Juliana L. McCabe
Professor Jennings
English 487
St. Joseph’s College

Pearl: Questing in a Dreamscape
Reading the anonymo...
McCabe 2
doungoun” (1187) of mortality. Preoccupied with his bereavement, he speaks of the “corn [that]
is cut with sickle...
McCabe 3
effect, his attachment to a fellow creature has displaced the amity he once had toward his God;
this amity is res...
McCabe 4
versus “diabolic” distinction to the image of the pearl itself, pointing out that it can signify a
range of thing...
McCabe 5
has “reconfigured the traditional courtly quest motif by pressing it into the service of a vertical
quest for tru...
McCabe 6
of the ambiguous “sister-spouse” (Cant. 4.12) identification of the beloved in the biblical
canticle. Pearl is id...
McCabe 7
Luttrell states that the poet “takes the conventional garden setting for a dreamer and makes it the
foundation of...
McCabe 8
transcends the dreamer’s own emotional state in that the psalm foretells of Christ’s Passion. The
maiden’s recoun...
McCabe 9
as a gem) with universal, eternal values in the proem. The term “precious pearl” appears in the
two consecutive s...
McCabe 10
unambiguously (despite its figurative semantics) conflicts with the dreamer’s obsessive quest to
recover his los...
McCabe 11
understanding—that she is no longer what she was when he knew her. She refers to her old self
in the third perso...
McCabe 12
vestiges of the divine in the Book of Nature, to a purely spiritual vision of God. Thus, the
dreamer progresses ...
McCabe 13
that the further he walks alongside it, the “more strength of joy [his] heart doth strain” (128).
Relating his e...
McCabe 14
learned to control his senses by means of reason” [46]), this is not the only such occurrence in
the narrative. ...
McCabe 15
intellectual arguments; paradoxically, he has to act on his impulse to try the limits set on his
conduct before ...
McCabe 16
appropriate of a woman, blend easily with fyne love terms like ‘luf-daungere’ (11) and ‘luflongyng’ (1152)” (22)...
McCabe 17
melancholy, resulting in self-destructive actions; Aers regards the dreamer’s “defiant readiness to
die in his t...
McCabe 18
depths of the Hellespont. The Florentine poet implicitly contrasts Leander’s illicit passion with
the pilgrim’s ...
McCabe 19
excessively attached to earthly goods.” There is ample evidence in the text of this cupidity in the
protagonist,...
McCabe 20
suggest a typical image of the golden vessel—with shining extrusions radiating from the circular
compartment tha...
McCabe 21
noting the “correspondences” between the poem and the biblical text. She observes that both
narratives take plac...
McCabe 22
Whom “each day one sees” (1209–1210). This implicitly incorporates the “noli me tangere”
motif within the grail ...
McCabe 23
Cooper’s comment that the “supra-natural in Pearl requires not a mere adjustment to the rules of
a fairy culture...
McCabe 24
recapitulating Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is cast out of the earthly paradise
when he fails to ob...
McCabe 25
that the poem’s protagonist has “looked and longed for” (14) is in “gold enclosed” (2), is in
“precious pearls a...
McCabe 26
applied to the dreamer’s perception, which is earthbound and faulty. This subtlety in the text is
yet another il...
McCabe 27
relinquishing (his unlearning) of his first-person singular rhetoric to speak in the first-person
plural as indi...
McCabe 28
regression. Although, as has been pointed out by Prior (42), he plunges into the stream at the
sight of the maid...
McCabe 29
escape from the misery of this “doel-doungoun” is what Prior discusses as the means of
transformation “into a di...
McCabe 30
“Bliss” (796–797)—in reference to Christ effectively neutralizes his worldly perspective. Wilson
sees evidence o...
McCabe 31
395)—may have taken the life of the poet’s own daughter. This seems plausible, given the text’s
emphasis on bein...
McCabe 32
spiritual retreat in order to effectively continue “his fighting days on earth.” Bogdanos refers to
the garden s...
McCabe 33
work of grace—in short, he has learned patience. Moreover, he finally divests himself of his
former self-absorpt...
McCabe 34
imply his participation in the Communion of Saints. Again, although there is no indication in the
text that the ...
McCabe 35
parallel relationship of an oyster as a chamber for the “spotless” pearl, and the body of a
Christian as a chamb...
McCabe 36
the soul] may lead to the most profound kind of religious union possible” (69), noting, however,
that the “oppos...
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Pearl thesis

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Pearl thesis

  1. 1. Juliana L. McCabe Professor Jennings English 487 St. Joseph’s College Pearl: Questing in a Dreamscape Reading the anonymously authored Pearl, it is impossible to overlook the fact that the narrator lives in a fallen world. The poem’s setting is a carefully arranged garden, with the haunting memory of a lost paradise informing the text. This is established in the very first stanza, in which sorrow—unknown to Adam and Eve in their innocence—is the dominant mood, as the speaker pines for his Pearl, “lost . . . in garden near” (9). With the pain of exile in the “weeping world” (761) no longer alleviated by the balm of fellowship, the grief-stricken protagonist is isolated both physically and psychologically. He remembers how Pearl “was wont from woe to free” him, to “uplift [his] lot and healing bring” (15–16). Initially, he sees his plight only in terms of his own personal bereavement, without any awareness of the universality of his condition. Death—a consequence of the Fall—is referenced in his cry “O mould! Thou marrest a lovely thing” (23); and although this outburst pertains to the particular death of Pearl, all sublunary creation partakes of this transience. The nearly autumnal setting for the narrative underscores this mortality, brought into the world by “man’s first disobedience.” Grieved to “think that [Pearl’s] radiance in clay should rot” (22) in “darkling earth” (30), the narrator clearly apprehends only the physical reality of death. Nikki Stiller notes his “all-encompassing sensuality” (402), a kind of prison in that the spiritual dimension is not apparent; this implied idea recurs explicitly in line 250 and at the end of the poem, when he resigns himself, for the time being, to the “doel-
  2. 2. McCabe 2 doungoun” (1187) of mortality. Preoccupied with his bereavement, he speaks of the “corn [that] is cut with sickles keen” (40), an image that resonates beyond the literal harvesting of wheat, evoking human mortality. In the sixth stanza, the narrator enters the dreamscape—he “knew not where in the world” (65)—the splendor of which highlights the shortcomings of his waking world with its sorrow, death and decay. The fallen race which is subject to this mortality suffers certain other effects of original sin, including darkened intellect and weakened will (Laux 99). From the first moments of their reunion, the maiden has cause to correct the dreamer, describing his speech as “mis-spent” (257). His obtuseness continues, and he soon articulates in quick succession three errors, which the maiden promptly corrects. As Borroff points out, the dreamer’s “knowledge of doctrine seems not to be matched by understanding” (Sir Gawain 112). Although his confusion resulting from his darkened intellect is somewhat dispelled by the end of the poem, the protagonist’s corrupted will is perhaps an even greater obstacle to his reformation. In the fifth stanza, he confesses that “in woe [his] will ever strove distraught” (56) with his reason; prior to his dream experience, he is helpless in the grip of a dangerous melancholy. His compromised will operates in a disordered fashion a number of times within the dream itself. For instance, he proposes to dwell with the maiden in the earthly paradise, bypassing death and without God’s leave. He then obstinately withholds his docility, rendering himself nearly uneducable when the maiden attempts to instruct him. The narrator-dreamer’s spiritual chaos is also evident in an imbalance of concupiscence, irascibility and reason. In fact, Gardner considers the “proper functioning” of these powers to be a “central motif” (54) in the Pearl-poet’s work. Unregulated concupiscence undermines the narrator-dreamer’s condition as he longs to possess what he cannot have, culminating in his rash attempt to force his way into the celestial paradise, prompted by his attraction to the maiden. In
