About six hundred years ago, the Pearl Poet wrote four poems.
Or at least four, because poets are generally prolific creatures, but the only poems that anyone knows for certain that he* wrote are in a single manuscript called the Cotton Nero A.x, because Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631)had an amazing library (which later became one of the core collections of the British Museum) and kept this particular manuscript on the shelves near the bust of Nero, a fact that tickles my archivist’s heart so, so much.
The first of the four poems, as you might have guessed, is about a pearl, sort of. Maybe. Which may be why many people prefer to call him the Gawain Poet, as the last poem is definitely about a Knight of the Round Table, which is comforting, in a way, because not much else is certain with this guy.
No one knows exactly who he was, because he wrote his stuff in English,**and few 14th Century poets^ bothered, or dared, to sign the poetry they wrote in that vulgar language, because the real money was in catching the attention of the French-reading aristocracy. Modern academics have narrowed down the likely suspects a little through dialect—North West Midland, just to show I can work google—and his evident level of education, but while experts have their favorite candidates, it’s pretty much a game of What If.
So all we really know for sure is that all four poems are really old, extremely alliterative, and only two of ’em get any press—they don’t call the writer the Patience Poet or the Clean Poet, because the middle poems are sort of same-old, same-old.
But the Gawain poem is interesting and cool and remarkably snarky—full of self-sacrifice, seductions, and an odd take on honor and honesty. Like the Canterbury Tales, it’s a narrative poem: A Green Knight shows up at King Arthur’s Court and double dog dares Arthur to behead him, with the caveat that in a year’s time, he will cut off Arthur’s head, like the Medieval version of Punk’d.
No one in the room is dumb enough to think this is a safe bet, but Arthur is goaded into accepting, because he’s got a temper and Sir Green has a mouth on him. This is the knights’ cue to step in and save their boss from himself, but they hesitate because codes of honor are important, but posthumous praise for something so random and inglorious isn’t really their cup of ale.
So the only one who comes forward is Gawain, Arthur’s nephew—not because he wants fame or thinks he’s found a loophole, but because he’s pretty sure he was offered a seat at the Round Table because of nepotism instead of actual skill. He truly believes that he’s the most expendable of all the knights and that the only way he’ll be able to serve his King is by taking this stupid, suicidal dare in Arthur’s place. So he takes his sword and whacks off the Green Knight’s noggin . . . and adventures and Life Lessons (and kissing) ensue.
It’s a good poem, if you can get over the tongue-achingly thick alliteration, because I’m seriously not kidding about that:
I’ll tell it straight, as I in town heard it,
as it was said and spoken
in story staunch and strong,
with linked letters loaded,
as in this land so long.
“Pearl” though, gets press mostly, I think, because no one can figure it out. It’s an odd poem about a beautiful pearl that the narrator lost while he was walking in a garden, right before the dream sequence. And now the pearl is now a woman, maybe, standing across a brook, and there’s more walking and discussions of purity and divinity and a couple of other things that may or may not stand for different things.
It’s not as straightforward as it looks at first, even in translation:
A jewel was this maid to me
And jewels were her noble speech.
‘Indeed,’ I said, ‘most happily
In my distress you make a breach;
May my great fault forgiven be !
I thought my pearl far out of reach
Now I have found it, great my glee;
I’Il dwell in woods of oak and beech,
And love the laws my Lord doth teach
That have provided joys sincere.
And if yon bank I now could reach,
I’d be a joyful jeweller.’
A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what all of this means, but while everyone can pretty much agree that it’s allegorical, anyone who attempts to formulate a specific allegory out of it is shouted down.
Personally? Meh. I get impatient with it. In fact . . . I sometimes get the feeling that “Pearl” is simply an average poem with some nice turns of phrase. And the reason the meaning is so elusive and meandering isn’t that the scholars are missing something, but that the poem doesn’t actually work.
Not all poetry that survives to modern times survives because it’s good—sometimes it survives because it shares a binding with a far more interesting Arthurian tale written in an off-beat language that was passed into the hands of a bibliophile.
As if, my husband says, six hundred years from now, archivists will find the lyrics to a Brittany Spears song that was accidentally left inside an Allen Ginsburg collection and strive for the next three hundred years to find the deeper thematic meaning of “Baby, Hit Me One More Time.” ^^
It’s a theory, and one that means I don’t have to feel like an idiot when I flip past “Pearl” to read about The Green Knight’s wife trying to seduce our hero, who is having problems facing his own mortality, now that the chips are down.
That’s the stuff, right there.
*Or she, but probably not
**Middle English, really, at least to us, because at the time no one had any clue that the Great Vowel Shift was moving slowly through the language like a glacier, leaving behind mangled standardized spellings as it went.
^ Besides Chaucer, linguistic badass that he was.
^^Neither of us are implying that Mr. Ginsburg wrote that song, or indeed, any songs, for Ms. Spears. At all. We are stating that he couldn’t. Though we’re fairly certain Brittany Spears’ lyricists did what they set out to do, bless ‘em.