Thursday, June 27, 2013

What a World!: Or, an invitation to BABEL along with me at K'zoo 2014

Good news! My proposed session, sponsored by the BABEL working group, has been given the green light for Congress next year. It springs in equal parts out of work on my book and from a lively conversation at Bell's brewery at this year's gathering in sunny Kalamazoo. The fine details: it will be a roundtable, hopefully comprised of seven participants. We're encouraging papers that veer towards the experimental, the playful, even the avant-garde, but given the wideness of the topic, there's plenty of room in which to maneuver and plenty of space for a variety of approaches; multimedia presentations are greatly encouraged.

Title: What a World! (A Roundtable)


“Oh what a world, what a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?!” So screams the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy splashes water on her in the film The Wizard of Oz. The entire film reflects upon matters of perspective and thwarted/exceeded expectations, of not quite believing your eyes or trusting what you see, of creating contexts for experiences you never could have anticipated. The witch melts, in the end, because of her failure to imagine a world in which both she Dorothy could exist. While the gist of this line accords with the final words the Witch speaks in the book version, the phrase “What a World!” (original to the film) encourages meta-commentary. We are called, as viewers and as readers, to wonder along with the witch how this world — and such a vivid one at that — could have been engendered. In this sense, the phrase “What a World!” becomes as much an invitation to engage critically as it becomes a statement of wonder.

The issues inherent in fictionalized worlds, so beautifully encapsulated in this scene from The Wizard of Oz film, have much to offer studies of medieval literature. This session invites papers that consider all aspects of engendered worlds, but is especially invested in exploring how contemporary notions of “worldbuilding” — so often associated with high fantasy and science fiction— as well as Heiddeger’s “worlding” (in all its various theoretical manifestations and adaptations) can be appropriated to discuss the creation of fictive worlds in medieval literature. The session seeks to explore worlds built through varying states of incredulity, wonder, a desire to control and contextualize, or even built out of nostalgia and/or a desire to escape (however briefly) one’s own circumstances — from the translocated Holy Land of the mystery cycle plays, to the worlds encountered through chronicles, histories, and travel narratives, to the landscapes and cultures of Arthurian romance. How might the concept of “worldbuilding” invite fresh considerations and interrogations of medieval literature? How does it simultaneously reflect the desires authors have to create something new even as they (or their texts) admit the impossibilities of such projects? To what extent do engendered worlds allow and invite contemplation upon the many ways in which humans, as readers and receivers of texts, ineffably participate in this process of creation?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wine in Beowulf: A Guest Post!

I'm thrilled to introduce our first-ever guest post here at In Romaunce, which is also our first post focusing on Old English literature. Sharon Rhodes — a good friend and a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester — recently gave this fascinating paper at Kalamazoo on the appearances of wine in Beowulf, and I invited her to post it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and definitely take a look at her wonderful blog!

Win of Wunderfatum: The Significance of Wine in Beowulf
-- Sharon Rhodes, University of Rochester

