As we change over to the new syllabus, this is the last year in which our Finalists might write a exam commentary on an extract from the Middle English poem Pearl. In the next couple of weeks I’m therefore saying farewell to Pearl as a commentary text, but at the same time looking at it yet once more, having done a bit more reading and thinking about form, metre and versification. Embarrassingly, several things on my old Pearl handout for Finalists now need what in our house is called a ‘tiny-justment’ (in honour of our daughter’s toddlerish repetition of Mr Stylisticienne the Engineer saying that such and such toy needed ‘a tiny adjustment’ in order to work). This post is really a collection of tiny-justments, for this last year of Pearl commentators (hello Teddy Hall Finalists!), and for me, and for anyone else who’s interested, of ideas about how one might approach Pearl’s metre and stanza-form for Finals commentary.
All the suggestions in this post can be tried out on the randomly selected stanza of Pearl given below (scroll down to find lines 217–28 and a translation). Pearl is written in twelve-line stanzas rhyming ababababbcbc. Each stanza is linked to the ones preceding and following it by concatenation (that is a word or phrase which is repeated in the first and last lines), with the concatenation word changing for each group (or passus) of five (and in one case six) stanzas. These final lines function like a non-exact refrain for each stanza. The position of the concatenation word in the first line varies, but the concatenation word is usually the final word in each stanza.
These twelve lines can divide into three quatrains (with the Pearl-poet often, though not always, matching units of sense or syntax with the quatrain units). If you look at the rhyme scheme in isolation, the c-rhyme looks as if it brings a new sound into the stanza. But after reading Susanna Fein’s hugely useful Speculum article on Pearl’s relationship to other Middle English poems in 12-line stanzas, I’m more conscious that this isn’t so much a ‘new’ sound, but more the opposite, a sonic reminder and anticipation (via a different word) of the concatenation word and its refrain. The c-rhyme will of course rhyme with the concatenation word which began the first line of the stanza, and will rhyme with the final word of the stanza (highlighted in green below). And so this same c-rhyme runs all through the passus.
Pearl also employs alliteration flexibly, with none, 2, 3 or 4 of the stressed syllables in each line alliterating, though it does not restrict itself to the alliterative patterns of alliterative verse. Having recently read Macklin Smith’s great 2009 article on ‘Langland’s Alliterative Line(s)’, I’m reminded that one should look not only at intra-linear alliteration (i.e. the use of alliteration in any single line), but also inter-linear alliteration (the repetition of sounds at the beginning of words or syllables across several lines). For an example, look at the letters picked out in blue below.
Now that I have read a bit more of the four-stress narrative writing of early Middle English, I can also see how much the Pearl-poet draws on this earlier tradition in his use of repetition, pleonasm (the introduction of strictly unnecessary words for style or metre) and syntactic parallels. See sections in red in the stanza below. And even translating a stanza for this blog post has made me realise how creative and meaningful is the poet’s use of figurative language (to dam, to digest, savourly).
Finally the vexed question of Pearl’s metre, whether it is more closely related to alliterative accentual verse or to accentual-syllabic iambic tetrameter. I have been reading Kristin Lynn Cole’s excellent University of Texas PhD which devotes a section to the metre of Pearl (Cole’s answer, in simplified terms, is that it shows features of both). This mixture gives a verse line with a firm swift four-beat pulse, but the ‘dips’ of two unstressed syllables and the alternation between iambic and other patterns prevents monotony.
Pyght was poyned and uche a hemme
At honde, at sydes, at overture,
Wyth whyte perle and non other gemme,
And bornyste quyte was hyr vesture.
Bot a wonder perle wythouten wemme
Inmyddes hyr breste was sette so sure,
A mannes dom moght druyyly demme
Er mynde moght malte in hit mesure.
I hope no tonge moght endure,
No saverly saghe say of that syght,
So was hit clene and cler and pure,
That precios perle ther hit was pyght.
(ed. Stanbury, spelling modernised)
[Wristband and every hem was picked out, | At her hand, at the sides, at every opening, | With white pearl and no other kind of jewel, | And brightened white was her clothing. | Moreover a magnificent pearl without a blemish | Was set so firmly in the middle of her breast, | A man’s judgment might be completely ‘dammed up’ [i.e. baffled] | Before his mind could digest the quantity of it. | I think no tongue could be adequate to describe the sight of it in its full flavour, | So was it clean and clear and pure, | That precious pearl which was fixed there.]