Generally speaking, poems are quite difficult things to review. They can be extremely emotive and personal, their meanings subjective to the reader’s perspective and background. To review such a personal thing can therefore seem harsh and unfeeling. Despite this, however, there are some poems, such as epic poems and poems which act as stories and myths in themselves, that are today read through, not the lens of a modern day poem, but as a separate form of writing. Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, is a twelve book epic poem, and can be reviewed and critiqued, regardless of the typical sensitivity associated with a modern day poem. This said, of course, Paradise Lost is still very personal to Milton, as he used the words and sounds that they made, to create a kind of tonal music within the poem, which reflects his reliance on these different sounds, after his loss of sight.
There are other poems which may be considered in similar, analytic forms, such as the less renowned poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author of this fourteenth century poem is unknown; all we do know, is that they wrote in Middle English, were, due to significant references, probably of the Christian faith, and that they likely did not only write Sir Gawain, but also three other, smaller poems: Pearl, Cleanness and Patience. Although it has not been stated, by any surviving manuscripts, that these poems did belong to the same author, renowned critics have, over the years, all agreed that they probably did; the writing style, themes and patterns of writing are too similar to have been written by different poets. In this review, however, I will focus on the less famous poem, Pearl, which interested me for several reasons; for one, it demonstrates a metaphorical embodiment of the objectification of women, demonstrating the age of the patriarchy; for another, it explores the possibilities of a dream-like heaven world, considering not only the glorification of heaven, but also the economics of this Paradise.
Pearl begins by depicting a father who has been put “in thys del and gret daunger” (Part V), here meaning, ‘in grief and distress’, due to the loss of his pearl. He searches his garden for this jewel, whilst alluding to its beauty and perfection, for it was a “pryvy perle wythouten spot” (Part I), or ‘pretty pearl without a spot’. As the tale continues however, it becomes apparent that the man’s “pearl” is in fact his daughter, who died when she was an infant. Although the poet uses darker language at this point, interweaving the theme of death alongside the father’s primary narrative, the father supposes that “uch gresse mot grow of graynes dede” (Part I), or that new plants must grow from the dead, and that good may still come from bad. This prefigures the next few parts to the poem, as the father falls into a dream-like trance on top of his daughter’s grave, and wakes up in a what he calls “Paradise”. As the poem proceeds, he meets a queen of the Paradise, who he later realises to be the daughter he lost. She introduces herself as a queen, and welcomes him, but bids him to stop weeping for her, as God had saved her. She continued to explain that God had made her his queen, and that she thus had become a royal of Paradise.
The father, however, has issues understanding what his daughter is telling him, as he is focused on the human and the literal, forgetting that the supernatural defies the boundaries of human knowledge. She insists, for example, that she lives as Jesus’ wife in Paradise, which is the city of Jerusalem. The literal father has many issues with his, first complaining that she could surely not be worthy of such a position, when she had died as such a small girl, and had therefore had not had time in her life to be loyal to God. The daughter tries to explain that God excuses the innocent, and sees them as equal to the righteous through multiple parables, but then her father suggests that there must be worthier women than her, who could be Jesus’ wife. The daughter then explains that Jesus has a total of 140,000 wives, but that they do not fight or have competitions between them, for they are all worthy in the eyes of God. She even goes as far as to say, “bot uchon enle we wolde were fyf” (Part XV), here claiming that she wishes that every new wife were five new ones, as she alludes to the common phrase, ‘the more the merrier’. The father, whilst apparently not understanding how this many wives could cooperate equally, then complains that his daughter cannot live in Jerusalem in heaven, because Jerusalem was in Judea on Earth, to which his daughter simply says that there may be more than one of a thing at one time, and that God recreated the city for them to enjoy in Paradise. What the father unveils through this system of questioning, is the functioning economics of heaven, although he does not recognise them as such, for he only sees them as impossible and illogical.
This links to another theme which the poem seeks to highlight: dualism. This is the belief, first explored by Plato, that the body and soul are two divisible entities, which not only ensures that the soul will survive after the death of the physical form, but also suggests that the soul preexists the body. Plato even went as far as to suggest that the body was an obstacle to the supernatural duties of the soul, as it was weighed down and distracted by bodily desires, such as the need for food and sleep. This idea is explored in multiple passages in Pearl, but is most vividly demonstrated by the passage that reads, “fro spot my spryt ther sprang in space; / My body on balke ther bod in sweven. / My goste is gon in Godes grace / In aventure ther mervayles meven” (Part II). What this is essentially saying, is that the spirit (or soul) is separated from the body so that it can pursue its “aventure”, or ‘quest’ in heaven. This can only happen, however, once it is severed from the body and thus, according to Platonian thought, is released to pursue its true purpose.
The other thing that I wanted to highlight regarding the issues raised in Pearl, was the language of precious stones, and, in particular, pearls. The father objectifies his daughter to the role of a pearl as he searches for her, and yet this turns out to not be an insult to women, but a compliment, as Christ is later compared to a pearl, and pearls are described to adorn Paradise, present almost everywhere the father travels on his adventure into heaven. This is emphasised by the final two lines of the poem, which read: “he gef uus to be his homly hyne / Ande precious perles unto his pay.” (Part XX), which means ‘May He grant us to be his lowly servants and precious pearls to be his liking’; whilst the term ‘pearl’ may have originally seen as a way of objectifying women, it here becomes clear that to be Christ’s ‘pearl’, should be the ultimate goal of humankind; they want to be pearls without spots, just as God wants us to be humans without sins.
Although my own religious beliefs lean towards atheism, Pearl was still an interesting poem; this was my first encounter of the Middle English language, and it took me a long time to work through this poem, if only because I constantly found myself rereading sections and looking the majority of the words up in a dictionary. Nevertheless, the ideas considered here are unusual, and therefore intriguing. Not many poems attempt to describe heaven in such precise terms, considering its symmetry and beauty. The poem also indicates that the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, along with the other smaller poems attributed to this same poet, was a Christian. Like Paradise Lost, therefore, it may be fair to say, that whilst such epic poems cannot be assessed in the same ways that we judge modern poetry, there is nevertheless a personality to them that is interjected by the writer. Whilst some poets use their work to explore their emotions, fears and desires, this writer used their work to explore the possibilities of their faith, and to promote its importance amongst their readers.