Illustration by J.R. Skelton, in Stories of
As in most cultures, alcohol had an important social function in the world represented in Beowulf. Many sources attest to the importance of mead and ale in medieval Germanic culture: perhaps most interesting is the Mead of Poetry in Norse myth but, as Henry Winfred Splitter pointed out, there was also “baptismal beer, [. . .] betrothal and marriage beers, and funeral beer” (Splitter 257).[1] However, because grapes do not grow well in the north, wine in the medieval north had to be imported and thus it has no place in the mythology most relevant to Beowulf.[2] Though chemically similar, wine is significantly different from native “eal-” and “medu” as a cultural symbol. For instance, in Aelfric’s Colloquy the schoolboy asserts that he drinks beer and water because “wine is not the drink of children or fools, but of the old and wise.”[3] While this is not the schema of alcoholic drinks we see in Beowulf, it shows that even in Aelfric’s day, wine was something special, fit only for the old and wise, not the general population.When we refer to a hall as a mead-hall we are specifying a particular sort of hall from a particular culture, region and time in terms of alcohol. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the Beowulf-poet mentions alcoholic beverages with the frequency he does: “medu” (mead) and compounds beginning with “medu” occur 13 times, compounds beginning with “eal-” occur 7 times, and “beor” occurs 3 times. Interestingly, “win,” a non-native alcoholic substance, only occurs 3 times as a word in itself and 5 times within compounds; moreover each mention of wine marks something wrong or about to go wrong within the story. The three instances of “win” occur at important moments of the first part of the poem and within about 300 lines of one another. First, “win of wunderfatum” (wine of wondrous vessels) makes an appearance in the feast following Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel. Second, at the same feast, “the men drank wine” (“druncon win weras"). And third, in the passage that describes Beowulf’s weapons and armor before he descends into Grendel’s mere, we learn that Unferth was “drunk with wine” (“wine druncen”) when he lent his sword, Hrunting, to Beowulf. Similarly, the win-compounds also appear significant: "winsele" and "winreced" -- both of which can be translated as ‘wine-hall’ -- are used by the narrator when referring to a hall that is failing or has failed as a center of civilization.
In his article “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature,” Hugh Magennis asserts that “[i]n Beowulf [. . .] references to the ‘hroden ealowaege’ (adorned ale-cup 495) and to the ‘win of wunderfatum’ (wine of the wondrous-vessel 1162) are an essential part of the poet’s evocation of the good life in the hall enjoyed by Danes and Geats” (Magennis 517). While ale and mead both seem to be generally associated with the good life in the hall, I question the positive associations of win of wunderfatum. Wunderfatum or “wondrous vessel” appears to be a nonce word with no inherently positive elements. Beyond the basic semantics, however, we must note that the Danes serve and drink this “win of wunderfatum” at a feast celebrating what they believe is a victory over Grendel when we can see that Grendel’s defeat brings the more violent attack of his vengeful mother. The Danes celebrate a false victory and consequently drink in a false sense of security; however sweet this respite may seem, it is short and ends in Hrothgar’s bitter tears and thus the “win of wunderfatum” seems a bitter cup if not a poculum mortis.[4] Several scholars, such as Carleton Brown and Hugh Magennis, have looked at the motif of the poculum mortis, or cup of death, in Old English literature. Maggenis asserts that, “Beowulf does not exploit the complex of Christian imagery of cups and the serving out of drink, but relies instead on the resources of the secular poetic tradition” (535-36). This reading, however, ignores the Beowulf-poet’s differential treatment of native drinks and wine which is not entirely dissimilar from the double meaning ascribed to wine in the Bible where, Magennis himself points out, it serves two symbolic purposes: it represents both the good in life and the bad (Magennis 518).[5] In Beowulf, rather than ascribing two meanings to one drink, two types of drink are used, one for each meaning: native and foreign: beer, mead, and ale (native alcoholic beverages) represent the joys of hall-life, while wine represents the darker side of hall-life, whether the negative repercussions of drunkenness (vs. the positive repercussions: poetry) or simply as a marker of things gone or about to go badly.[8]
The uses and contexts of mead, ale, and beer and compounds containing those words illustrate the particular distinctions the Beowulf-poet draws between wine and native drinks. Beyond the numbers, note that while there are plain benches in Beowulf ("benc" 492, 327, 1013, 1188, 1243) and seats ("setl" 2013, 1786, 1232, 1782, 2019, 1289) and mead-benches (776, 1052, 1067, 2185, 1902) and mead-seats (5), there are never wine-benches or seats. Similarly, there is mead-joy, a word for the path to the mead-hall, a word for the meadow around the mead-hall, and of course, vessels of mead and ale: "medoful," "meodoscenc" and "ealuwaege."[6] None of these ideas has a counterpart beginning with “win-”.
The numbers, however, are significant too. “Med-” occurs in 9 distinct endocentric compounds (that is, a compound wherein element A denotes a special kind of element B) a total of 15 times in addition to the 2 times that medu itself occurs as a word in its own right. Comparing this to the 3 occurrences of win in Beowulf and the 5 win- based compounds the centrality of the native mead to Hall-life is underscored. Additionally, there are 7 occurrences of compounds beginning with “ealo-” and the 3 instances of "beor": there are ale-benches (1029, 2867), ale-drinkers(1945), ale-sharing (765), ale-cups (2021, 481, 495), beer and beer-halls. These numerous occurrences and myriad endocentric compounds, 25 in all, speak to the centrality of mead and beer but also to their ordinariness.[7]
Nevertheless, this is not a simple matter of positive and negative implications of course; "meodosetla" certainly does not predict good things for those that Scyld Scefing unseated (5), but this type of raiding was typical of Germanic culture — a misfortune, for sure, but not an unexpected one and one within the bounds of cultural norms. Furthermore, when Grendel overturns the Danes’ mead-benches on the night of his defeat, it is a quotidian part of hostilities within the hall in an otherwise otherworldly battle and creates a sharp contrast with the  initial image of mead-benches (meodosetla) being torn away in the prologue (775). The two perpetrators -- Scyld Scefing and Grendel -- are quite different, or, as more recent arguments have it, perhaps they are not different at all. As with Scyld Scefing’s raids, Grendel’s effect on the mead-benches is symbolic of his effect on the Danes, he has interrupted and obstructed the most basic part of the Danes‘ lives. In overturning their mead-benches Grendel and Scyld Scefing has overturned their social cohesion.
After defeating Grendel’s mother, Beowulf and his retinue traversed the “meodowongas” on their way to Heorot: the very meadow Heorot stands on is specified as a mead-meadow, a fact we can also read as signifying that the hall is once more as it should be, a simple mead-hall in a mead meadow, free of monsters at last. Finally, the smooth functioning of Hygelac’s hall, unperturbed by monsters or betrayal, can be seen partly by the mead-cups: “Mead-cups went / throughout that high-hall, Haereth’s daughter / she loved the people, bore drinking cups / to the hands of illustrious ones”[8] (1980b-82a). Wine is not mentioned at all during the period of the poem set within Hygelac’s realm, presumably because his reign -- within the poem -- is marked by mead, normal, every day mead just as it is marked primarily by concord, at least within the present of the poem. 
