ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Middle English II: The Sacred, pt. 2
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

The Pearl


Read NA 10-13 on the fourteenth century, paying particular attention to discussion of the Pearl Poet NA 12-13; see also first two paragraphs of the headnote to SGGK, NA 160.  Read carefully the introduction to The Pearl in its entirety, paying particular attention to the editor's comments on form (mainly in the section entitled "design and its significance") and on symbols and themes. The sections on "the story" and "the literary background" should also prove helpful in directing your attention to important elements in this strange (!) but wonderful work -- if you READ THEM FIRST, reading the poem itself will be easier. Know approximate dates for the poet's literary activity (NA 160) and of the single manuscript in which the poem is preserved (PRL i); you should also know the titles and subject of the other two poems contained in the same manuscript and thought to be by the same poet (see NA 12-13, 160; PRL i) and the region where the poet was thought to have lived and worked (NA 160, PRL i). Know what is meant by the term "dream vision" (PRL xv-xvi; see also NA 215 and 331-2, on Chaucer and Langland's use of the genre).  If necessary, review Introduction to Medieval Allegory


While The Pearl includes a significant amount of alliteration (PRL xix, 32-33; see also examples of lines in original Middle English PRL 36-39), note that its primary poetic form is a complex 12-line rhyming stanza (PRL xvi-xvii); be able to describe rhyme pattern of that stanza fully. Also know the structure of the poem: twenty sections, all of which contain five stanzas, with the exception of section 15, which has six stanzas. In a poem as carefully constructed as The Pearl, we might assume that this variation was intentional rather than accidental. If so, what is its function within the poem's structure? How does it affect our understanding of the work as a whole? Questions which you might consider: does the content of section 15 seem particularly significant? Does it mark an important transition? Does the addition of the extra stanza contribute to the poem's structural significance? For instance, since the number of stanzas is now odd, we can identify a middle stanza -- is it central to the poem as a whole? Is the resulting number of stanzas or of lines symbolically important? (See Borroff's comments on number symbolism in The Pearl, PRL xviii.) Or, as Borroff also suggests, does the extra stanza contribute to the circular structure of the poem by causing the last stanza to "over-lap" with the first? 

The last stanza is indeed linked to the first by concatenation or over-lapping repetition: a link-word used throughout a section, in the last line of all five stanzas and in the first line of stanzas two through five, reappears in the first line of the following section (only); the "link-word" for the new section is introduced in the last line of stanza one (see PRL xvii-xviii). Thus, within a section, any two successive stanzas are linked by a common word in the "adjoining" lines, and any two successive sections are likewise linked by a common word in the two "adjoining" lines. This over-lapping repetition is readily apparent as one reads through the poem from beginning to end; less obvious is the fact that a link-word, "content," also connects the last stanza of the poem to the first, where it "reappears" in the first line. (Repetition of the word "pearl" also links the first and last lines of the poem, but as the word "pearl" does not occur throughout section 20 in the last line of each stanza and in the first lines of stanzas two through five, it is not a "link-word" contributing to the "over-lapping repetition" of concatenation.) Note the use of this poetic device throughout the poem to create a circular design (PRL xvii-xviii); be able to explain the use of "link-words" and "concatenation" to achieve this structural circularity.


The poem is a dream vision. Why is that form particularly useful to the poet? What sort of subject matter does it allow him to treat? (Consider why Bede may have asserted that Caedmon received the gift of song in a dream; compare also with the poet's choice of the dream vision form in The Dream of the Rood.) Another significant work of the Alliterative Revival (and an optional reading), Piers Plowman, is also a dream vision; if you choose to read the selections from Piers Plowman in the Norton Anthology, note what these works have in common in terms of content and theme. Some medieval dream visions were decidedly secular in content: the Romance of the Rose, arguably the most influential dream vision of the middle ages, was a 13th-century French work about a young man, the Dreamer, and his efforts to win a Rosebud, allegorical symbol of the lady with whom he has fallen in love. The Pearl-Poet draws upon certain literary conventions established in the Romance of the Rose and other forms of secular love poetry, e.g. in his portrait of the Pearl Maiden as a beautiful young woman (remember that she supposedly died at the age of two!) and in the language used to express the Dreamer's love for her, or the love between the Pearl Maiden and her "husband," the Lamb. (For the influence of the Romance of the Rose on Middle-English poetry, see PRL xv-xvi; NA 215.)


Consider what the Pearl has in common with Hali Meidhad and Seinte Margarete. How is the Pearl Maiden similar to the virgins described in those works? Pick out passages describing the Pearl Maiden as a Queen; as the bride of Christ; or any other similarities you see to the previous works, and be prepared to cite some in class. How do her lessons reinforce the allegorical messages of the earlier works? We have noted that the two previous readings were directed primarily at an audience of women. Does the Pearl speak to a broader audience? (Consider that the dreamer is presumably a father grieving over the loss of an infant daughter.) Note that as an "innocent," a child dead before s/he had the chance to become an adult sinner, the Pearl Maiden is associated with the male children which medieval tradition held to have been massacred by Herod in his attempt to slaughter the infant Jesus (an event known as the "massacre of the Innocents" -- see PRL x). What is the effect of that association?

Note the continued use of marriage imagery to describe the ecstatic union of the soul with God. Pick out specific passages that use that or similar imagery; note the way in which the Dreamer's questions bring out the symbolic (or allegorical) rather than literal nature of that union. Note that the language used by the Dreamer in describing and/or addressing the Pearl Maiden is drawn in part from courtly love poetry; at times he seems to be addressing an adult sweetheart rather than an infant daughter. Look for specific instances of this sort of poetic language and imagery and be prepared to cite some examples in class.

Consider the depiction of God and of heaven in this reading. What aspect of God is emphasized? Note uses of the adjective "meek" within the poem; what various people/entities is it used to describe? The part of heaven which the dreamer is most interested in seeing is the "chamber" -- i.e. the nuptial bedroom of the bridal couple; but consider also the description of heavenly Jerusalem, based on the Apocalypse of St. John. Compare/contrast the "Lamb" and the "Bridegroom" of The Pearl with the warrior Christ of The Dream of the Rood. What aspect of divinity is emphasized in each? What is the effect of this shift in emphasis? Consider also the Pearl Maiden's remarks on divine justice and divine mercy. Which is more important in the vision of Heaven that she describes? 

Note how the poet uses two kinds of authority to emphasize the veracity of his vision:  he refers to both scriptural auctoritas (the "authority" of books and the auctores who wrote them) and to his personal authority as the Dreamer who supposedly "saw" the things he is writing about for himself in the dream he is recounting.  Be prepared to cite specific examples of both sort of appeals to authority in class; compare to the dual emphasis on books and on eye-witness as "proof" of the veracity of a hagiographic text.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2007 

Click here for Introduction to Medieval Allegory

Click here for Hali Meidhad Study Questions

Click here for Seinte Margarete Study Questions

Click here for Ancrene Wisse Study Questions

Click here for Piers Plowman Study Questions

Click here for information on the Alliterative Revival

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