Poetry Snippet: Pearl of Delight

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Page of the Pearl manuscript from the Cotton Library in Great Britain

Time for a Poetry Snippet! This is where I simply recommend a classic poem by sharing a bit of it and some of its background with you. My first Snippet comes all the way from the 14th Century. It was written by man who, despite his great talent and works, we do not even know the name of. As a result he is usually referred to as “The Gawain Poet”. Behind Chaucer, he is considered among the finest of the Medieval English Poets. He is named after his most famous work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem I am sharing with you today is not as famous, but in my opinion is one of the most beautiful things ever written: Pearl.

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Through grass to the ground from me it shot…

Pearl of delight that a prince doth please
To grace in gold enclosed so clear,
I vow that from over orient seas
Never proved I any in price her peer.
So round, so radiant ranged by these,
So fine, so smooth did her sides appear
That ever in judging gems that please
Her only alone I deemed as dear.
Alas! I lost her in garden near:
Through grass to the ground from me it shot;
I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear
For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.

The language in this poem can only be described as exquisite. I, unfortunately, do not speak Middle English (learning it and Anglo-Saxon is on my bucket list) but this version, translated by the wonderful J.R.R. Tolkien, captures such rich imagery with its choice of words and skillful alliterations that I am sure the original author would give it his stamp of approval.

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14th century illumination of the Jeweler and the Pearl Maiden

The story is more than it seems in the first stanza. For the main character, a jeweler, is not in fact mourning the loss of an actual pearl, but something far more dear: his daughter, a sweet baby girl who sadly died. The story begins with the Jeweler’s anguish and loss of faith. In his grief, he lays down by his ‘pearl’s’ garden grave and falls asleep. But in his sleep, he has a vision: His daughter, resplendent and beautiful in the joy of Heaven. Comforting him with wise and kindly words, she heals her father’s broken spirit and helps him regain his faith.

There seems to be little that could make the poem more touching, but there is. Rather than merely being a fiction, it is believed that the Gawain Poet may have actually lost his baby daughter and wrote this ballad in her honor. Indeed, the heart-rending language seems to hold a type of grief that only a lost child could bring. Some scholars disclaim the story, however, insisting that the allegorical poem cannot possibly have only one, simple interpretation. But whether the story of the lost daughter is true or not, the poem is a masterpiece.

Although the work is definitely a Christian one, with heavy Christian themes and Biblical allegory, I believe at least its aesthetic beauty can be appreciated by all. I’m also very fond of reading the poem aloud in its original language, even though I don’t actually understand it. There is something very pleasing to the ear in the rustic and yet delicate sound Old and Middle English. To hear and speak it is truly a delight. “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere/Of that pryvy perle wythouten spot…”. It is a very beautiful tongue from which our modern English springs.

You can read the entire poem translated by Tolkien at this Link. If, like me, you love Middle English or are interested in how it sounds, you can go here and feel your mind transported back about 700 years. But no matter how you read or interpret it, the poem is a treasure; a precious pearl, indeed.

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