The word “medu” (mead) occurs only twice, but each time the poet uses it as symbolic of what all good Germanic leaders do: in Beowulf’s pre-fight speech and reply to Unferth he says:  I shall offer to the Geats might and courage in battle soon now. A man may proudly return to mead in the morning light [when] the sun clad in radiance shines from the south” (601b-06).[9] By saying that the men will go to their mead Beowulf is not only declaring success, he is claiming that his heroic feats will restore Hrothgar’s world to normalcy. Similarly, in the second half of the poem, while chastising them for betraying Beowulf, Wiglaf reminds his fellows that Beowulf gave them mead in the beer-hall (2633-35). Wiglaf is not merely saying that Beowulf was hospitable to them, but that he fulfilled the most basic duties of his contract with them as his warriors and therefore they owe him their loyal service in times of war.[10] Mead is not merely mead, but is a metonymic place holder for all that a good lord or hero delivers and, conversely, as a symbol of the absence of a good lord or hero.
In contrast, the passages wherein the poet uses “win” do not symbolize normalcy, but instead seem to foreshadow discord. The first occurrence of "win" -- the “win of wunderfatum”[11]-- precedes both the attack of Grendel’s mother and Wealhtheow’s speech.[12] We know that Weahltheow is at least a respectable cup-bearer because after Beowulf defends his performance in the swimming contest with Breca she bears the "medoful" to the honored guests, as Maxims I asserts she should (82-92). Because Weahltheow otherwise appears to be a good queen the poet seems to suggest that her advice should be heeded, and thus her opposition to Hrothgar’s ‘adoption’ of Beowulf likely has merit: to her mind it is a rash thing, betraying thoughtlessness of his own sons and nephew in the throws of overwrought gratitude to Beowulf for, presumably, ridding his hall of monsters. Further, though I disagree with J.D. Ogilvy on some points of his reading of Weahltheow, I do agree with him in asserting that Weahltheow’s public opposition of Hrothgar is one of many signs of disfunction in his realm.[13]  She speaks her piece and though she does so graciously it is counter to the “gamen” that otherwise fills the hall after Beowulf’s victory against Grendel. The first instance of wine underscores the aberrancy of this adoption; Hrothgar should not place Beowulf over his own sons, and he and all of the celebrants are oblivious to the horror yet to come.
The second use of "win" directly precedes the attack of Grendel’s mother: “There was the best of feasts / the men drank wine.” [14] That the men drank alcohol does not concern the poet; though some Old English religious texts can be read as condemning drinking,[15] in Beowulf mead, beer and ale are celebrated and their absence mourned. The men drank alcohol every night, including the night preceding Beowulf’s successful fight against Grendel. The poet warns us of the horror to come by specifying that the men drank wine rather than their more conventional mead or ale; an idea further supported by the ominous half-line that follows “Wyrd ne cuthon” ("they did not know fate," 1233). Counter to the belief of the celebrants at this “best of feasts,”[16]  Grendel’s death does not mean that the danger has passed. Rather, his death has awakened a new horror and a more legitimate one. While Grendel seems not to have had any legitimate reason to attack the Scyldings, Grendel’s mother has a genuine grievance to avenge. Like the wine, this grievance is both familiar and foreign: within Germanic society kin had a right to revenge, or "wergild." However, like Grendel, Grendel’s mother does not belong to this civilization. So, although she has suffered a loss, there is no protocol for dealing with that loss. Just as the men who drank wine at the feast may not have known exactly what to expect from the foreign yet familiar beverage.[17]
The final use of wine prefaces Beowulf’s descent into Grendel’s mere. Before Beowulf makes his speech and dives, the poet tells us that Unferth lent Beowulf his sword, Hrunting, and also that Unferth did not remember what he’d said before, when he was “wine druncen” (1465-67).[18] What he spoke before is either untold or is an allusion to Unferth’s challenge to Beowulf upon his arrival in Hrothgar’s court, what many have called a flyting match (Ward Parks). Regardless, the poet’s reference to Unferth’s lapse of memory when drunk with wine helps to defame Unferth who is unwilling to descend into the mere himself and must either have failed to defeat Grendel with Hrunting, or worse, never tried. Moreover, we must bear in mind that despite the sword’s record in previous battles, Hrunting fails in Grendel’s mere: it would not bite into Grendel’s mother (1523).[19]
Though perhaps less poignantly placed, the compounds meaning “wine-hall” -- "winreced" and "winsele" -- occur at points when halls, both Heorot and other unnamed halls, fail as the epicenters of Germanic society. When Hrothgar orders Heorot built, the poet says that he commands men to build a “medoaern micel” ("a great mead-building," 69). Even in his account of Grendel’s desecration of it, he refers to Heorot as a mead-hall still, (484) a fiction Beowulf politely echoes in his otherwise combative response to Unferth by also referring to Heorot as “thisse meoduhealle” (638). However, the poet/narrator calls Heorot a “winreced” (wine hall) in line 714 when Grendel “Wod under wolcnum,” to Heorot. "Winreced" recurs in line 993, at the celebratory feast that is celebrated too soon and winsele occurs directly before and during Grendel’s attack (695, 771). A hall should be a safe place, but at these points Heorot’s function is undermined and altered and it becomes a gathering of victims for monsters rather than a place of unity and rejoicing. The final occurrence of "winsele" comes in Beowulf’s speech before the fight with the dragon as part of the “Father’s Lament” (2456). Here it comes in the half-line “winsele westne,” deserted wine-hall. A deserted mead-hall is almost an oxymoron, so, just as when Heorot is referred to as a “winreced” by the poet, the “winsele” of the Father’s Lament is not the merry center of a comitatus and so the poet makes the distinction between the failed hall and the successful hall explicit through his diction. Just as things had gone horribly wrong in Hrothgar’s realm, the lamenting father’s loss of both sons through one’s killing of the other is a tragic undermining of normalcy.
Although the Beowulf-poet does not use the poculum motif precisely, he does use beverages to distinguish between the usual and the unusual. Mead, beer, and ale were all highly important to Germanic society, so intrinsic thereto that they specify a variety of other nouns in compounds. These drinks unify society within the hall culture in Beowulf and in the reality of early Germanic society, like the sharing of bread that gives us companion, sharing mead and beer is a foundational social act. Unlike mead, beer, and ale -- all of which are ubiquitous in Beowulf -- wine appears in more specialized instances, surrounding individuals and actions that contrast with expectations for how hall-life should work. Wine marks instances where things are not as they seem and where social expectation is not met. We can thus read wine as a harbinger of the chaos that the anti-social Grendel, the dragon, and Grendel’s mother[20] both bring and symbolize into the human world of Beowulf.

