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Review of Pearl - Lachlan Mackinnon, Times Literary Supplement , 21 October 2011
The miracle of their music.Previous review of 'Pearl'... Next review of 'Pearl'... To the 'Pearl' page...
Pearl is a victim of sibling rivalry. Had the British Library manuscript Cotton Nero A x contained only Pearl, Patience and Cleanness, Pearl would have stood as the major nineteenth-century discovery in Middle English poetry. But it also contained Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The apparently greater accessibility of this last, and the reasonable assumption that they were all the work of one author, has given Sir Gawain a misleading pre-eminence.
Jane Draycott’s version of Pearl is therefore very welcome. Her method is to render the original stanza by stanza, rather than line by line, which allows her to adjust the poem’s syntax to modern expectations – she can avoid inversion, and so forth. She uses a normally four-beat line, as does the original, and alliterates only as it comes naturally, where the original does so throughout. At times, her version is remarkably beautiful. For instance, in the original,
Fowles ther flowen in fryth in fere,
Of flaumbande hewes, both smale and grete
Bot sytole-stryng and gyternere
Her reken myrthe moght not retrete;
Fir quen those bryddes her wynges bete,
Thay songen with a swete asent.
I particularly admired Draycott’s version:
In the forest, birds with feathers the colour
of flame flew together. The woodland rang
with the rush and ring of their beating wings
and the harmony of their song.
No instrument could imitate
the miracle of their music.
The citole and its descendent cittern vanish, a sensible decision, and the slightly enamelled original is given a modern sensuousness. The much higher proportion of run-on lines in the new version helps give a forward movement to the tale the poem tells, needed perhaps for a readership less concerned with theology and less likely to enjoy debates about it. Adeptly throughout, Draycott gives us the story of the speaker’s grief for his lost infant daughter, his lost pearl, his vision of her, his theological argument with her, his vision of the New Jerusalem and his subsequent waking. The awkward relation between living father and dead, enlightened daughter is conveyed, as is the father’s inability wholly to accept what he must, either in this world or metaphysically. Draycott’s version is compellingly human. But it remains only a story. Critics fruitfully argue about whether the pearl is allegorical or symbolic; now, it can only be symbolic, because we have lost the tradition of layered allegorical reading and there is no way to indicate it in the text. On this, as on a number of points, I wanted something much more substantial than Bernard O’Donoghue’s brief introduction.
Inevitably there are other losses. The first is that Draycott does not reproduce the astonishing formal complexity of the original. ‘Perle’ is the original’s first word; here, ‘pearl’ arrives in the second line. In the first of the poem’s twenty sections, she ends the first four stanzas with ‘spotless pearl’, reproducing the original ‘perle wythouten spot’. Her fifth stanza ends ‘My girl’, though, undoing the repetition and clarifying what the original does not. We know from this more about what has been lost than the original discloses, although the ambiguous sense in which ‘My girl’ might be a lover as well as a daughter intelligently picks up the speaker’s use of occasionally amorous diction. In the original, ‘Spot’ is picked up, meaning ‘place’, at the start of the next section, another part of the binding together of the poem which vanishes here. Draycott has only ‘place’.
Although it rhymes occasionally, this is essentially an unrhymed version. The four-beat line of the original often moves towards iambic tetrameter, an effect Draycott reproduces. Some editors have, mistakenly, tried to tidy the whole thing into iambics, missing an essential tension. The elaborate stanza form belongs to a newer poetic than the line’s, as the speaker must look forward to a new life. His difficulty in shedding his past is mirrored by the Pearl-poet’s nostalgic use of the older line and a declining north-west Midlands dialect, an effect which cannot perhaps be achieved in any modern version. And yet, this will deservedly become the form in which most people read Pearl. It is all the more regrettable that it has not been supplied with the editorial matter that would explain how a modern rendering can, at best, be only a shadow of the original, for the Pearl-poet, had he written nothing else, would stand among the greatest writers in the English language.
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