  3. 3. McCabe 3 effect, his attachment to a fellow creature has displaced the amity he once had toward his God; this amity is restored when the former dreamer recalls that “day and night [he has] known” Christ as a “God, a Lord, a Friend divine” (1203–1204). His irascibility is exercised wrongly when he expresses indignation at what he deems to be the maiden’s “too high a place” (492) in the heavenly realm. Moreover, his resistance to the consolation offered by “Christ Himself” (55) is evidence of his disordered irascibility, though “reason to reconcile [him] sought” (52). Without reason governing his faculties, the dreamer is impaired in his spiritual progress. The narrative’s literal development (its plot) anchors additional levels of meaning: the spiritual senses—allegory, anagogy and tropology—traditionally applied in biblical exegesis. Margaret Williams asserts that Pearl and its companion poems “could be used as exemplars of this patristic outlook” (23). Also present in the text is an ingenious synthesis of archetypes, symbolism and implied meaning. One of the hallmarks of the poet’s technique is the deft use of ambiguity, with multiple (and, at times, opposing) meanings suggested by the text. The various spiritual senses are employed to produce a complicated system of artistic coherence that is consistent with a profound and sincerely held Christian faith. Bishop emphasizes that “there are threads of aenigma [i.e., a type of allegory] woven into the whole length of the poem’s fabric” (81), while Spearing has commented on the poem’s “synthesis of symbol with drama” (“Symbolic and Dramatic Development in Pearl” 3). The various levels of significance each contribute to the poem’s development, with “angelic” and “diabolic” values operating sometimes simultaneously. For example, the dreamer’s energetic leap into the stream—while morally indefensible, as it is a transgression of lawful boundaries—symbolically constitutes a movement toward regeneration, away from what David Aers views as the image of death found in the protagonist’s being physically prone on the burial mound (59). DeVries applies the “angelic”
  4. 4. McCabe 4 versus “diabolic” distinction to the image of the pearl itself, pointing out that it can signify a range of things, from “spotlessness,” to the earthly delight that “leads the narrator to grief and despair” (127). Additionally, he points out that the “term ‘pearl’ exists in an intertextual grid, a web of allusions that lace the poem into networks of precursor texts” (123). These implied texts, as many critics have pointed out, include (besides scripture) Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Romance of the Rose. The poet employs the range of strategies available to him—allegory, archetypes, structural devices, symbolism, etc.—to orchestrate a verbal symphony of various themes and motives. Moorman insists that “to emphasize any one of [the spiritual senses and other traditional elements] at the expense of the others is seriously to distort both the intention of the poet and the culminative effect of the whole poem” (50–51). While employing these strategies, the poet incorporates distinct questing patterns into the shimmering interplay of literal and spiritual senses. He allows his narrator-dreamer—whose soul goes “[a]dventuring where marvels chance” (64)—to pursue a quest in the tradition of courtly love, an implied grail quest and an antiquest. It is apparent that the two conventional quests fail, while the antiquest—the renunciation of the narrator’s disordered attachment to the world and its creatures—achieves some success. As Watson notes, he does “relinquish the pearl at last” (299). It is impossible to characterize this antiquest as finally achieved, however, since the narrator is still in the “weeping world” at the end of the poem, not yet a member of the Church Triumphant. He must continue to work out his salvation until he is permitted to cross the stream that separates souls in the flesh from their departed fellow creatures. The poet eventually undermines the two more glamorous situations—courtly love and the quest for the grail—by introducing conflicting motifs, dramatic obstructions and other elements. Mitchell, in his discussion of the archetypal axis mundi function of the “little mound of earth” on which the dreamer lies, asserts that the poet
  5. 5. McCabe 5 has “reconfigured the traditional courtly quest motif by pressing it into the service of a vertical quest for truth about the afterlife” (98). Similarly, the grail quest is undermined, as the maiden— who, described in line 178 as “polished” (an adjective that is evocative of the poet’s description of the doubly absolved hero in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), in “shredded gold” (165) with “precious pearls arrayed” (204), might be thought of as a jeweled grail or monstrance—eludes the dreamer’s grasp. Finally, the hapless quester is thrust from the dream at the moment of his heroic but wrongheaded attempt to cross the stream. Throughout the narrative, however, tension is maintained between the multiple questing patterns, with no single motive obviously gaining ascendancy too soon. On the contrary, dark conceits and veiled signs operate to allow the reader to work it all out along with the protagonist. Tison Pugh explores the way this poet engages the auditor/reader in Sir Gawain, observing that, employing the “protective disguises of allegory,” he tricks his audience with the “generic trappings of romance while providing a moral tale of Christian penitence” (544). The “disguises of allegory” and other techniques are used effectively in the present poem, resulting in a work of parallel developments, the most obvious being the courtly love quest. The narrator in Pearl introduces himself to the reader as a forlorn lover, wracked with “luf-daungere” (11). This self-characterization, combined with the setting of the garden, or “erbere” (9)—which, although laden with contradictory clues, resembles a conventional setting for courtly love discourses—disposes the unwary reader to expect a narrative about a quest for the love of an absent lady. However, on the allegorical and other spiritual levels, this development is eclipsed by the more serious theme of the relationship between God and the soul. In fact, the poet incorporates the language of the Song of Songs—an allegory itself—blending it into the courtly love discourse. First of all, the undefined relationship of the maiden to the dreamer is reminiscent
  6. 6. McCabe 6 of the ambiguous “sister-spouse” (Cant. 4.12) identification of the beloved in the biblical canticle. Pearl is identified mysteriously as “nearer than aunt or niece” (233), and is treated in the text alternately as both a daughter and a romantic love interest. This ambiguity has given critics a great deal of trouble, beginning with the now-tired “elegy versus allegory” controversy which focused on whether or not the deceased maiden is historically identifiable with the poet’s own daughter. Some critics (in what may be seen as an overly literal reading) have been appalled at textual evidence of what Jane Beal refers to as “incestuous desire” (1), an interpretation that depends upon the simultaneous presence of paternal and romantic love in the narrative. In another correlation between the biblical text and Pearl, the “garden enclosed” (Cant. 4.12)— signifying the Church—is unavoidably suggested by the poem’s garden. Solomon’s text (particularly Cant. 4.7) is even more explicitly evoked in the maiden’s recounting of Christ’s address to her: “Come hither to me, sweetest friend,/For no blot nor spot is found in thee!” (763– 764). The correlation with the Song of Songs has the effect of directing the emphasis away from the dreamer’s inordinate love for a creature, toward a more meaningful love for the divine Lover. Beal’s assertion that the “garden setting and the poet’s word choice suggest that the narrator is a suitor suffering the pains of love” (16) is firmly within the mainstream of commentary on the discourse of courtly love found in Pearl. Fischer says that the poet deliberately sets the narrative in a garden of love—where “everyone is a lord or lady”—rather than in the Garden of Eden (151). However, this thread of the narrative is subverted by certain textual elements, beginning with the setting itself, which is highly ambiguous. “Blossoms pale and blue and red” (27), for instance, grow directly over the decaying remains of the lost maiden. Moreover, the time of year—August—clashes with the rhetoric of the “love-wound drear” (11) complaint, setting it “slightly at odds with the love-vision” (318), according to Priscilla Martin.