[1] Much as we now and many the world over use alcoholic beverages to toast our good fortune and honor the departed.
[2] Such as that recorded in the Eddas.
[3] “win nys drenc cilda ne dysgra ac ealdra and wisra” (Marsden, 10, ll. 67-68)
[4] Magennis notes that “In the Bible itself the cup metonymically represent the wine which it contains, and it shares the metaphoric associations of this wine. In the Old Testament wine typically denotes the good things rightly enjoyed by men” (518).
[5] Magennis cites: Judge’s 9:13: quae respondit numquid possum deserere vinum meum quod laetificat Deum et homines et inter ligna cetera commoveri (And it answered them: Can I forsake my wine, that cheereth God and men, and be promoted among the other trees?)
and Ecclesiasticus 31:35: vinum in iucunditate creatum est non in ebrietate ab initio (Wine was created from the beginning to make men joyful, and not to make them drunk.)
[6] The eucharist symbolizes salvation, but also Christ’s execution. In De Auguriis, Aelfric achieves a similar, though opposite, distinction through different means by using the native English "cuppan" when speaking of the devil’s cup and the Latin loan calic for God’s cup: “Ne mage ge samod drincan ure drihtnes calic / and thaes deofles cuppan to deathe eowre sawle” (Aelfric, “De auguriis” in Lives of Saints: ,217-18) (cited by Magennis 526). Thus, Aelfric divides the symbolism of wine in the Bible and, much like the Beowulf-poet, though the Latinate Aelfric inverts the value of native vs. foreign by using calice, a Latin loanword and the ultimate root of our modern chalice for the good cup and the native cuppa- for the bad. Aelfric seems to privilege Latin learning over Native tradition.
[7] "medoaern" (mead-hall/building 69),  "medobenc" (mead-bench 776,1052, 1067, 2185), "medodream" (2016), "medoful" (mead-cup 624, 1015), "medoheal" (484, 638), "medostig" (path to the mead hall 924), "meduseld" (mead-hall 3065), "meodosetl" (mead-hall seat 5), "meodowong" (meadow around the mead hall 1643), "meoduscenc" (mead-cup 1980).
[8] In lines 1052 and 1067, the mead-bench sets the perfectly ordinary scene of hall life as it should be, warriors are seated on them (1052), the scop sings his song along them (1067), and line 2185 mentions the mead-bench as part of the conventional setting of hall-life: the Geats did not expect much good from Beowulf to come to the mead-benc while he led them.
[9] “Meodoscencum hwearf / geond thaet heahreced Haerethes dohtor, / lufode tha leod lithwaege baer / haethnum to handa”
[10] “Ic him Geata sceal / eafoth ond ellen ungeara nu / guthe gebeodan. Gaeth eft se the mot / to medo modig siththan morgenleoht / ofer yylda bearn othres dogores / sunne sweglwered suthan scineth”
[11] The word “medudream” which we can literally translate as “mead joy,” but is also translated as conviviality (student edition) and jollity (dictionary); Beowulf uses this word to describe the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom when recounting his time among the Danes to ????Geatish leader.
When Beowulf dies he is not just leaving “his magum” but the “meduseld” (mead-hall) he had occupied with them (3065).
[12] “Leoth waes asungen / gleomannes gyd. Gamen eft astah, / beorhtode bencsweg, byrelas sealdon / win of wunderfatum.” (The song was sung, the tale of the minstrel. Delight sprang up again, bench-rejoicing shone, cup-bearers gave wine from the wonder-vessels) (1159b-62a)
[13] Interestingly, both mothers of the poem work on behalf of their offspring.
[14] Additionally, like his tears after Aeschere’s death, this decision suggests that Hrothgar is overwhelmed by his emotions.
[15] “Eode tha to setle. Thaer waes symbla cyst, / druncon win weras.” (1232-33)
[16] In Juliana drinking and revelry are portrayed as sinful.
[17] “symbla cyst”
[18] the sweetness and higher alcohol by volume might well have gotten the better of men accustomed to drinking less alcoholic mead and ale.
[19] l. 531 beore druncen
[20]Eccl. 31:39-40: "Wine drunken with excess is bitterness of the soul. The heat of drunkenness is the stumblingblock of the fool, lessening strength and causing wounds." 
Unferth’s drunkenness cannot be blamed for Hrunting’s failure in the mere, but the fact that he was so drunk with wine that he lost memory, further discredits him, underscores his inferiority to Beowulf and foreshadows the imminent failure of Hrunting -- Unferth’s only extension of assistance in this fight and thus an extension of Unferth himself -- against a monster that, just like Grendel, is immune to conventional weapons.
[21] While the sharing of mead between Hrothgar and Hrothulf is pointed because of the poet’s and readers’ knowledge of Hrothulf’s eventual betrayal of Hrothgar, this is an ironic use of shared mead, but not one completely outside of the norms of Germanic society in the way that Grendel is. Grendel’s mother, more than either of the other monsters, lacks a clear position in the world of Beowulf.

