Powerpoint: Teaching Pearl
by Jane Beal, PhD (free download)


Approaches to Teaching the Middle English Pearled. Jane Beal and Mark Bradshaw Busbee (New York: MLA, 2017).

Jane Beal, “Three Approaches to Teaching Pearl: Introduction to Literature, British Literature I, and the Mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien,” The Once and Future Classroom (Spring 2016), Art. 6.

Key Terms and Study Questions

Terms: affective piety, allegory, balade stanza, baptism, bestiary, Christology, codicology, concatenation, consolation, Cotton Nero A.x, courtly love (amour courtois), crown (corona), Dreamer, dream vision, elegy, epithalamion, eschatology, Eucharist, exemplar, four senses of scripture (literal/historical, spiritual/allegorical, moral/tropological, anagogical), hortus conclusus, Jesus, jewel, jeweler, Lamb, margarita, lapidary, locus amoenus, manuscript, New Jerusalem, paleography, parable, pearl, Pearl-Maiden, Pearl-Poet, phoenix, revelation, Revelation, rose, sacrament, Saint Margaret, seed, somnium, Song of Songs, spiritual marriage, symbol, typology, virgin, Virgin Mary, Wyrde 

Pearl, I-X (l. 1-768)

  1. Where does the poem begin? Think of Eden, the Song of Songs, and Mary’s womb, all considered to be types of the hortus conclusus (“enclosed garden”) in the Middle Ages. What did these gardens contain? What grew in them? What does the garden at the beginning of this poem contain? What is growing in it?
  1. The speaker grieves over his lost pearl in the opening lines of the poem. He says, “Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere” (alas, I lost her in a garden); she is “clad in clot” (dressed in dirt); he observes, “For vch gresse mot grow of graynez dede” (for each grass must grow of dead grains). What do these lines suggest has happened?
  1. The speaker falls asleep in the garden and has a dream vision. What is the landscape like in his dream? See section II. How does his vision of this paradisial dreamscape affect the Dreamer emotionally? (lines 121-32). Whom does the Dreamer see here, and what does she look like? (lines 160ff)
  1. How does the Dreamer feel when he sees the Pearl-Maiden? (lines 181ff) Read lines 230-35. What is the relationship between the Dreamer and the Pearl-Maiden? Notice the Dreamer’s description of feelings he has suffered since his separation from the Pearl-Maiden (lines 241ff). Is this love-sickness? Why does he call himself a “joyless jeweler”? What is the significance of such a self-identification? What is the role of a jeweler?
  1. How does the Pearl-Maiden see/identify the Dreamer? Allegorically or symbolically or metaphorically, then, what is the relationship between the Dreamer and the Pearl-Maiden? The Pearl-Maiden says: “For what you lost was but a rose/That flowered and finally failed in time” (trans. Finch). What does a rose often stand for? Is this a (courtly) love story? (Think of the French allegory, the Roman de la Rose.)
  1. The Pearl-Maiden reproves the Dreamer for calling Fate (“Wyrde”) a “thief” (line 273) and calls into question the Dreamer’s perception of reality (lines 295ff). Why? What do her words suggest about her intentions in coming to meet the Dreamer in this vision? (Think of Boethius and Lady Philosophy in the Consolation of Philosophy and Dante and Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.)
  1. At line 325, the Dreamer asks, “Do you judge me … my sweetheart, to sorrow again?” What does the Dreamer fear may happen next? Why might he feel that way? To whom does the Pearl-Maiden advise the Dreamer to look? At this rebuke, the Dreamer speaks once more of his intense feelings (lines 361-84). What are those feelings? What kind of relationship does he want to have with the Pearl-Maiden?
  1. The Dreamer says the Pearl-Maiden is the ground of all his bliss, but who does the Pearl-Maiden say is the ground of hers? At the end of section VII, the Pearl-Maiden describes her spiritual marriage to her “Lord the Lamb.” Think of the description in the Bible of the marital relationship between God and Israel as well as Jesus and the Church, Origen’s reading of the Song of Songs as an epithalamion describing God’s relationship to the individual Christian soul, Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentaries on the Song of Songs, and the tradition of mysticism, especially among women like Birgitta of Sweden (or, later, Margery Kempe and Teresa of Avila) who experienced visions in their souls of being married to Christ. What kind of intimacy, what kind of authority, does such an experience imply?
  1. How does the Dreamer react to the news that the Pearl-Maiden is married? (lines 420ff). Whom does he call the “Phoenix of Arabia”? Why? Who is the “queen of courtesy” and the “empress of heaven”? What is the Dreamer really arguing about here?
  1. Sections IX-X re-tell Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard from the New Testament. What is that parable about, and what is its point? Why does the Pearl-Maiden re-tell it here? How does the Dreamer respond to the parable? (lines 590ff) Is the Pearl-Maiden unworthy of her penny? Why not (in her estimation)? What is “great enough” for her to have a place in heaven as a queen?