  7. 7. McCabe 7 Luttrell states that the poet “takes the conventional garden setting for a dreamer and makes it the foundation of an initial allegory” (81). He suggests that the setting operates as both a cordis hortus and a mentis hortus, the latter being the location for what Moorman calls the “pondering of universal problems of life and death” (54). Kean maintains that both the hortus conclusus of the Song of Songs and the site of the Fall are present in the text, with both gardens “merg[ing] together into a single image, a moral allegory of the regeneration of fallen man through which Paradise is regained” (35). Therefore, the trappings of courtly love would seem to operate as a vehicle for weightier matters, such as salvation and the order of grace, treated more directly in the theological debate between the maiden and the dreamer. If Wellek is correct in asserting that their dispute represents a debate within the poet’s own mind (23), it might be regarded as a sort of philosophical psychomachia. In any case, a far more serious event is also represented allegorically in this “garden of love.” The poet’s design in choosing what may appear at first glance to be a secular setting is manifested in the narrator’s lament that his “heart doth hurt now cruelly,/ [his] breast with burning torment sting” (17–18). These lines link the text with Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, where He said, “My soul is sorrowful even unto death” (Matt. 26.38)—a Lover’s complaint that (needless to say) supersedes the text’s literal situation. Also, the narrator’s sudden collapse mirrors another action in the garden outside Jerusalem, when Christ “fell flat on the ground” in prayer (Mark 14.35). Consequently, the garden setting is much more than a backdrop for a lover’s temporal quest, despite the poet’s appropriation of inherited conventions. The allegorical aspect is found also in the dreamer’s complaint that his “heart the pain of loss outpoured,/Gushing as water springs from a well” (364–365), which references Psalm 21’s “I am poured out like water.” While Davenport remarks that the scriptural component “heightens the sense of desolation to a moving plea for sympathy” (15), the allusion more importantly
  8. 8. McCabe 8 transcends the dreamer’s own emotional state in that the psalm foretells of Christ’s Passion. The maiden’s recounting of the Crucifixion, when “there went forth from that well/Water and blood from wounds so wide” (649–650), distinctly reinforces this scriptural connection. With this implied text and its sublime significance underlying the courtly love language, it is impossible to regard the discourse as primarily temporal. The maiden (like Dante’s Beatrice) finds it necessary to be stern with the dreamer, telling him that he “grudge[s] the healing of [his] grief” (275); in other words, he is obstinately clinging to sorrow, resulting in self-pity. His self-pity is transcended textually by the implied association with, again, the Song of Songs. The text “I languish with love” (Cant. 5.8) provides a superior, alternate reading to the protagonist’s particular condition; it expresses the anguish experienced by the Church amid the trials permitted by God, when He appears to be distant. One might even apply in this context a central motif found in Pearl, which Fowler indicates is adapted from the Romance of the Rose; the poem’s “luf-daungere” (11) suggests a “lady who has cooled toward her lover” (The Bible in Middle English Literature 204). While the lady’s “standoffishness” is personified in the Romance as Danger, the Pearl-poet refrains from using this device, thereby endowing the conventional motif with a more flexible applicability. This apparent estrangement is experienced by the Church (as well as the soul), who says, “I sought him, and found him not” (Cant. 5.6), which is analogous to the narrator’s “I have looked and longed for that precious thing” (14). It becomes clear that the narrator-dreamer’s rhetoric in his quest for his absent lady is subverted by the poet through a masterly allegorical treatment, causing the text to transcend its surface meaning. The poem’s prevalent theme of the “pearl of great price” further opposes the protagonist’s worldly attachment, resulting in his finally exchanging his misery for the consolation of the Church. The poet first associates the Pearl-maiden (introduced metaphorically
  9. 9. McCabe 9 as a gem) with universal, eternal values in the proem. The term “precious pearl” appears in the two consecutive stanzas in which the narrator discusses wheat, which grows from the “grains that are dead” (31) and is later “cut with sickles keen” (40) to sustain humanity. He muses on the necessity of this process of life and death, in an obvious allusion to the “grain of wheat falling into the ground [to] die” (John 12.24–25). While the literal context renders this meditation of the grieving narrator as a consolatory passage, the significance is magnified by the link with the Gospel passage, which directly anticipates the Crucifixion. Teresa Reed argues that the process of metonymy—which “exploits the contiguity between categories”—operates in Pearl, connecting “something and its attributes, its surroundings and its components” (107). This approach is helpful in understanding the shifting significance of the central metaphor of this poem—the pearl. Reed sees this image as a “figure that metonymically marks the contiguity between divine and human” (107). Metonymy accounts for the implied connection between the wheat, its immediate allegorical significance in the death of the maiden (who is an exemplar for all humanity), and the further allegorical significance in the Crucifixion and, additionally, the Blessed Sacrament, in which the divine presence is perpetuated from antiquity. The contiguity between the themes expressed in the third and fourth stanzas and the Eucharist is achieved through the associated references to both the physical accident of the Eucharist—wheat—and the “precious pearl without a spot” (lines 36, 48 and 60), which both iconically and textually correlates with the round, white Sacred Host, which is specifically referred to in the Mass as being “spotless.” Later, after linking the Gospel parable (Matt. 13.45–46) of the “pearl of great price” with Jesus’ realm—which, she says, “no man might win” unless he approaches “as a child” (722–723), a condition which confounds romantic love—the maiden bids the dreamer the “wayward world [to] disdain” to “procure [his] pearl immaculate!” (743–744). This imperative
  10. 10. McCabe 10 unambiguously (despite its figurative semantics) conflicts with the dreamer’s obsessive quest to recover his lost love. The poet’s incorporation of the “grain of wheat” parable is anagogical in nature as well; as Priscilla Martin points out, St. John’s text serves to “promise resurrection” (324). Moreover, the Gospel uses similar agricultural language elsewhere to touch on eschatological reality. Christ Himself explicates the parable of the sower of the cockle (Matt. 13.24–30), explaining that the “harvest is the end of the world” (Matt. 13.39). This casts the entire poem, which is expressly set at harvest time, when “corn is cut with sickles keen” (40), in an eschatological light. This aspect is delineated partly through the development of elements in the narrative, beginning with the maiden herself. While, as Edward Condren observes, “In the opening lines, the pearl seems to represent the corruptible world” (50), the Pearl-maiden later appears in the dream as a thoroughly naturalized citizen, so to speak, of the world beyond the stream of death. Her transformation results in the clash of values that is perhaps inevitable when two worlds collide. The conflict is illustrated, for example, in the dreamer’s accusation (in his very first utterance to his beloved) that while he “pensive waste[s] by weeping worn,” she is experiencing a “life of joy” (101). The reason for her apparent complacency—aside from her correct theological perspective, which she immediately explains to him—is that she is no longer capable of suffering like him, as she is confirmed in grace and, in fact, participates in eternal bliss. The dreamer, whose judgement is impaired by his self-absorbing (although very real) misery, persists in resenting the maiden’s “surprising lack of sympathy” (Condren 52) for his plight. Thirteen stanzas later, after declaring, “Both bliss and grief you have been to me” (373), he again chides her for her ostensible nonchalance in the face of his “searing sorrows” (387). The maiden, however, is able to make the important distinction which, at this point, surpasses the dreamer’s
  11. 11. McCabe 11 understanding—that she is no longer what she was when he knew her. She refers to her old self in the third person in line 411, then immediately proceeds, employing first-person pronouns, to explain her election by her “Lord, the Lamb” (413), with Whom she enjoys bliss while “days shall endure eternally” (417). She is a messenger from beyond the grave, articulating the nature of everlasting things and the life that the narrator-dreamer will eventually experience himself, provided that he does not lose his way. Ian Bishop remarks that the narrator “can see eternal truths only through a haze obscurely, but in the vision he is enabled to see them face to face” (81). In other words, he initially perceives his world as if “through a glass in a dark manner” (1 Cor. 13.12), an obscured Book of Nature. John Gardner points out that, since “Nature carries, for man, only ‘vestiges’ or ‘traces’ of the divine hand,” a “clearer text” is needed (29). While the protagonist tries to “read” Nature in an attempt to obtain solace for his grief, the lessons he recites, although correct, are clearly rote. In telling himself that “all grass must grow from grains that are dead” (31), the bereaved lover is trying to console himself with hope in the Resurrection. Nevertheless, he continues to be beset by a “hopeless grief” (51) and, before falling asleep, is blind to any future joy. Tolkien observes that the narrator is “looking only backward, his mind filled with the horror of decay” (Sir Gawain 13). Later, his perception is enlarged, as his spirits are uplifted, in the dreamscape. In her study focusing on the dreamer’s visual experience, Sarah Stanbury describes Pearl as an “allegorical fiction cast in the conventional modes of a dream vision and a journey to the Otherworld” (12). She likens the narrative to first-hand medieval accounts of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, particularly in the sense that the pilgrims’ experiences on the journey through exotic territories were recorded using what she calls the “language of wonder” (12). Stanbury correlates this with St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium, which details the soul’s ascent from apprehending