                                                     Works Cited

Beowulf: An Edition. Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson eds. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.
Brown, Carleton. “Poculum Mortis in Old English.” Speculum. 15.4 (1940): 389-99.
Cook, Albert Stanburrough. “Bitter Beer-Drinking.” Modern Language Notes. 40.5 (1925): 285-88.
Glosecki, Stephen O. “Beowulf 769: Grendel’s Ale-Share.” English Language Notes. 25.1 (1987):  1-9.
Kim, Susan M. “‘As I Once Did with Grendel’: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf.” Modern Philology. 103.1 (2005): 4-27.
Magennis, Hugh. “The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature.” Speculum. 60.3 (1985): 517-36.
Ogilvy, J. D. A.  “Unferth: Foil to Beowulf?” PMLA. 79.4 (1964): 370-75.
Parks, Ward. “The Flyting Speech in Traditional Heroic Narrative.” Neophilologus. 71 (1987): 285-95.
Splitter, Henry Winfred. “The Relations of Germanic Folk Custom and Ritual to Ealuscerwen.” Modern Langugae Notes. 67.4 (1952): 255-58.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Writing on Pearl

Below is the paper that I gave at Kalamazoo back in May. I remain, as I mentioned in my last post, deeply grateful for the opportunity to present on Pearl and for the wonderful feedback I received on the paper while I was there. That said, I've honestly never found a paper as emotionally exhausting to write as this one, and the process has actually given me pause about my ideas for a second project. Writing about Pearl as I did a couple of years ago was more cathartic than anything else, and as a result I starting toying with the idea that my next project (once I get my manuscript for this first book together) would focus on the ways in which grief and mourning are depicted in Middle English literature. I can definitely see myself writing more on the topic at some point. At the moment, however, I don't think I'm in the right place or time. So much has happened since I wrote that earlier post on Pearl, and the additional losses I've experienced have made the process of writing about the poem much harder than I  anticipated.

I also found myself writing the bulk of this paper in April, which has become a terribly hard month for a variety of reasons. My father-in-law passed away on April 3rd (which also happened to be Easter Saturday) back in 2010, and so both the anniversary of his passing and Easter weekend itself are very painful. What is more, the due date for the first pregnancy that I lost (the one that I mentioned in my earlier post on Pearl) would have fallen in April, and so I always tend to find myself slowing to a kind of crawl during this month because of the weight of all of these anniversaries. Fortunately, I've survived enough of these Aprils to know what's coming and what to expect, which is why I found myself more than a little bemused by my choice in topic for this particular paper. I know that my rationale had been to write on it because it was the next logical step (i.e. use conferences as I've used them in the past: to vet ideas for larger projects), and so for that reason I'm glad that I took this leap and struggled through the writing process. It reminded me in a big way of how important it is to choose my large projects wisely and to make sure I can sit with them for a long, long time. I know for a fact that I haven't arrived at that juncture with this particular topic quite yet, but maybe — in a few years' time — I'll find myself there.


Pearl's Poetics of Grief

“[T]here is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve -- even in pain -- the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain” (Bonhoeffer, 238)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these words in a letter to Eberhard Bethge — his student, close friend, and confidant — while imprisoned and awaiting his execution for his role in the attempted assassination of Adolph Hitler. I have thought quite frequently about this passage over the past few months as I prepared this talk.  Pearl, at its core, wrestles with the same themes of pain and absence born of grief that Bonhoeffer describes, and the poem ultimately argues for a similar conceptualization of loss — that it is impermanent, and that joy can be found through the suffering that comes with loss.  

