Sunday, April 3, 2011

Required Work: Pearl

I can’t believe it, but the completion of the following post means I am actually done with the earliest time period that is represented on the M.A. reading list. If it weren’t for this Medieval literature class, I know I would have avoided this material until I had no choice but to face it. This is not the kind of stuff I read unless someone else assigns it to me. And I am so grateful to be able to benefit from lectures on not only Pearl, but also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Beowulf even though I have read it four times. The following comes straight from my notes, so let’s see what we got…


For the most part, Pearl qualifies as a dream vision: a first person singular narrative popular in Medieval literature and not always written in poetry (although this one is). Its popularity could have been because it sought to take the reader to a place that was better than the one in waking reality. People liked the idea of having a sort of gateway to the inside. Dreams were accepted as a rhetorical device to tell about ideological truths. People could use them to learn from both their differences and similarities to waking life.

The dream vision usually has a prologue that explains the circumstances of the dream vision; a body in which the narrator falls asleep and thus has the dream; and finally an epilogue that interprets the dream with a following resolution. The content can vary as in the dream can be political, satirical, religious, romantic, etc. They are, however, often about love while exploring capital “l” love.

There are different causes for dreams, different types of dreams, and different dream vision applications. For Pearl, the cause of the dream appears to be somnium animale – emotional or mental. The dreamer is distraught over losing his daughter, so he dreams about her and the heaven she is now in. As for type of dream in regards to Pearl, I will go ahead and go with somnium – enigmatic. I think this is a dream that is more mysterious than it is prophetic or oracular. And as for the dream vision application, Pearl is a personal dream with personal implications and a universal application. It is both proprium (individual) and commune (concerns dreamer and another person). I suppose because of the universal application, it could also be generale – can be applied to everyone on a cosmic scale. The poem is not inspired by philosophy or didactic religion, but more mysticism, or the idea of knowing more than our senses will allow – the struggle to know beyond the limits of knowing.

Pearl is also powerfully lyrical and musical, and it can qualify as an elegy as it commemorates the death of someone, and it consoles both the narrator and the reader. There is some debate in there, as well as mystic vision as I mentioned before, with a touch of courtly romance.


Other common elements of the dream vision include a kind of crossing of borders (which our dreamer here attempts to do in jumping into the river but ultimately fails); a purpose or lesson; a dreamer that is somewhat naïve; and a dream guide. In Pearl, the dreamer is definitely less mature than his dream guide despite the fact that she is supposed to be is dead daughter. Rarely in literature does the child serve as the wise one and instruct the parent, but that is the case with Pearl. Of course, she has crossed over to the other side, and that gives her the knowledge that anyone left on Earth would not have. Therefore, what she says isn’t just a point of view but the truth.

This poem is also circular, like a few other works on the M.A. exam reading list. At the beginning the narrator calls his daughter a rose, and at the end he calls her a rose. At the beginning he reaches for her, and at the end he reaches for her again. At the beginning he likens her to spice, and then he does it again at the end. Also, the general lesson of Pearl is that all humans are sinners, but we are to attempt to be sinless, which in the end is impossible. We can become less sinful, but never sinless, however it is mandated to us that we try, but we really can’t succeed. The narrator is being told that can’t physically “get there” while he is living on Earth, but he should try. He is basically being told that what he wants is beyond comprehension, and he should accept that, but try for it anyway (I know, I know, my head hurts too). What he shouldn’t be trying to do is reaching for her physically, which is what he tries to do at the end. He is given a glimpse at the city we will never see while we are living, but it is one we should be reaching for. And this city is the same city that John speaks about in the book of Revelations in the Bible. And given this lesson that is clearly presented to the narrator and to the reader, one thing critics have had a hard time agreeing on is whether or not the narrator actually learns this lesson. Does the narrator progress? We really don’t know. But the poem’s point comes across whether the narrator gets it or not.

Another theme (if you can call the ramblings I just completed a “theme”) in Pearl is that of a world around us more structured and organized than we know. This is can be seen in the physical structure of the poem itself. The entire poem is 1212 lines. The very middle of it falls 600 lines in and 600 lines from the end, with lines 600-612 doing something else entirely. Line 612 ends the middle break of the poem with “The grace of God is enough for all,” and that’s the lesson. The narrator’s reality is framed all around him, but all he is allowed to see for now is a very small part, because the rest is beyond comprehension.
Also, the poem’s structure adds to its circular nature because the narrator goes from the garden, to terrestrial paradise, to approaching the river, then the debate with his guide ensures, then he find the river source and the new Jerusalem, and then when he tried to reach that new Jerusalem he ends up awake back in the garden. Trippy.

Also a running theme of “enough”. Interesting little tidbit: the word “satisfaction” literally means the making of enough. And then there is the theme of small reason versus right reason. There is thinking in accordance with heaven, and not using reason to get you somewhere. Sometimes using rational reason can get a person nowhere. My professor put it as “thinking about thinking properly.” However, as necessary as right reason is, it isn’t sufficient or “enough.” Again, you can’t do it on your own, but you have to try.

To sum it up, Pearl is a literary representation of the difficulty of human knowing. It is a vision of an allegory (parable) that is carefully constructed and layered with puns and imbedded modes of meaning. There is a fundamental opposition between the poem’s clarity and the degrees of ambiguity and evasiveness of the meaning. In other words, it is full of paradoxes, and somehow, that is the point. It is truth that is hard to accept (and understand for the most part).


The poem introduces the age-old debate of whether salvation is enough or if people can earn their way into heaven. This debate is what will later split the Catholic Church and cause Martin Luther to change history the way he did.

Something else for the historical section – there are of course many other examples of dream visions from both the classical and the biblical. In classical plays characters were constantly consulting oracles, and of course in the Bible I almost immediately think of Joseph and his dream that basically angered all of his brothers and caused him to have a very hard early life. I mean, if your sibling said they had a dream which foretold you eventually bowing down to them, what would you do? Now, I would hope your answer would not be “sell them into slavery,” but that is what happened to Joseph. And then of course there is Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus, who had an angel of the Lord come to him in a dream telling him not to divorce Mary since the child she was carrying was of the Holy Spirit. Authors don’t seem to do the dream vision thing so much anymore, but there is no shortage of Medieval examples.

Next week I will most likely take on one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare plays, Titus Andronicus, thus completing all of the Shakespeare plays on my reading list. If you haven’t read Titus, just think of the movie "Kill Bill" (the first one), but in Elizabethan.

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