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.


  1. Hello,

    My name is Tarren and I am a graduate student at the University of Montana. I am embarking on my thesis project focusing on grief, mourning and melancholy in "Pearl" as well. I would love to exchange ideas and maybe bibliographies if you wouldn't mind!

    My email is tarren, I would love to hear from you soon!


  2. Tarren, I would be delighted to talk about Pearl with you sometime soon! I'm up to my eyeballs in grading at the moment, but once I surface in the next week or so, I promise to send you an email. Take care, and best wishes on your thesis!


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