       But Pearl, as many scholars have articulated, hones in on the spiritual problems of excessive grief, and many have seen the dreamer as someone who has forgotten himself in the midst of his pain. In focusing on the absence of his beloved pearl, he has forgotten both God and the possibility of salvation.  His forgetfulness, in this reading, belies a kind of foolishness similar to the self-indulgent grieving of Olivia in Twelfth Night, for which Feste chides her: 

Feste: Good Madonna, why mournest though?
Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death
Feste: I think his soul is in hell, Madonna.
Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste: The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. . . . 
(Act I, Scene V, 357-60)

In similar way, the Pearl maiden chides the dreamer for making the same kind of error. Corey Owen has observed, however, that this criticism may not extend to the narrator we encounter in the poem, who seems — especially at the beginning and end of the poem — to be reflecting on his past experiences and mistakes. Moreover, the configuration of the Pearl maiden has long contributed to arguments that the poem is either an elegy or an allegory, and scholars such as Daniel Kline have stressed how the allegorical approach and related attempts to universalize the Pearl maiden and the narrator’s grief diminish the personal pains and experiences so poignantly conveyed in the narrative.

I want to offer up two interpretive possibilities in complement to these established readings. The first is that the author simultaneously personalizes and universalizes the child — as well as the grief experienced by narrator/dreamer — in order to actualize the instructional potential of the poem. I am suggesting, in other words, that these dual impulses  in the poem are not mutually exclusive, as some scholars have worried they might be, but are rather deeply complementary. The second possibility — one that lies at the core of Pearl’s poetics of grief — is that the poem invites its readers to simultaneously criticize and sympathize with dreamer. While the poem presents the dreamer as an excessive griever, the state of abjection formed by his immeasurable grief gives rise to the dream vision itself. In this way, the poem stresses not only the dangers of emotional excess, but also the seeming inevitability of this part of the grieving process and the potential it offers for growth and revelation. These two, dual aspects — the sympathetic/critical and the personal/universal — cooperatively present an atemporal and metacritical model of the grieving process. This model meshes criticism of the griever’s “category mistakes” with the rueful acknowledgment that, as fellow human beings, we are only separated from the narrator “in degree, not in time,” — to borrow from Arthur Bahr’s recent paper on Patience —  bound as we are to the same experiences and constraints of earthly existence.

The poem begins with the establishment of the narrator’s fallen state caused by his excessive and – as he will learn – misguided grief. The very first word, “perle,” introduces us to the object of the narrator’s affections and of his grieving and, to borrow from Sarah Stanbury, to the poem’s “central object and symbol” (31, n. 1). The centrality of the pearl is made very clear in these opening stanzas, especially in their conclusions: the first two stanzas end with the phrase “that [or my] privy perle withouten spot” and the third through fifth stanzas end with “that [or my] precious perle withouten spot.” Each stanza, however, ultimately provides deeper insight into the dreamer’s bereaved state. We learn of the pearl’s disappearance in the first stanza, and the other four go to great lengths to depict a man fixated on his pearl’s assumed “imprisonment” in the earth, this awareness causing him intense pain. In this nearly exclusive focus on the earth and related images of rot and decay, the dreamer literalizes his inability to think beyond his earthly cares and losses and perceive the broader, spiritual implications of the loss that so pains him. Pained as he is, however, he cannot keep himself from thinking about her as we see in the final lines of each stanza, and it is these meditations on his lost pearl that ultimately serve as an access point for the dream vision itself. 

This rhythmic iteration of the Pearl’s simultaneous presence and absence overshadows the grief of the narrator and hint at the limitations of the griever’s perspective.  As Sarah Stanbury illustrates, the term “privy” — and to a lesser extent, “precious” — not to mention the repetition of the phrase “my perle” at the end of each stanza — emphasizes the possessive attitude that the dreamer takes towards his pearl. The phrase “withouten spot,” by contrast can mean not only that the pearl is blemish-free but that it also has no one place/spot to call home; and as an aside, it also could easily tie into Boethian conceptualizations as well, where the dreamer himself has essentially – to paraphrase the famous line from the Consolatio, forgotten who he is. He has lost the object that gave him a stable sense of identity, and has, in this sense, lost his own spot. This very line, then, hints at the mystical abode of the Pearl maiden described in the proceeding sections while simultaneously pointing towards the flawed perspective of the dreamer. 

I say dreamer, and not narrator, because I think it is important to acknowledge the presence of two “versions” of the speaker we meet in the poem. As Corey Owen has argued, the poem offers us two different personas: the dreamer in throws of grief and the narrator who writes of his past experiences. With this in mind, I would like to offer that the outset of the poem, and even the depiction of the dreamer himself, should potentially be viewed through this more sympathetic lens. The narrator, as Owen observes so well, has had time to process and manage his grief — to exit out of his abject state thanks to the vision and the lessons learned in the dream world.  Thus, while the opening lines serve as a critical reflection on the fallen state of the dreamer, that reflection does not necessarily need to be divorced of sympathy — of the awareness that his suffering may well be a mirror to our own.