  12. 12. McCabe 12 vestiges of the divine in the Book of Nature, to a purely spiritual vision of God. Thus, the dreamer progresses from a largely sensory experience, illustrated by his observation of “rocks in splendour” (68) and “crystal cliffs so clear of hue” (74), ultimately to the apocalyptic vision of the New Jerusalem. He employs terms such as “wonder,” “wonderment” and “wondrous” in describing the dreamscape along the way. Stanbury states that the “dreamer’s spiritual progress mirrors his sensory, and chiefly visual, itinerary” (17), pointing out that the proem’s archetypal garden is the site of the narrator’s “spiritual transition” (18). Since the vision actually occurs within this “erbere,” in the mind of the sleeping protagonist, the entire pilgrimage toward eschatological reality is situated in what doubles as the garden of love, further subverting the importance of the courtly love quest. Rhodes regards the poem as a “debate within the narrator,” in which a “theology of immanence balances against a theology of transcendence” (“The Dreamer Redeemed” 394–395). The discourse of courtly love accentuates the protagonist’s preoccupation with the here and now, in contrast to the vision of eschatological glory given to him as a much-needed remedy, a means of escape from his prison of mourning. The poet’s use of the term “luf-daungere,” for example, effectively expresses the “need human love has for the physical or bodily presence of the beloved” (Rhodes, “The Dreamer Redeemed” 397). It is only in his dream that the protagonist (at least momentarily) forgets his longing for Pearl. The first-person narrative’s past tense reflects the fact that the narrator-dreamer dwells in the past. However, a sudden shift to the present occurs in lines 121–132, at the brink of the stream dividing the temporal from the eternal. After wondering at the sights, sounds and smells (as well as implied gustatory and tangible sensations) he discovers in the dreamscape, the dreamer encounters the stream. Attributing the abatement of his sorrow to the effect of the landscape, the dreamer follows the course of the stream, remarking
  13. 13. McCabe 13 that the further he walks alongside it, the “more strength of joy [his] heart doth strain” (128). Relating his experience in the present tense, he ends the stanza in “more and more” (132), which potentially opens up the discourse to eternal values. Nevertheless, the dreamer’s use of the phrase “more and more” in this context—relating to the very natural desire for a surplus of fortune’s bounty—simultaneously carries the obvious “diabolic” sense. This subtle ambiguity illustrates the tension in the protagonist between temporal experience and the promise of a hereafter. At this point in the narrative, he has left behind what Stanbury identifies as a corollary to the first stage of history—the law of nature, represented by the garden—and will shortly encounter the second stage—the law of scripture, represented by the debate; the sight of the New Jerusalem is his preview of the end of history. Stanbury explains that the dreamer “moves from a world of nature through scriptural indoctrination into a revelation of the Heavenly City” (14). It is, no doubt, significant that the poem reemerges from the past tense in the last four lines, invoking (in the present tense) the Eucharistic Lord Whom “each day one sees” (1210) in a prayer that expresses hope for salvation, thus uniting the act of physical perception with the spiritual vision that perceives a reality beyond the grave. Although the courtly love quest itself is a failure, as a vehicle for instruction this motive subtly conveys what is often reduced to “thou shalt’s” and “thou shalt not’s.” Christian morality is represented by the superficial boundaries within the context of refined aristocratic amour. In her commentary on what she calls the poem’s “interrelation between the sacred and the secular,” Maria Bullón-Fernández states that the “narrator fails to comply with one of the main rules of courtly love”—that is that the “lover should not try to exceed the will of the beloved” (37). While the dreamer’s tendency to transgress these boundaries is most obviously depicted in his attempt to cross the stream to reach Pearl (of which Bullón-Fernández observes that he “has not
  14. 14. McCabe 14 learned to control his senses by means of reason” [46]), this is not the only such occurrence in the narrative. His desire to see where she abides—her “bor” in the original text—is checked by the maiden with the warning that “His tower to enter you may not dare” (966). Bullón-Fernández points out that this situation is “charged with courtly and sexual connotations” (41). She makes the comparison to the Romance of the Rose, in which the lover defeats the lady’s guardians and enters the metaphorical tower; in Pearl, she says, the “dreamer’s desires and advances” (41) are restricted. Nevertheless, she remarks, “By ignoring the limits that the maiden clearly draws, he breaks in the end both religious rules set by God and courtly love rules set by society” (48). Ultimately, however, the poem indicates that it is not the rules in themselves that are important as much as the clean heart that abides by them for the sake of love. This noblesse oblige in the moral realm is implied by the emphasis on “courtesy” in stanzas 36 to 41. This section of the poem explores how celestial courtesy—a sublime economy of love—not only bestows salvation (which few would regard as meager in itself) on the just, but also ennobles former commoners, as it were. Charlotte Gross notes that Pearl is identifying courtesy as the “essential condition of the Kingdom of Heaven” (86) when she explains that the blessed souls “all proceed in love’s delight/To king and queen by courtesy” (467–468). The dispute about the maiden’s status as a queen illustrates how foreign “God’s absurd excess of love and generosity” (Mitchell 107) is to a worldly mind. The indignant dreamer balks at the divine largesse, saying, “That courtesy gives its gifts too free” (481), and he adds, somewhat comically, that he cannot believe that “God so far from right would stray” (488). In rebuttal to this legalistic outlook, the maiden expounds on the standards of divine justice, asserting that the soul who not only “wrought with hands no harm nor ill” (681), but also “is of heart both clean and bright” (682) attains salvation. However, she is unable to enlighten the earthbound dreamer through
  15. 15. McCabe 15 intellectual arguments; paradoxically, he has to act on his impulse to try the limits set on his conduct before he can have his rude awakening. He then finally articulates a glimmer of the divine economy of love; after resolving to “please that Prince” (1201), he recalls, “For day and night I have him known/A God, a Lord, a Friend divine” (1204). He is no cringing supplicant, but a member of “His house divine” (1211) who requites the charity he has received. He now finds Christ’s blessing (which he had formerly rebuffed in his grief) “sweet,” echoing the language used by the maiden in lines 717 and 763 in reference to Christ. On the tropological level, the protagonist’s rhetoric of courtly love undermines itself. Bishop comments that at the “very heart of the poem,” the maiden’s doctrinal speech becomes a “warning about [the dreamer’s] own plight and ends as an exhortation to him to seek his own reward by imitating, as far as possible, the virtues that she exemplifies” (44). Unfortunately, the two interlocutors are not speaking the same language. Gross views the maiden’s very first comment to the dreamer—“Sir, ア e haf your tale mysetente” (257)—as indicative of his misuse of language in general, saying that he employs a “courtly rhetoric inappropriate to the ‘ghostly’ matters that are or should be his concern” (79). Gross cites the narrator’s use of the phrase “fordolked of luf-daungere” (11) to describe his grief, as well as his description of his spiritual vision as an “auenture” (64), “as though he were embarking on a quest into a fabulous landscape of chivalric romance” (79). Nevertheless, like Bullón-Fernández, she sees “courtly diction [as] an effective vehicle for expressing spiritual truth” (79), going so far as to say that the use of this discourse “forces the audience to compare and connect earthly and heavenly loves” (80). The ambiguous terms of endearment that the poet puts in the mouth of the dreamer to address Pearl help to facilitate this comparison. “Dear, sweet, fair, and young are all used by the narrator,” Wilson observes, “and though appropriate of a child, they also, being equally
  16. 16. McCabe 16 appropriate of a woman, blend easily with fyne love terms like ‘luf-daungere’ (11) and ‘luflongyng’ (1152)” (22). He points out that such terms are conventional in medieval Nativity poems and religious plays; this cultural background necessarily “forces” the reader to weigh the comparative value of a courtly romance against that of a more permanent love. The maiden takes the “narrator’s vocabulary and [gives] it different referends, supernal for earthly” (Wilson 33). For example, she employs the term “spotless” in line 925 to denote spiritual perfection, in opposition to the narrator’s preoccupation with physical perfection, as expressed by his description of her as “[s]o fine, so smooth” (6). This tuition effectively undermines any momentum that the courtly love quest might seem to gain. Rather, the text constitutes a homiletic treatise for the edification (or rehabilitation) of the reader. The confluence of spiritual and temporal themes is examined by Bullón-Fernández, who questions whether there is any “clear-cut distinction between the courtly and the religious experience in Pearl” (37). She identifies “two parallel falls and necessary frustrations in the poem: a religious fall and a courtly fall” (37), and asserts that the “second comes close to displacing the first” (38). This interpretation reinforces the position that the courtly love quest, although it is very much in the foreground of the poem, ultimately fails. To illustrate how the dreamer behaves like a conventional lover in the tradition of fyn lovynge, Bullón-Fernández compares him to Troilus (who also fails to recover his beloved), in his dumbfounded reaction to seeing Pearl from across the stream. The dreamer recounts that, although he desired to call to the maiden, “dumb surprise [his] mind amazed” (174); this is similar to Chaucer’s depiction of Troilus’s astonishment as he gazes on Criseyde. Aers also compares the dreamer to Troilus, noting the surprising similarity in the way the two men experience the “dynamics of love, loss, mourning, and suicide” (55). In both cases, mourning for a lost love turns into a pernicious
  17. 17. McCabe 17 melancholy, resulting in self-destructive actions; Aers regards the dreamer’s “defiant readiness to die in his transgression of boundaries” as a “kind of suicide, an analogue to Troilus’s” (68). The tradition of courtly love does not provide a means of self-recovery in the hopeless situation in which the narrator-dreamer languishes; Troilus is cured of his lovesickness only through death. Obviously, the poem’s earthly love quest itself is a dead end; the protagonist needs divine intervention to survive his affliction. The generally implied association between the poem and Psalm 42 (used for centuries as the liturgical text for the prayers at the foot of the altar) is explicitly reinforced by the maiden’s recitation in lines 678 and 679. David asks, “[W]hy art thou sad, O my soul?” with a remedy for this grief suggested in the petition addressed to God: “Send forth thy light and thy truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto thy holy hill, and into thy tabernacles” (Ps. 42.3–5). This text is remarkably parallel to the dreamer’s experience; although his entrance into the heavenly “tabernacles” is deferred in the dream vision, he does pray to become one of the “inmates of [God’s] house divine” (1211). Among the works in what DeVries calls the “intertextual grid” enveloping the poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy necessarily commands the attention of Pearl critics. With lines such as 749 and 750, “Your beauty was never from nature gained;/Pygmalion did ne’er your face devise”—so surprisingly similar to “You never saw in Nature or in Art/a beauty like the beauty of my form” (Purg. 31.49–50)—it is impossible to ignore a plausible textual connection between the fourteenth-century English poem and the earlier Italian masterpiece. One basis for comparison is an important archetypal feature—the stream. At the brink of Lethe, Dante’s pilgrim encounters Matelda, who—like the Pearl-maiden—stands on the opposite shore, and also has the task of indoctrinating the protagonist. After linking Matelda with Venus, the goddess of love, Dante associates the pilgrim with Leander, whose love for Hero is obstructed by the watery
