The Pearl is Lost

Canto I

Pearl, pleasant to a prince's pleasure,
To cleanly enclose in gold so clear,
Out of the Orient, I boldly say,
None ever proved her precious peer.
So round, so right in each array,
So small, so smooth her sleek sides were;
Whenever I judged gems so gay
I set her singly in singularity.
Alas! I lost her in an herb garden--
Through grass to ground it from me got!
I dwindled, done in by love-distress
For that prize pearl without a spot.

Let us begin by noting some features of the poem that, in varying degree, are preserved in the translation before us.

  • The one thing no translation can preserve is the sound of the original. Many even of the poet's words that we could recognize visually have changed enough in pronunciation that the "sound" of the poetry is entirely different for us from what it was for him. I wish you could "hear" the Pearl Poet; but only experts in historical linguistics are competent to do an oral performance of the work.
  • The original poem does have a more or less regular meter. Our translation comes down rather more on the less side, but enough is preserved that you can tell what the meter is supposed to be--namely, four stresses per line.
  • The original has a strict rhyme scheme with every line rhyming one way or another. The translation is forced to break the pattern time after time. But again, enough has been preserved for you to hear the rhyme and know where it should be. (Eight of the twelve lines in the first stanza are according to the scheme.)
  • A prominent feature of the original is the use of alliteration, i.e., the repeating of a particular sound throughout a line by using a number of words that begin with (or stress) the same letter. I have taken great pains to retain the alliteration in this translation.
  • A key structural feature of Pearl is its linkage. The poet accomplishes this with what we shall call catch lines and link words. The pattern will become evident as we proceed, but it is constructed thus: A canto is a sequence of five stanzas. Beginning with the final line of the first stanza of a canto and running through the first line of the final lines of each stanza are "catch lines" which include the "link word" for that canto. As our first instance, the link word of Canto I is "spot."

Particularly striking--although the full significance will not come to us until the very end of the poem--is the fact that the very first line of the poem is a catch line of the final canto, No. XX. This neatly is the poem's end linked to its beginning and the whole made into a beautiful unity. Along the way, each canto is linked to its successor by the same device.

If you have not guessed it from this first stanza, it will soon become apparent that the speaker actually is describing the death of a baby girl (not yet two years old, we are told later) who was close to him--presumably his daughter. The herb garden is, of course, the graveyard. It is possible, I suppose, that the baby was even named "Pearl"--or more likely "Margery" [from the French word for pearl, "margarite"]--although this can be only conjecture.

However, it is likely, here at the outset, that the poet wants us to be reminded of Jesus' parable about the pearl of great price (Mt. 13:45-46)--to which he will make explicit reference later. One lesson is that the father will have his daughter as being the pearl of great price. No, only the kingdom of God--his sovereign rule--is the pearl to be sought before, and at the cost of, everything else. As long as my own happiness (or that in which I find my happiness) is put first, Christianity can offer no sure and lasting comfort.

It certainly is possible that the poem is autobiographical, that the poet actually did lose a daughter and, in consequence, experience the revelation he describes. Yet perhaps we ought not take that for granted. In any case, we will need to make the distinction between the person who wrote the poem and the one who is both the first-person speaker of it and a character within it. Even if it should be that the poem is autobiographical and the two men the same, the difference of perspective between writing the account of an experience after it is all over and being right in the middle of it is one well worth maintaining. Accordingly, the person of the first situation we shall refer to as "the poet" (the Pearl Poet). And on the other hand, the father who is telling the story does on occasion refer to himself as "the Jeweler"; so let us use that term to identify him.

The implication attending the term "Jeweler" (who "judges gems so gay," setting her "singly in singularity") is that of person who is considered by others and who considers himself competent to make a true evaluation of jewels. Consequently, the issue of the poem--for him and for us--is whether he and we do prove to be truly "gentle Jewelers" in picking the pearl of great price.


Since, in the spot it from me sprung,
Oft have I waited, wishing that weal
That was wont for a while to void my wrong
And heighten my happiness and all my health.
Though now hurt thru my heart doth throng,
While my breast doth bulge and burn in bale.
Yet thought me ne'er was so sweet a song
As such a still stand let to me steal;
Forsooth, not a few did I there feel,
To think of her color now clad in clot.
O mold, thou marrest a merry jewel,
My priceless pearl without a spot.

Notice the link word "spot" in both the first and last lines of the stanza.

The Jeweler makes it plain how completely his life had come to center in that baby girl. ("Certainly there is nothing wrong in that! ... Is there?") He gives--and will give--eloquent expression to the terrible pain her loss has brought. He is being honest; and such pain can arouse in us nothing but sympathy.

"Yet thought me ne'er was so sweet a song." Is that true? It is; and the poet is on to something very important.

Unless redeemed in the will of God, grief is bound to become a very self-centered (even self-centering) emotion. My loss doth thrust my heart through. I am hurting in a way which ought to command the attention and sympathy of some self-indulgence that no one would dare to find blameworthy. And there is a certain "sweetness" in that. The poet has alerted us: grief can seduce us into loving it, even while we are hurting under it.


That spot with spices needs must spread,
Where such riches to rot have run;
Blooms blond and blue and red
Shall shine full sheer against the sun.
Flower and fruit cannot there fail,
Where it down into the dark was done;
For each grass from a dead grain must grow,
Else no wheat were for warehouses won.
Of good each good is ever begun!
With so seemly a seed it could fail not
That sprigs of spices up have sprung
From that precious pearl without a spot.

Here the Jeweler sees a truth that could have been of great help to him--if only he could have held to it (which, we will see, he did not do). Yet such is grief: our pain makes us deaf to the truth, whether it be something told us by a loving counselor or even something we tell ourselves.

The truth, in this instance, is the faith that goodness ultimately is indestructible. Or, better put: "God makes all things work together for good for those who love God...." (Rom. 8:28). "Of good each good is ever begun." The good God accomplished even through the death of his only Son enables Christians to believe that--indeed, it forbids us to believe anything else.

Granted, the Jeweler, in the face of his grief, was not able to keep on believing. Granted, we find it difficult to keep on believing in our turn. Yet that does not stop the thought from being the very truth of things in any case.


To that spot I in speech expound
I entered, there in that garden green,
In August, in a high season
When corn is cut with sickles keen.
On the hill the pearl had trundled down
Were shadowed these shrubs, sheer and shining:
Gullyflower, ginger, and gromwell,
With peonies powdered all between.
Though seemly a scene simply to be seen,
A fair fragrance as well floated from the plot.
There waited worthily, I ween,
My precious pearl without a spot.


Upon that spot my hands I'd wring
For care, full cold, that at me caught;
A desolate dirge in my heart did din,
Though to set me right my reason sought.
I made plaint for my pearl that was pent therein,
With ferocious feelings that fast me fought.
Though Christ's character could my comfort have been,
My wretched will in woe was wrought
As I fell on that field with flowers frought.
Then such odor to my senses shot
Sleep slipped o'er me in its onslaught
Near that precious pearl without a spot.

Truly, grief is a seducer in more ways than one. It is not that no word of comfort is being spoken but that grief's desolate dirge can set us against reason itself and even drown out the comfort Christ would offer. The difficulty, of course, is that--although later the Jeweler would come to see what grief was and what it had done to him--in the moment his wretched will prevented him from seeing anything. And so with us; yet perhaps the poet's describing it now can alert us to the situation then, when we are the ones blinded by grief.

Copyright (c) 1983