 “Death,” as David Aers remarks in his article on Pearl, “is a massive challenge to human identity. The disclosure of an utter powerlessness framing our will to control others, our environments, and ourselves. Death shatters networks in which human identity is created and sustained: we mourn, inevitably, for ourselves and the unwelcome reminder of the contingency of all that gives us a sense of identity, the reminder of the precariousness of all that we habitually take for granted” (56). This powerlessness is vividly depicted in Section 1 of the poem. The narrator describes the pearl as falling “thurgh gresse to grounde” (10), her color now “clad in clot” and marred by the “moul” (the earth) (22, 24). He, in turn, is frozen, chilled by a grief “that does bot thrych my herte thrange / My breste in bale bot bolne and bele” (17-18). He observes, or at least suggests, that he knew better than to despair but could not help himself: 

A deuely dele in my hert denned
Thagh resoun settle 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 (51-56)  

The first fifty lines of the poem capture, in striking and startlingly accurate detail, the excruciating pain — both physical and emotional — that come with the loss of someone precious to you. These last lines, in particular however, lend credence to Owen’s assertion that the narrator speaks with greater wisdom than the dreamer, because they describe the very solutions to the problems faced by the dreamer — solutions that the dreamer cannot see because of his fixation on the earthly. 

Nevertheless, his forgetfulness, and the despair from which it is born, is not necessarily cause for criticism.  The opening of the poem, for instance, in its description of a garden and of a private moment of agony, seem to evoke Christ’s moments of apprehension in the garden of Gethsemane. And just as the angel visits Christ to strengthen him, so too does the Pearl maiden visit her father to help him recontextualize and manage his grief. A further similarity appears when we examine lines 1 (“Perle plesaunte to prynces paye”), 1164 (“Hit was not at my Prynces paye,”), and 1176 (“Now all be to that Prynces pay”). In the first, we have a reference to secular princes — to the earthly — and the pleasure that men take in the animate and inanimate objects of their affection. In the lines that follow, we are informed that the narrator’s problems stem from his inability to accept Christ’s (the Prince’s) will, manifest in the loss of his child. By the end of the dream vision, however, the narrator is able to contextualize his inability to cross the streambed and be with his beloved pearl. He is able to come to terms with his loss and his suffering in ways convergent with that of Christ in the garden.

In the gospel of Matthew’s account, for instance, Jesus tells Peter and Simon that: “My soul is sorrowful even unto death: stay you here, and watch with me” (Matthew: 26:38, Douay). He then falls to the earth “upon his face” before asking “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” In Luke’s version, an angel comes to Christ him to give him strength before he returns to his disciples. The narrative arc of Pearl mirrors Christ’s actions in the garden almost exactly: we have a man consumed with despair, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” who falls to the ground in a state of abjection and/or supplication. He receives divine counsel and strength, and is able to face the world and his unfortunate circumstances with a resoluteness he did not have before.  

Considering the dreamer/narrator as a figure modeling Christ’s spiritual journey in Gethsemane doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to jettison the idea that the dreamer is flawed. That would be ill-advised, I think, especially given the number of times that the Pearl maiden has to chastise the dreamer for misconstruing his and her circumstances. As Sarah Stanbury has observed, the very structure of the dialogue is rooted in the narrator’s repeated category mistakes and “acts of passionate misreading.” In this way, the narrator/dreamer certainly differs from Christ in the garden, given that Christ, from the very start of that episode, understands that God’s will must be done. At the same time, reading Pearl alongside the biblical narratives of Gethsemane allows for a more sympathetic approach; it invites readers into an awareness that even their creator suffered tremendously and was occasionally overwhelmed in the face of his suffering. With that being the case, how could we fault a man for being overly consumed with grief over the loss of his loved one? Moreover, while the dreamer might not be able to accept God’s will at the outset of the poem, he is clearly able, or at least beginning to be able, to do so at poem’s end. 

Certain critics have expressed dissatisfaction over the “pat” way in which the poem concludes, or have seen it as an unresolved ending, where the narrator tries to convince himself of his improved state more than anything else. I would offer, however, that by keeping the image of Gethsemane in mind, the conclusion of the poem becomes all the more whole/wholly satisfactory. The dreamer wakes because his desire to be with the Pearl maiden gets the better of him yet again, but unlike the opening of the poem, which finds him unable to accept spiritual comfort, the dreamer – upon waking – sighs and says: “Now al be to that Prynces paye” (1174). He observes, in both the previous stanza and the one that follows this line, that rushing across the waters was not to God’s liking, which is why the dream vision ends; he even elaborates in lines 1189-94 that he might have been granted a more extended vision of the afterlife if “to that Prynces paye hade I ay bente / and yerned no more then was me gyven.” The dreamer finds himself afflicted with a “longeyng hevy” because of his removal from the dreamscape, but he is now able to cling to his renewed understanding of God’s will and to a certain acceptance of his powerlessness in the face of it. To return to Aers’ observations about death and identity disruption, death no longer holds the same fears for the dreamer. Whereas at the outset he saw the Pearl as the one imprisoned, by the end of the poem he is able to rejoice — however wistfully — that she has escaped the “doel-doungoun” in which he and all humans are consigned to dwell. He realizes, in other words, how deeply he had misread the circumstances that gave rise to his grief. In this way, the narrator completes a similar metaphysical and meditative journey that Christ undergoes in the garden, and exits with a greater ability to trust in God’s will. The poem, as a result, simultaneously acknowledges the problematic state in which the dreamer finds himself at the outset of the poem (i.e. abject and excessive grief) and the fact that such a state is inevitable if one lives long enough in the world. The solution, as offered by the poem, is the meditative journey exemplified by Christ and imitated by the narrator — a movement from a state of abject grief and despair to one of acceptance and spiritual perspective.