  18. 18. McCabe 18 depths of the Hellespont. The Florentine poet implicitly contrasts Leander’s illicit passion with the pilgrim’s lawful desire to cross the stream to reach Matelda. An awareness of this subtext causes the reader to evaluate the condition of the dreamer at the stream and to view the poem’s little Hellespont as constituting more than a physical boundary. The enormity of the gulf separating the dreamer from the maiden is signaled by the evident disparity in rank. In “Pearl’s Free-Flowing Hair,” Peter Lucas draws attention to the significance of the maiden’s hairstyle. She appears “beyond that border bright” (158) in aristocratic splendor, and after observing her “countenance grave for duke or earl” (211), the dreamer mentions her “locks on shoulder loosely laid” (214). According to Lucas, the three classes of ladies for whom this free-flowing hair would be customary are young girls, brides and queens, all of which categories apply to the maiden. The dreamer recognizes her now superior social status, manifested by her “robes majestical” (191) and “crown of pearl-orient” (255). His acknowledgement of her elevated rank has prompted Gross to note the role of the dreamer’s rhetoric in evoking the “inviolable distance” (84) between him and his beloved. He says, for example, that her “converse courtly is and fair,” while he is but “mould and good manners amiss” (381–382). However, in contrast to his shallow comprehension of the distance between them, as if it is only a trope of courtly love, the maiden sternly reminds him that his desire to cross the stream can only be accomplished after his “flesh shall in clay find colder lair” (320). Her frankness dispels the glamour in the dreamer’s speech, grounding their discourse in ungilded reality. Wilson finds it very telling that the protagonist uses the term “luf-daungere” to express his response to the loss of what is at first suggestively identified as a material object. “The narrator,” he says, “has transposed the language and psychology of fyn lovynge to the loss of a gem” (11). To Wilson, this verbal ambiguity is the poet’s way of indicating that the “narrator is
  19. 19. McCabe 19 excessively attached to earthly goods.” There is ample evidence in the text of this cupidity in the protagonist, beginning with the very opening of the poem, in which he discusses Pearl in terms appropriate to a gem, referring to her as “that pearl, mine own” (12), “that precious thing” (14), “that jewel” (289) and so forth. The poet employs the conceit of a “jeweller” in the protagonist’s references to himself (a term that the maiden perpetuates in reply), which emphasizes the possessive aspect of the speaker’s character. At one point in the interview between the dreamer and the maiden, the chastened “jeweller” appears to capitulate to his instructress, who has attempted to impress upon him the error of resisting the ordained will of God. However, a controverted linguistic element suggests that his apparent submission is subverted by his use of a particular term—“gilt,” or “gold-adorned.” In apologizing to the maiden for his “blundering tale” (363), the dreamer addresses Pearl either as “my dear adored!” (368)—or as “my dear goldadorned!” If Rønberg is correct in asserting that “it seems very probable that [the poet] uses endorde [usually glossed as adored] in its original sense of ‘gilt’ or ‘gold-adorned’ ” (199), then the materialism of the protagonist persists at this point, undermining his rhetoric of love. He continues to see Pearl as a gem well into his vision, referring to her and the other maidens as “jewels so lovely” (929). In the last stanza, although he still refers to her as “my pearl” (1206), he finally relinquishes his ownership of her, saying, “I then to God it did resign” (1208). This resolution does not vindicate the courtly love quest, but rather transfers the significance of the text to the spiritual realm, away from temporal attachments of any kind. The second quest that is present in the narrative is the grail quest, which is developed less overtly than the courtly love motive. A close reading discloses that the poet embedded textual associations between the figure of Pearl and a monstrance. Descriptions of the maiden, of whom it is said “shredded sheen of gold then shone/Her locks on shoulder loosely laid” (213–214),
  20. 20. McCabe 20 suggest a typical image of the golden vessel—with shining extrusions radiating from the circular compartment that contains the Host—that is used for liturgical adoration and benediction. In the very first stanza, Pearl is described as “in gold enclosed so clear” (2) and “so radiant” (5); moreover, the reader is told that so “fine, so smooth did her sides appear” (6). This ambiguous catalogue of components can pertain to both ideal feminine beauty and a priceless jewel, but these characteristics constitute the object of a grail quest as well. While the composite image corresponds more specifically to a monstrance than to a chalice (which is often how the Holy Grail of legend is imagined), the poet has (perhaps) transposed the grail tradition slightly to accommodate the pearl imagery, which easily conforms to the idea of a consecrated Host, particularly when placed in a monstrance. The image comes into focus more sharply within the dream, when the dreamer first sees Pearl. Compared to “shredded gold that glistered bright” (165), the maiden is said to have “shone in beauty upon the shore” (166). In the next stanza, she is described as “gladdening glory” (172) which is “upraised” (173), suggesting an image of liturgical benediction. The “closed mouth” awe of the dreamer in this scene is consistent with the demeanor of a worshipper in the presence of God. The Host itself might be described literally as having the “hue of polished ivory” (179), as well as being so “smooth, so seemly, slight and small” (190), while the maiden’s linen garment is reminiscent of altar linens and liturgical vestments. The dreamer notices, for example, that her “mantle chaste” (203) is chasuble-like, with “open sides” (198); also, her sleeves hang “long below her waist” (201), like those on a priest’s alb. The poet’s deliberate ambiguity in describing the appearance of the maiden, as well as in including expressions such as the narrator’s “I have looked and longed for that precious thing” (14), enables the poem to operate on the multiple questing levels simultaneously. Lynn Staley Johnson has explored the presence of the “noli me tangere” motif in Pearl,
  21. 21. McCabe 21 noting the “correspondences” between the poem and the biblical text. She observes that both narratives take place in a garden, involve the loss of the beloved to death, include similar instruction, and “contain an injunction not to trespass beyond a certain point” (“The Motif of the Noli me tangere” 93). This correlation further substantiates the grail questing embedded in the poem, in the elusiveness of the object of devotion, as well as in the implied Eucharistic aspect— i.e., the fact that the poet, in describing Pearl in a way that suggests a monstrance, links her with Christ. The maiden’s “touch me not” prohibition is signified by the stream, which physically separates the dreamer from his beloved. When he expresses his desire to wade through the water to reach her, the maiden forcefully rebukes him. Fowler comments that the dreamer behaves like Mary, who “greets Jesus as if he had not died”; consequently, the maiden “deals severely with this delusion” (Middle English 212). Johnson sees a similarity also in the “quality of sorrow manifested by both mourners” (“Motif” 95), the narrator-dreamer and the Magdalene. She points out that “intense grief . . . affects the senses to the extent of paralyzing the normal perceptive faculties” (“Motif” 96), which accounts for the otherwise inexplicable lack of immediate recognition of the beloved. In this state, the understanding of both Mary and the dreamer is overly literal; both rely inordinately upon physical proof and therefore err in identifying the very object of their search, standing right before them. While Mary at first mistakes Jesus for the gardener, the dreamer sees a “child,” a “gentle maid” (163), whom he recognizes only slowly “by sight” (164)—through the evidence of his senses—as his own Pearl. Johnson cites St. Augustine’s opinion that the Magdalene’s “grief is a result of her attachment to the visible and mutable” (“Motif” 100), which is an obvious parallel to the Pearl-protagonist’s disposition. At the poem’s end, in expressing the protagonist’s rehabilitation, the poet does not refer to the reception of Holy Communion, but only to the worship of God, “in form of bread and wine,”
  22. 22. McCabe 22 Whom “each day one sees” (1209–1210). This implicitly incorporates the “noli me tangere” motif within the grail questing conceit, as the Eucharistic Lord is encountered, but not touched. Gregory Roper asserts that late medieval dream visions “are really a type of quest, a quest for a connection of this mortal, deathly, time-bound world with the paradise of eternal timelessness and life” (171). He notes that in the poet’s day, the “dream vision was often read anagogically as the soul’s escape from the body into bliss” (171). In folktales and literature, this Otherworld is often imagined as faerie, a place free from care and toil. Helen Cooper has placed the dreamscape in Pearl within the tradition of otherworldly utopias. She suggests that the “inspiration for the dream landscapes seems to have as much to do with fairy worlds as with the Bible.” She detects “reminiscences of romances such as Sir Orfeo, with its crystal-walled castle and dwellings of precious stones,” in kingdoms that “get their light from some source other than the sun or moon” (284). This supernatural illumination is characteristic of the poem’s New Jerusalem, which has “need of neither sun nor moon” (1044), since God outshines both. Cooper also observes that the maiden “recalls fairy mistresses,” although in her role as tutor, “who will turn the dreamer’s love away from her and towards Christ,” Pearl reverses the usual pattern (284–285). The mysterious world of fairytales exacts standards of conduct that exceed (and sometimes contradict) the normal expectations in the waking world. The inversion of ordinary standards is what baffles the dreamer about the parable of the vineyard, which opposes the marketplace verities that are familiar to him. The maiden herself “is as other to the Dreamer as the Green Knight is to Gawain” (Kirk 221). On the other hand, one may recall that in Sir Gawain the poet pokes fun at the eponymous knight for his unrealistic expectations of himself; the laughter of Arthur’s court and the Round Table knights’ adoption of Gawain’s “token of the troth-breach” (2509) indicate that fallen men cannot expect to be too fastidious, in this world.
