes the natural order. The poems, then, are an attempt to reinstate that order. Since a father was often seen as the author of his children, authoring poetic versions of those children has real resonance. And with the further notion of immortality through poetry ("So long lives this, and this gives life to thee") he was not only memorializing his children, but also giving them a new kind of life, a sort of afterlife through verse. I've thought a lot in the past about the healing uses of narrative, about the ways in which putting something into words, giving it a plot, could help with the process of recovering from trauma or loss, but these poems seem to be doing something slightly different. They're not just for the father's healing process, but also, in a way, for the children -- they attempt to immortalize both the father's grief and the lives that those children led, lives that would otherwise have been forgotten completely. Perhaps, then, they aren't so different from Kate's examples, in that they're an attempt to grasp at that eternal, the larger connections, though via poetry rather than theology.

  5. Just a quick note to thank you both for your very thoughtful replies! I will respond in detail very shortly (hopefully by Tuesday). I am currently swamped with pre-travel cleaning and chapter writing, but once I come up for air, my reply will be on the top of my priority list!


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