The conclusion of the poem, especially its description of the dreamer’s aborted attempt to ford the river, makes very clear that the dreamer (and even the more spiritually mature narrator) hasn’t escaped his grief entirely. It is still something with which he will have to contend for as long as he continues to exist in the world. And it is here, in these passages before and after the dream vision that the poem invites readers to simultaneously universalize and personalize its narrative.  Whereas Chaucer, Langland, and Gower often give specific names (however emblematic) to their dreamers and their narrators, the dreamer here is given no such specificity, and the same goes for the Pearl maiden. This allows readers to either read the poem as a personal narrative of one man grieving for a daughter or to understand it as a universalizing meditation on loss. The powerful description of grief, however, has caused some — Daniel Kline in particular — to argue against the universalizing of the child and of the situation the poem describes. To Kline, “purely symbolic” readings of the Pearl maiden “rob. . . her of her individual life. The poem [as he argues] attempt[s] to restore her particularity” (120). Kline is particularly invested in reconciling this reading with the fact that the dreamer doesn’t recognize the Pearl as his pearl when he first sees her. He argues rather convincingly that the lack of recognition is both a sign of pathological grief and of his inability to see the maiden as a “subject in her own right.” 

While I agree with these arguments, I would like to offer, as I wind this paper to a close, that the poem is even more generous than Kline asserts. Kline writes movingly of the awful loss of his third child — through a tragic late-term miscarriage — in the same article, driving home how important it is to remember and honor the particular circumstances of a person’s grief. This is why it’s generally a terrible idea to tell a grieving person, when they’re in the throws of bereavement, that you understand how they feel. The simple fact of the matter is that you can’t know how they feel, even if you’ve experienced an equivalent kind of loss, because you are not them. By the same token, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been comforted by the stories of others in times of sorrow. When we experience loss and grief, as I wrote some time ago, we’re given the opportunity to enter into a “strange and beautiful communion with all who have (and all who will) endure” painful losses. This is why, perhaps, the dreamer begins his journey in a state of self-inflicted isolation at the outset of the poem, but ends it with an allusion to the spiritual and communal body of Christ: “That in the form of bred and wyn / The preste uus shewes uch a day / He gef to uus to be His homly hyne / And precious perles unto His pay” (1209-12).  The repeated emphasis on the first person plural in these lines resituates the narrator’s grief into the larger communal Christian body, one that the dreamer can now see himself rejoining. The dreamer completely isolates himself in his grief at the outset of the poem by relying to an extreme degree on the deeply personal circumstances of his loss. The end of the poem, however, shows him beginning to see the value in balancing the personalizing impulses of grief with a sense of universal or communal awareness of the suffering of others. I say beginning, because we are left at the end of the poem with an occluded vision of the narrator’s successful reentry into that communal Christian body, and I like to think that this is because the poet is trying to present his readers with a portrait of grief that Is genuinely open to interpretation – similar to how Patience ends with the unclear overlapping of God’s and Jonah’s voices — and still somewhat in flux. The narrator/dreamer still has a long way to go, but he at least has gotten to the point by the end of the poem where he can say the right words. These words and lines are, in fact, practically ripped from the pages of penitential literature, and my sensing is that the poet ends Pearl in this way to drive home the need for communality. By saying these words — ones said and written by so many others before him — the narrator enters into that “strange and beautiful” communion with his fellow pilgrims on the road. 

Just as the narrative arc of Pearl mirrors that of Christ’s agony in the garden, so will the lives of its readers inevitably include similar moments of pain and loss. Pearl challenges its audience, however, to remember that while the initial, isolated state of the narrator might be excessive, those very kinds of raw states can give rise to revelations that will allow us to more peaceably abide in the world. Pearl reminds us that even the most abject can rescue himself from despair — that, to draw on Patience, no one is unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness. These states are deeply painful and problematic, but the poem ultimately shows that wisdom can, in fact, spring from them as well. Pearls of great price, indeed.

N.B.: All images are taken from The Cotton Nero A.x. Project


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Edited by Gerhard Ludwig Müller and Albrecht Schönherr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996—.

Aers, David. “The Self Mourning: Reflections on Pearl.” Speculum 68 (1993): 54-73. 

Garrison, Jennifer. “Liturgy and Loss: ‘Pearl’ and the Ritual Reform of the Aristocractic Subject.” Chaucer Review (2010): 294-322. 

Kline, Daniel. “The Pearl, A Crayon, and a Lego.” Essays in Medieval Studies 15, 1998. 

Pearl. Ed. Sarah Stanbury. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001.