  23. 23. McCabe 23 Cooper’s comment that the “supra-natural in Pearl requires not a mere adjustment to the rules of a fairy culture, but an entire reorientation of the mind” (285) addresses the conflicting protocols —earthly versus celestial—that the dreamer is struggling to comprehend. Stanza 58 contains a condensed rehearsal of the Book of Proverbs, with a personified Wisdom spoken of as if she were a knight’s lady. In language that recalls the conventions of the grail quest, Pearl recounts how Wisdom “showed [Solomon] afar God’s kingdom fair” (692), telling him that the “lovely island there” he can win if he is “brave in fight” (694). This speech, the monstrance imagery and the introduction of the dream as an adventure “where marvels chance” (64) all substantiate the situation in which the protagonist finds himself seeking to recover the elusive Grail. Despite the literary style of romance, however, the substance of the maiden’s speech here is tropological in nature. The poet brackets the stanza with statements on the “righteous” (685) and the “innocent” (696), in the context of the maiden’s argument for the salvation of admittedly untried yet also unsullied baptized children. The dreamer has objected to her exalted state because she had lived but two years on earth, and could not even pray the “Pater and Creed upon [her] knee” (485). Implicitly recalling the traditional trial of the hero, the dreamer asks, “What honour more might he achieve/Who in strife on earth was ever strong[?]” (475–476). The maiden’s resolution of this theological difficulty—i.e., merit versus grace— emphasizes innocence, whether fresh from baptismal waters or recovered “[t]hrough mercy” (670). She warns the dreamer to rely on divine mercy, and prays that Christ may permit him to pass on the basis of “innocence and not by right” when he is “tried” (707–708). Cooper perceives that the reception into the celestial paradise of only those who are “without a spot” (972) recalls “supernatural tests in the Arthurian legends,” asserting that these associations “remain almost at the subliminal level” within the narrative (285). It is not surprising that the dreamer,
  24. 24. McCabe 24 recapitulating Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, is cast out of the earthly paradise when he fails to observe his boundaries. Earlier, the maiden had explained to him that in the streets of the New Jerusalem, one would “have no strength to fare,/Unless clean [one is] without a spot” (971–972). In addition to not being worthy to enter the city, he would not be able to “endure” the experience in his present state, with his “fleshly heart” (1082). The motif of the test of worth specifically relates to the grail legend. In Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century account, Perceval’s admittance into the presence of the Holy Grail is regarded as a “great honor” (383), although the knight fails the test put before him (because of a fault of his, as he is later told) and is therefore unable to restore the Fisher King’s health. (Malory’s later version of the legend denies Lancelot the privilege of obtaining the Holy Grail because of his lack of chastity—i.e., “spotlessness.”) There are additional similarities between Pearl and the French romance. For one thing, the poet’s use of the expression “From here to Greece” (231) echoes the romance’s “From here to Beirut” and “From here to Limoges” (377). Moreover, as Fowler points out, both Perceval and the dreamer encounter an (ordinarily) impassable body of water; in each narrative, the “river episode marks the beginning of the protagonist’s otherworldly experience” (“On the Meaning of Pearl, 139–140” 29). Also, like the dreamer, the knight exhibits an overly literal interpretation; he fails to ask the proper questions because he takes some advice too literally. More remarkable, however, are the parallels in certain other respects. For example, the Pearl-maiden—described as a “gentle maid of courtly grace” (163), who has a “gracious form” (170) and is “debonair” (1192)—resembles the maiden who bears the Holy Grail in the romance; she is “beautiful, gracious and elegantly attired” (379). The bowl—the Grail—this maiden bears is of “fine pure gold, adorned with many kinds of precious jewels, the richest and most costly found on sea or land” (379). Similarly, the “precious thing”
  25. 25. McCabe 25 that the poem’s protagonist has “looked and longed for” (14) is in “gold enclosed” (2), is in “precious pearls arrayed” (204) and has no peer in any pearls “from over orient seas” (3). Both narratives provide effusive detail pertaining to the object of the quest (i.e., the Grail and the Pearl-maiden), while denying the protagonists the acquisition of this object. This illustrates what Nick Davis says of Pearl, that one is “aware simultaneously of a compelling, human directedness of desire towards an imaginable though ultimately elusive object” (344). Perhaps the most startling parallel is found in Chrétien’s remark that from the Grail, “such brilliant illumination appeared that the candles lost their brightness just as the stars and the moon do with the appearance of the sun” (379). In stanzas 87 through 92, the poet develops the idea of the superlative brilliance of God, compared to which all other lights are dim. Gazing upon the New Jerusalem, the dreamer sees that the streets “have need of neither sun nor moon” (1044), for “God Himself was their sunlight” (1046). After extolling this “peerless light” (1073), the dreamer, “ravished by that radiance pure” (1088), comments that such “marvels as neath the moon upraised/A fleshly heart could not endure” (1081–1082), indicating that his vision is not corporeal, but spiritual. The closest verbal correlative with Chrétien’s description of the Holy Grail’s luminescence is the dreamer’s comparison of his sudden awareness of the celestial procession (which is already in progress) with the way the “moon in might arise[s],/Ere down must daylight leave the air” (1093–1094). Interestingly, the poet has reversed the situation, with the sun giving way to the moon’s ascendancy. This seems peculiar, especially in that he has just relegated both heavenly bodies as profoundly inadequate in the presence of the divine light; moreover, the moon is expressly deemed to be unworthy of the heavenly realm because “she” is too “spotty” (1070). However, the poet, as usual, is exercising mastery of his craft in this reworking of inherited material; this is evident when one realizes that the analogy is being
  26. 26. McCabe 26 applied to the dreamer’s perception, which is earthbound and faulty. This subtlety in the text is yet another illustration of the profound gulf between the sublunary here and celestial hereafter. The idea of the penny given to the laborers in the parable of the vineyard merging with the pearl of great price—the Kingdom of Heaven—may have a precedent in the twenty-fourth canto of Dante’s Paradiso. In reply to St. Peter’s inquiry on whether he possesses Faith, which he refers to as “such coin in your purse” (85), the Pilgrim replies, “Yes I do, so bright and round,/ I have no doubt as to its quality” (86–87); the theological virtue is then described as an “inestimable gem” (89). Additionally, the parable’s penny, according to Borroff, was associated by the “patristic writers with the ‘daily bread’ asked for in the Lord’s Prayer,” as well as with the Communion Host (Traditions 118). To further illustrate what Spearing refers to as the poem’s “vague mergings and emergings” (The Gawain Poet 147), the correlation in Pearl (in stanzas 61 through 65) between the pearl image and the “realm of heaven’s sphere” (735) reorients the narrative away from the particular circumstances of the poem toward a universal condition— participation in the divine society of the Church. The vision of the procession of virgins—each of whom bears the “blysful perle with [gret] delyt” (1104) on her breast—“is in fact the participation of the blessed in the reward symbolized by the penny in the parable” (Borroff, Traditions 122). The entire visionary experience fills in the gap “between knowledge that remains theoretical or abstract and knowledge attended by emotional and imaginative realization” (Borroff, Traditions 127). Although the protagonist goes adventuring in pursuit of a grail-like object, he eventually wakes and returns to his “weeping world,” having attained instead the selfrecovery that he really needs. Elizabeth Kirk asserts that the “limitations of the Dreamer’s perspective are culpable in the sense that he must ultimately unlearn them” (222). Prior—noting that the protagonist “finally lets go of his obsessive possessiveness”—construes his eventual
  27. 27. McCabe 27 relinquishing (his unlearning) of his first-person singular rhetoric to speak in the first-person plural as indicative of his achievement of caritas (43). Roper notes that the protagonist “thinks he is in search of his lost pearl, when what he must find is the self, the ‘I,’ he has lost” (174). In his delusional state, “he speaks for all the world like the hero of a quest romance, a disembodied knight-errant out for adventure” (Borroff, Traditions 127). The dreamer, in his “imperfect awareness,” believes that the stream is just a device, and “entertains the hope of getting past it”; in other words, he “does not know that he cannot cross that river unless he die[s]” (Fowler, “Meaning of Pearl” 28–29). His only hope for self-recovery is to be “shocked out of his fool’s paradise” (Spearing, Gawain-Poet 151), in an antiquest. Stiller asserts that the “hy ア seysoun” (39) in which the narrative is set is the Feast of the Transfiguration (404), and a spiritual transfiguration is exactly what is needed. According to one of the chief paradoxes familiar to any Christian, this quester must lose himself—his selfabsorbed, worldly self—in order to find himself. When he reaches the stream, he “has now reached a position midway between earth . . . and heaven,” observes Moorman, adding, “In mythical terms, the narrator has arrived at a testing point” (316). Doubtless aware that he “that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal” (John 12.25), the poet indicates that the narrator-dreamer does move in the right direction. For one thing, the “contempt for the world” motif is expressed by the maiden, who enjoins the dreamer the “wayward world [to] disdain” (743) at a point in the narrative when he is perhaps not ready to take the advice to heart. Later, however, he adopts the language of the maiden, calling Christ “that fair Jewel” (1124), and expressing “great delight” (1128) in beholding the Lamb of God. After experiencing compassion for the wounded Christ—putting aside his former self-pity—the dreamer finally commits the deed that appears, on one level, to be a moral