Pearl, XI-XX (l. 769-1212)

  1. Notice the example of the baptized infants. What makes a soul innocent? (lines 625ff) What sin took place in the Garden of Eden that necessitates atonement? (lines 637ff)  What is the significance of the Crucifixion and the blood and the water that sprang from Christ’s side? (lines 645ff)
  1. In section XII, what two types of people does the Pearl-Maiden discuss with interest? Is there a relationship between righteousness and innocence? Why do you think the Pearl-Maiden remembers the stories from scripture of how people brought their children to Jesus to be blessed by him? (lines 709ff).
  1. In section XIII, the Pearl-Maiden remembers the Parable of the Merchant. What is that parable about, and what is its point? This parable is the obvious subtext for the entire poem, Pearl. In an allegorical reading that takes this parable into account, what might the Pearl-Maiden stand for? Notice how the Pearl-Maiden describes the pearl on her breast given to her by her Lord the Lamb. What idea does this image reinforce?
  1. In the second-to-last stanza of section XIII, the Pearl-Maiden again describes her spiritual marriage to Christ. What language does she use to describe her Bridegroom? How does she understand herself in relationship to him?
  1. In section XIV, the Pearl Maiden makes several allusions to the book of Revelation / Apocalypse. What keyword is repeated at the end of every stanza in the section? In the second stanza, what are the names that the Pearl Maiden gives to her lover (“my lemman”)? What key event in the life of Jesus is described?
  1. The Pearl-Maiden describes how “each soul” can be the Lamb’s “worthy wife” (lines 845-46). Again, we see the potential for spiritual marriage not only for the Pearl-Maiden but also for the Dreamer (and even the readers of the poem!). How does this relate to the allegorical sense of the poem?   Discuss the “old” and the “new” Jerusalem … If the Pearl-Maiden’s soul is with the Lamb, where is her body? (see line 856) … What is the music like in heaven? (see lines 877ff) How does the Dreamer respond to these revelations? (lines 901ff) How does he see himself? How does he see her?
  1. What does the Dreamer ask for from the Pearl Maiden? What does he want to see? Where does he want to go? (line 963) Whom does he wish to see there? (line 964) Where is the focus of his gaze? What does the Pearl-Maiden say in response?
  1. The Dreamer calls himself a jeweler. At line 985ff, he begins to describe the gems of the foundations of the New Jerusalem. Who else is a Jewel/Jeweler? In section 18, what are the gates of the city made of? Where does the light in the city come from? What tree grows there and how many kinds of fruit does it bear? Compare these lines to Revelation 21.
  1. The Dreamer sees a procession of virgins crowned, arrayed in pearls, and dressed in white, which includes his “blysful.” Then he sees the Lamb. How many horns does he have and what are their colors? What kind of clothes does he wear? What kind of wound does he have? The Dreamer’s gaze is filled with this wounded Lamb, a Lamb who responds to his pain with joy. How might this speak to the loss that the Dreamer has experienced? What ecstatic emotion does the Dreamer experience in response to what he is seeing? (Notice the keyword repeated at the beginning and end of each stanza!)
  1. In section XX, where does the Dreamer most want to be? What happens when he attempts to cross the water? What is the Dreamer’s explanation for what happens? What adjectives does the Dreamer use to describe his actions? He calls his dream a “veray avysyoun” (a true vision). What does that suggest about his understanding of his experience? The relationship between his dream and reality? Between earthly and heavenly experience?
  1. What has the Dreamer found the “Prince” to be both day and night? What are the names the Dreamer gives to the Lover? How has the dream apparently changed his view of God and his loss of his beloved Pearl-Maiden? Has he reached the stage of grief in which he can relinquish and still remember peacefully?
  1. Why does the Dreamer allude to the bread and the wine of the Eucharist in the last stanza of the poem? What is the purpose of the Eucharistic rite? What permission might the Eucharist give the Dreamer to remember?
  1. What invitation is given in the last two lines of the poem to the readers of the poem? How are we included in the Dreamer’s experience? Having read this poem, what range of meanings might be signified in the image/signifier “precious pearls”?
  1. How might we characterize the genre of this poem?


Literal sense Allegorical sense Moral sense Anagogical sense
Elegy Allegory Consolation Revelation
  1. The overall structure of Pearl has been compared to a cathedral, a rose-window, a reliquary, a crown, and the microcosm of a human body with a heart at its center as well as (of course) a pearl. How do these comparison enlarge our understanding of the poem and its memorial, cultural, and theological purposes?
  1. Consider also the smaller structures of Pearl: 1,212 lines, 101 twelve-line stanzas, and 20 sections (each unified by a key concatenation word), which can be studied as a chiastic diptych (10-10) or a triptych (4-12-4). Given medieval number symbolism, how are these numbers and divisions significant? In what ways are the form and content of Pearl intimately related?

One thought on “Teaching

  1. Pingback: Week 5: “Pearl,” “Princess Mee,” and Other Poems | Mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien

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