Pearl-Poet

The Pearl-Poet wrote the exquisitely beautiful, fourteenth-century, Middle English dream vision poem, Pearl. He may also be the author of three other poems included in the Pearl Manuscript, British Library A.x Cotton Nero: Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Some scholars have argued that he authored Saint Erkenwald, which survives in another manuscript, as well.

The Pearl-Poet is generally regarded as an anonymous or unknown writer. Many attempts have been made to identify him, but none of these identifications has been widely accepted. Nevertheless, we can learn many things about the poet from his writings.

The language of Pearl  is that of the late-medieval, northwest Midlands of England, the probable provenance of the poet himself. The matter of the poem demonstrates that the poet had both a religious and courtly education. He wrote in Middle English; he also knew some Latin, French, and possibly Italian. He was well-versed in the literature of the Bible, including the Psalms, Song of Songs, Isaiah, the parables and passion narrative of Jesus from the Gospels, the letters of Paul (esp. 1 Corinithians), and Revelation, and he was deeply familiar with the liturgy of the Church. His poem contains allusions to classical literature, including references to Aristotle and Pygmalion, suggesting the poet’s knowledge of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as, potentially, later commentaries on it. Pearl possesses general parallels to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the Romance of the Rose, and Dante’s Divine Comedy; the poet certainly knew the conventions of dream vision narrative poems.

The sort of man who might have had such an education could have been a son or a servant of the nobility, a priest or  a layman. His adult vocation — other than his calling as a poet — is therefore difficult to discern from Pearl alone. Whether he had a family or not is also unclear. But his knowledge of Christian doctrine is thorough, his ability to paraphrase scripture evident, and his moral messages in Pearl, Cleanness and Patience very clear. His message in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been debated in scholarship, but it certainly places conflicting ethical obligations at the heart of the poem, perhaps more so than any other surviving Arthurian romance from the Middle Ages.

To learn more about the Pearl-Poet, consider reading one (or more) of the biographies or introductions listed on the Literary Criticism page of this website.

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