  28. 28. McCabe 28 regression. Although, as has been pointed out by Prior (42), he plunges into the stream at the sight of the maiden and not to reach Christ, nevertheless, symbolically, he is immersing himself in baptismal waters, participating in the Resurrection which he mused on in the poem’s opening. As if alluding to John 11.25, the narrator says that he was determined to wade through those waters, “[t]hough [he] died ere [he] swam o’er what remained” (1160). Within the antiquesting pattern, this otherwise “diabolic” action has its “angelic” significance, in light of the biblical text. In the protagonist’s first address to Pearl, he speaks of being “mourning’s prisoner” (250). However, while “it is a death [that] he must face,” it is the “death not of his maiden, but of his own way of being in the world” (Thorpe 43). Stiller, referring to the speaker’s “obsession” which is resistant to reason, asserts that he is “imprisoned” (404). Her use of the term “oppressive” (402) is appropriate to the initial garden setting, which seems to be a nearly suffocating enclosure. Although the sun is mentioned in reference to the flowers—which “shimmer shining in the sun” (28)—that cover the burial mound, nowhere is it indicated that the bereaved man actually looks up at the heavens. Nevertheless, Jane Chance suggests that the early references to growth in the garden imply, on a tropological level, the protagonist’s “psychological maturation” which “depends upon a movement away from an extraordinary literalism and preoccupation with passion, concupiscence, and things of this world” (39). As Lynn Johnson points out, the narrator-dreamer—who, ironically, censures the maiden for what he regards as her unearned reward in Heaven, suggesting that she “came too late” to deserve her “hire at price so dear” (615–616)—is himself “in need of an eleventh-hour work permit” (“The Pearl Dreamer and the Eleventh Hour” 11). He has enclosed himself, “content to sleep,” in the “artificial spring” of his backward-looking, “self-involved grief” (“Eleventh Hour” 11). The maiden’s role is to pull him back to his feet, directing his gaze heavenward. The only means of
  29. 29. McCabe 29 escape from the misery of this “doel-doungoun” is what Prior discusses as the means of transformation “into a different mode from the usual one of earthly time and space”—the “mode of prayer and sacrament, which is invoked in the poem’s final stanza” (49). The poet amply demonstrates his expertise in ambiguity and wordplay. As Putter remarks, “Pearl is a text that plunges us into the otherness of heaven and death, where language must convulse and stretch to reach what lies beyond it” (151). He points out that the prevalent adjective “spotless,” for example, can signify not only “without blemish,” but also “without a dwelling place”—that is, “beyond time and place” (148), thereby operating anagogically as well as in the more obvious sense of “sinless.” These “linguistic tensions,” as Putter refers to them (147), are particularly evident in the dialogue between the dreamer and the maiden. Much discussion has taken place on the poet’s apparently deliberate confusion of the terms “maskele ア” and “makele ア,” which would translate respectively as “immaculate” and “matchless.” In response to the maiden’s explanation of her state as the spouse of Christ, the dreamer (employing a worldly logic) expresses his wonder that she excels all other worthy candidates for this high office, calling her “so proud and fair,/A matchless maid immaculate” (779–780). The “dreamer in his usual wrong-headedness has,” remarks Baird, “brought together in his speech . . . the two words that have been alternating with one another” (28), erroneously applying them both to the maiden. Her retort includes specific references to the Apocalypse (787, 834, 866) and the New Jerusalem (793), followed by a recounting of the Passion of Christ in the earthly Jerusalem, where her “Truelove” was slain on the “rood by ruffians fierce” (805–806). This rehearsal of salvific history and eschatological post-history redirects the dreamer’s longing to recover his temporal bliss, to a quest to surrender his attachment to transitory things. Furthermore, the maiden’s use of the same terms that the dreamer had addressed to her—“Jewel,” “Joy” and
  30. 30. McCabe 30 “Bliss” (796–797)—in reference to Christ effectively neutralizes his worldly perspective. Wilson sees evidence of the protagonist’s “growth in spiritual stature” in his use of the word “bale,” or “anguish,” in line 1139 to express “compassionate sorrow at the cruelty suffered by the Lamb” (39). As he points out, this breakthrough occurs as a result of the maiden’s reapplying the dreamer’s self-pitying “bale” in line 373 to refer to profounder realities in lines 651 and 807. Wilson observes that the narrator “needs a spiritual vision; he is not prepared for one” (18). For one thing, he needs to abandon his mistaken concept of the maiden as his “essential physician without whom his life becomes a disease, a nightmare of emptiness and tormented dreams” (Aers 57). His eventual spiritual recovery is anticipated symbolically by the arrangement of flowers—“gillyflower, ginger, and gromwell” (43)—that are associated with healing. More overtly, in the vision, after recounting the Fall of Adam, the maiden refers to our Redemption, saying, “soon a healing hither sped” (645). Later, when she describes the felicity she enjoys with her “Beloved, Who all can heal” (758), she is verbally shifting the source of healing (first mentioned in line 16) from herself to God. In the Gospel, spiritual regeneration is inextricable from the idea of healing, with cures generally associated with conversion. Liturgically, the ancient Domine, non sum dignus ends with the petition that one’s “soul shall be healed,” to be properly disposed for the reception of Holy Communion. The notion of healing resulting in “spotlessness” is especially poignant from a merely human perspective, according to one analysis of the text. “The Life, Death, and Life of the Pearl-Maiden” offers a particular reason for the speaker’s inconsolable grief in the knowledge that Pearl’s “radiance in clay should rot” (22), marring her once spotless condition, and also explains why the sight of the transfigured Pearl’s “forehead fair” (177) with its “hue of polished ivory” (178) “smote [his] heart” (179). The authors suggest that the Black Death—with its “dark blotches on the skin” (Freidl and Kirby
  31. 31. McCabe 31 395)—may have taken the life of the poet’s own daughter. This seems plausible, given the text’s emphasis on being “without a spot,” compounded by evidence that line 161’s “faunt”—the term the dreamer first applies to the maiden—indicates a young child, or a son or daughter, and carries “connotations of warmth and affection” (Andrew). One can reasonably allow a biographical basis for the poet’s exploration of how “living in this world entails the loss of precious things” (Rhodes, “The Dreamer Redeemed” 397). Certainly, the “obscenity of the plague symptoms would be enough to provoke the rebellious reaction of any father” (Freidl and Kirby 397). Within this context, the narrator’s eventual reconciliation with God—Who, after all, permitted Pearl to be “lost . . . in garden near” (9)—takes on a heroic quality. In Canto 25 of the Paradiso, the Pilgrim is said to be allowed—by the intercession of Beatrice—to “behold Jerusalem” (56) before returning to “his fighting days on earth” (57), with the earth itself referred to as the “battlefield” (84). While Pearl clearly operates within an “intertextual grid” that links it with conventional literary treatments of the quest, the poet alters the usual questing pattern found in romances. According to Richard Newhauser, the “dreamer is taught to give up his possessive, earth-bound love for [the maiden],” and, rather than acquiring something, he must relinquish his “sin of avarice” which is broadly defined as the “love for anything in this world” which “detracts from the love of God” (268). However, as Aers states, the narrator-dreamer “has no sense of being on a quest” (59), so it is not surprising that he does not know what he really needs. Roper asserts that he “cannot see that it is his own ‘I,’ his own ‘wreched wylle,’ rather than the state of the pearl, which must be transformed” (170). The first phase of this transformation takes place “in trance” (62), in his dream, when his soul—“by God’s own grace” (63)—leaves his body behind (mirroring the separation of body and soul that occurs in death), to go “[a]dventuring where marvels chance” (64). Like any Christian, he needs this
