The Pearl Poet:
The Mysteries of the Holy
By Gabriel Blanchard
This elusive author, whose writing contains so much of the sacred, the lovely, and the dreadful, is a surprisingly good thematic entry for our last profile before Christmas.
The Pearl Poet, also known as the Gawain Poet, is one of the most obscure figures on our Author Bank, as much so as Homer or the original compiler of The Thousand and One Nights. This author is so named from a set of fourteenth-century Middle English poems, surviving in just one manuscript. The Pearl Poet is presumed to be their author, though even this is not know for certain, and the identity of the Pearl Poet is lost to—well, to the sands of time, as seems appropriate for a pearl’s namesake.
Many people think that the Middle Ages were a period of unrelieved intellectual darkness, spent mostly wallowing in disease and mud, and that no one could read except the clergy. The only thing to be said about this is that it is not true. Literacy rates were far lower than today, yes, and technology and the sciences less advanced (though the same will probably be said about our time in another seven hundred years). But intelligence, accomplishment, and (above all) wisdom are not only to be found in TVs and bombs. The Middle Ages saw sweeping renewals and advances in architecture, music, and philosophy; the whole modern idea of romantic love has Medieval roots, and many of its images and stock phrases still are; and, in both form and material, these centuries saw the complete reshaping of poetry, especially in France and England.
There are four poems in the manuscript: Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is Pearl and Gawain that have won their author lasting, if anonymous, fame. We may dispose of Cleanness and Patience first, which are less important as literary influences in their own right than as exemplars of a common form of Medieval literature. There were few things Medievals did better than invent allegories and æsops, and few books they knew better than the Bible. Cleanness and Patience are didactic poems, using stories from Scripture to exhibit the virtues for which they are named—though, thanks partly to changes between Middle and Modern English, we would probably say purity and persistence now. The former work does address cleanliness as a part of “cleanness.” However, the work concentrates far more upon irreverence and idolatry, and, to a lesser extent, unchastity. Its main touchstones are the parable of the wedding banquet, the parting of Abraham and Lot and the sad later history of the latter, and the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. Patience is in large part a verse retelling of the book of Jonah, a prophet whose desire to positively escape the virtue of patience was very thoroughly thwarted. All edifying stuff, to be sure, typical not only of the Middle Ages but of all modernity; didactic literature (whether in verse or not) is not something a civilization can just go without.
When we come to Pearl, things are quite different. Like the previous two, it is theological. Moreover, it is theology about one of the most popular topics of theological discussion, among educated and uneducated alike: what happens after we die. In this case, the frame is of a man in grief who has recently lost his “Pearl” (likely a daughter who died young). He falls asleep and dreams that he sees a heavenly maiden on the far side of a stream, who greets him courteously. He soon realizes she is his Pearl; he wants to cross the river (which is death) and join her immediately, but she tells him he must wait on God’s timing. He bemoans his loss of her, but she replies that he has lost nothing but ephemera, and even implores him to lay aside his mourning. Her true being, she explains, is in heaven, where Christ has taken her as his queen. Bewildered, the poet asks if she has somehow replaced the Blessed Virgin Mary, and objects that the Pearl was too young to merit such a high degree of glory. Amused, the Pearl answers that Mary is most certainly still the queen of heaven, and more importantly that merit does not work like that: there is no envy in heaven, and therefore no rivalry or discourtesy or insistence on rank. She also adduces the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who all received the same reward despite wildly different contributions to the work. God bestows heavenly reward on whom, and in what degree, he pleases; it is a gift, not an act of justice, still less of injustice.
Unfortunately, at this stage of the summary we have only just passed the halfway mark! Suffice it to say, while it is certainly a theological dialogue, Pearl shows great depth of both doctrinal insight and human sensitivity. To share their ideas, many philosophers and theologians have written dialogues (e.g. Plato, St. Augustine, St. Anselm), but it often remains a mystery why they bothered, since they tend to consist in one clever man pontificating at immense length and one fool occasionally mentioning how right he is in reply. Pearl shows an actual conversation between people with rounded characters, touching on problems like grief and doubt that are both intellectual and practical, and (if the basic assumptions of Christianity are granted) gives satisfying answers to them. Not many works of theology, however much more grand or systematic, have risen to this level of wisdom and beauty.
Finally, we have the best-known of the bunch, and also the one set at Christmas: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.* This is quite an oddity. As the title may hint even to those not familiar with Sir Gawain, this is part of the broader Arthurian cycle—the sort of tale that, in a comprehensive narrative, will get folded into a phrase like Arthur’s knights went hither and yon and had many adventures, in order to get to the good bit that has Holy Graal in. However, it is among the strangest stories in all “the Matter of Britain.”
During a Christmas court under King Arthur, a huge green knight—dressed in green, yes, but also green of eyes, hair, teeth, and skin!—abruptly enters the hall and issues a friendly challenge: anyone may take his great green axe and strike him with it, and then the axe will be theirs—if they promise to accept the same kind of blow from him in one year’s time, away at the mysterious Green Chapel in the wilds. Sir Gawain volunteers, and strikes the Green Knight’s head clean off … only for the Green Knight to pick it up, tell Gawain cheerfully that it will be seeing him in a year, and departs.
One year later, Sir Gawain dutifully goes in search of the Green Chapel. He finds a castle whose lord says it is close at hand, and offers to let him rest there before proceeding; while there, the lady of the castle tries three times to seduce Gawain, but he refuses to dishonor his host. However, knowing of his quest, she presses a magical sash upon him that will secretly protect him from death. When Gawain meets the Green Knight, he almost succumbs to the temptation of relying on the sash to rescue him, but he finally steels himself to play honestly and sets it aside—only for the Green Knight to give him a light nick on the neck instead of “the same blow,” and laugh at Gawain’s bewilderment at being unharmed. On his return to the Round Table, all the knights declare that no one could have done any better, and declare that henceforth they will all wear a green sash to remind them to be honest.
The strangeness of the poem lies in all the questions it raises without answering, such as “What on earth is going on?” (toward the middle) and “What just happened?” (more at the end) and “But—why?” (throughout). Several weird bits are brought into existence by the Green Knight’s explanation at the end: for example, he relates that all of this was set up by Morgan le Fay, with the ultimate purpose of frightening Guinevere to death. This may, for all we non-medieval readers know, be a running project of Morgan’s, but if so it has left no other traces on Arthurian literature. The figure of the Green Knight himself is a real puzzle. His powers seem magical or even demonic, yet if he were a demon, his geniality and generosity would make no sense. His weirdness and association with the wilds and the color green may suggest something from the pre-Saxon Celtic culture of Britain, but no entity seems to exist that answers the description or “portfolio” of the Green Knight. He is altogether an enigma, and so is the poem that treats of him and of the greatest of Sir Gawain’s exploits.
And yet, seven centuries later, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight compels an audience, as Pearl does. Both works, in differing ways, point to the unpredictable and even whimsical ways of heaven, which break into our prim little worlds like visions and giants.
*Or in its delightful original spelling: Sir Gawayn and the Grene Kny3t. The 3 here represents the Middle English letter yogh, which no longer exists but is the main ancestor of the capricious gh that pops up in so many of our words to change the pronunciation seemingly at random.
Gabriel Blanchard is the editor at large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this post, this essay on poetry may interest you as well, or perhaps one of our many author profiles, from John Donne to George Eliot to Albert Camus. You might also like our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate. Thank you for reading the Journal; have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
Published on 19th December, 2022. Page image of a photograph of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (the traditional identification of Avalon and the grave of Arthur), taken in 1900 and colorized by the technique of Photochrome.