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The Literariness of Literature and the History of Emotion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


The middle english pearl is one of the most moving and beautiful poems ever composed. occasioned, it seems, by the death of a two-year-old daughter, whose identity has never been determined, it casts the grieving narrator-father as one who has treasured the child as a jewel beyond compare. She was round and smooth, rare and radiant—a precious pearl fit for a prince. Yet this dear small thing just slipped away one day in the garden, tumbling down through the grass into the dark earth:

Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye

To clanly clos in golde so clere,

Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,

Ne proved I never her precious pere.

So rounde, so reken in uche araye

So smal, so smothe her sydes were,

Quere-so-ever I jugged gemmes gaye,

I sette hyr sengeley in synglere.

Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;

Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.

I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere

Of that pryvy perle wythouten spot. (lines 1-12)

Pearl, pleasing and delightful for a prince to enclose in fine gold: of all those from the orient, I declare that I never knew one as precious. So round, so radiant in every setting; so small, so smooth her sides were; wherever I judged beautiful gems, I appraised her as singularly rare. Alas! I lost her in a garden; through grass to ground it sped from me. I mourn, overcome with love-longing for my own precious, spotless pearl.

As this opening stanza reveals, Pearl relies on the polyvalence and sensuous power of poetic language for its affective effects, gathering associative resonance through shifting meanings, working through indirection and allusiveness, tapping into the sensory power of visual and tactile images and patterned sound, and leaving much unsaid, to be grasped and felt between the lines. But the poem's broad emotional arc is clear. It scripts a therapeutic narrative of affective experience, taking its reader, whom it enfolds within the textual “I” of the poem, from “woe” to “weal” (56, 1187).

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2015

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