  32. 32. McCabe 32 spiritual retreat in order to effectively continue “his fighting days on earth.” Bogdanos refers to the garden setting in which the transformation occurs as a “landscape of the soul, an imagistic reflection of the hero’s inner state” (23). His clearer perception of his place in the world is partly indicated by the last stanza’s “directness and freedom from ambiguity” (Wilson 45); the protagonist is no longer divided psychologically. According to Wellek, he discards the “doubt and despair” which inform “certain theological opinions,” which “he has overcome by the certainty of hope” (23). Consequently, the narrator-dreamer achieves what Wilson calls a “proper self-concern” as a “Christian in the ordinary world, with all its grief and its daily hope” (45). Hamilton observes that “we find the hero at the triumphant close of the story in a state of grace and friendship with God, as he quietly purchases the pearl, first by giving it up” (57). In addition to the antiquest’s emergence as the most meaningful development in Pearl, the poem might further be identified as a comedy, as the protagonist progresses from a “state of misery” to a “state of felicity” (Musa xxx). In the final stanzas, the once “joyless jeweller” (252) experiences a “joyful resignation” (Wellek 23), reminding one, as Hamilton points out (57), of the comment from the Paradiso, “In His Will is our peace” (3.85). After waking suddenly from his dream, the narrator sighs (1175), an action that is consistent both with the resignation of the will and with love. In fact, although his own pleasure is obstructed when he is flung out of paradise, he expresses no resentment, despite the “swoon of longing” (1180) he is still experiencing. In surrendering his former willfulness, the rehabilitated narrator proves St. Paul’s text on charity—that it is patient. Anticipating his own future participation in the glory and bliss now enjoyed by the maiden, he prays for his much-needed continuing transformation, in communion with other “inmates of His house divine” (1211). Rather than attempting to seize this bliss (as his earlier self would have done), he evidently comprehends now that his salvation is a
  33. 33. McCabe 33 work of grace—in short, he has learned patience. Moreover, he finally divests himself of his former self-absorption in praying for others as well as himself. Forswearing his cupidity to practice caritas, at this point he understands what the maiden had explained to him in stanza 39, that “we are members of one another” (Eph. 4.25)—a text which is set in the context of casting off the “old man” and putting on the new. The narrator’s spiritual growth is also indicated by the contrast between the opening line’s “a prince” and the closing stanzas’ ample repetition of “that Prince”—Christ. The explicitly acknowledged resistance to the offered comfort of Christ in the proem is now displaced by a willingness to “please that Prince” (1201). The protagonist’s conversion is signified as well by the tender paternal benediction that he finally bestows on the maiden; he offers Pearl “Christ’s sweet blessing and [his] own” (1107), in what Wilson identifies as a conventional “formula of blessing” which “was in later Middle English characteristic of a parent to a child” (22). This final lack of ambiguity in his relationship to Pearl indicates that his fractured psyche is now healed. Gone are the jealousy (a kind of irascibility) and resentment for the maiden’s bliss in which he cannot yet share; kindness now marks his attitude. Pearl operates as a comedy also in its progression from the protagonist’s starting point of isolation to his reintegration into society. David Aers remarks that the protagonist is a “very isolated figure, within and without his dream” (57). Although the bereaved lover converses with no one but the maiden, the text carefully includes elements that indicate an eventual reconciliation. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator hears the “sweetest song [he] e’er heard” (20), although this is experienced “in secret hour” (19), not in the company of others. Also, the dreamer experiences a pre-enactment of his return to society through his conversation with the maiden (although the stream yet separates them) and later through the privilege of seeing the Lamb and the procession of maidens. This vision of the 144,000 brides would seem to
  34. 34. McCabe 34 imply his participation in the Communion of Saints. Again, although there is no indication in the text that the narrator-dreamer had literally deprived himself of sanctifying grace, and therefore lost his membership in the mystical body of Christ, his condition figuratively represents the progress of a soul from alienation (i.e., mortal sin) to reintegration (i.e., a state of grace). As Aers observes, at the end of the poem, the protagonist significantly abandons his customary “I” for “us,” a “pronoun at last linking his spiritual life with that of the community” (72). Anticipating this conscious act, the dreamer’s impetuous attempt to reach the farther shore is seen by Rhodes (who nevertheless allows the ambiguous nature of this impulse) as suggesting “his desire and determination to be reunited to society” (Poetry Does Theology 144). On an even more personal level, his eventual communion with God is signaled definitively by his paean to the Prince as a “God, a Lord, a Friend divine” (1204). One notes the progression of intimacy in these three nouns and may recall that the maiden had exhorted the dreamer to “seek Him as your friend” (354), advice which he has now embraced. The protagonist seems to graduate from a mere subject of Christ the King, to full membership in “His house divine” (1211). While Christ is verbally (in an almost perfunctory way) present in the text in the fifth stanza, bidding the bereaved man to be comforted, the narrator has to experience the grace of God emotionally as well as intellectually, in stages, to finally accept this offer of comfort. The sudden reference to the Eucharistic Christ in lines 1209–1210 brings to mind an earlier remark of the dreamer. At one point, he asks the maiden, “What [ostriys], purest, me apprise/Doth bear this pearl immaculate?” (755–756). The key term here, “ostriys,” is translated by Tolkien as “office,” and as “duties” by Borroff, but Anderson (as well as Condren) contends that the term actually means “oyster,” or “chamber,” which would indeed complement the symbol of the pearl. Moreover, this interpretation is even more resonant in consideration of the
  35. 35. McCabe 35 parallel relationship of an oyster as a chamber for the “spotless” pearl, and the body of a Christian as a chamber for the “spotless host” which one would receive annually in Holy Communion, in the poet’s day. In another liturgical connection, the former dreamer’s fatherly benediction may correlate with the final blessing bestowed on the congregation at every Mass. The narrative’s movement from estrangement to communion is strongly resolved in the poet’s placement of this sacramental imagery at the very end of the poem. Priscilla Martin remarks that, ultimately, the narrator-dreamer—who initially “regards himself as the judge”—“has learned to place himself in the judgement of God and in the community of Christians” (323); he has relinquished his false self-image, represented by a “jeweller” who judges gems. With his “perspective thus turned inside out” (Blanch and Wasserman 146), the post-visionary narrator relies upon the sight (informed by faith, not the evidence of the senses) of Christ “in form of bread and wine” (1209), to inspire him to persevere in the Kingdom of Heaven, the pearl of great price. According to Rhodes, “The Eucharist thus becomes for the Dreamer a daily reminder of his dream . . . and, finally, of a fully human redemption” (Poetry Does Theology 145). After his “ritual reeducation,” asserts Borroff, the awakened narrator “resembles the cured mental patient who has exchanged his brilliantly dramatic hallucinations for the prosaic world of everyday reality” (Traditions and Renewals 124). Paradoxically, what Reichardt interprets as evidence of the dreamer’s moral degeneration—the symbolic pattern of the hawk, doe and quail (“Animal Similes in Pearl”)—can also be construed “angelically” as a progression from pride to meekness. His antiquest results in a better man, as is also true of Gawain, who is cut down to size by the otherworldly Green Knight. Renouncing his former despondency, the protagonist can now see a way out of his “dark night” through prayer, the sacraments and submission to the divine dispensation. Edward Condren states that “if survived, [the dark night of
  36. 36. McCabe 36 the soul] may lead to the most profound kind of religious union possible” (69), noting, however, that the “opposite of despair is not certainty, only hope” (73). As Lynn Johnson observes in comparing the dreamer to the Magdalene, “love is the central, redeeming factor,” and “although each figure errs through despair, each errs because of love,” and, in agreement with St. Anselm, she adds, “Inherent in love is redemption” (“Motif” 100). This accords with Borroff’s view of the narrator-dreamer’s journey from an “initial state of bafflement and despair to a final state of understanding and reconciliation” (Traditions and Renewals 124). Although the dramatic resolution of Pearl does not place the protagonist beyond the danger of relapsing into his former “hopeless grief” (51), it is promising that he resolves to “please that Prince” (1201), which he now asserts may be done by a “Christian good with ease” (1202). Admittedly, this new life is no sure thing; the poet indicates this by having the poem end with the prayer that the Lord will make the members of His household “precious pearls Himself to please” (1212). Having relinquished what Spearing refers to as his “facile hope of a happy-ever-after reunion” (Gawain-Poet 150), the now wide-awake narrator possesses the battle-tried hope in the Resurrection that had, until that moment, eluded him.

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