Undergrad Wednesdays – “He get us…”: A Revelatory Instance of Wordplay in “Pearl”

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

My translation of  Pearl (section XX, lines 1201-13):

“To please the Prince and straighten sight,
It is very easy to the good Christian.
For I have found Him, both day and night
A God, a Lord, a friend most fine.
On this hill I felt this rite
For pity of my pearl divine;
And unto God I committed with might
In Christ’s dear blessing and mine,
That in the form of bread and wine
The priest shows us every day.
He grants us to be His homely hine
And precious Pearl to Him as she may.

Original Text:

“To pay þe Prince oþer sete saȝte
Hit is ful eþe to þe god Krystyin;
For I haf founden hym, boþe day and naȝte,
A God, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin.
Ouer þis hyul þis lote I laȝte,
For pyty of my perle enclyin,
And syþen to God I hit bytaȝte
In Krysteȝ dere blessyng and myn,
Þat in þe forme of bred and wyn
Þe preste vus scheweȝ vch a daye.
He gef vus to be his homly hyne
Ande precious perleȝ vnto his pay.

In the final stanza of Pearl, the unknown poet must not only continue to employ all of the restrictions set up by the form he employs throughout the poem, but must also effectively conclude and tie together the poem in its entirety. As such, the overall successfulness of this passage, on its own and in the context of Pearl as a whole, is remarkable. The poet retains the rhyme scheme, stanza structure, and mood, all while injecting some extremely important—and telling—bits of information through wordplay and repetition.

When considering the conclusion to Pearl, the reader will undoubtedly ask a version of this question: “Has the narrator learned and progressed from this experience?” It is easy to respond both “yes” and “no.” Yes, because the narrator, in his own words, has “bytaghte / In Krystes dere blessyng” (XX.1207-8). Altenatively, “no,” because just moments before the conclusion he is “kaste of kythes that lastes aye” (XX.1198). As a result of these conflicting positions occurring only ten lines apart, deeper analysis is required to answer this loaded question.

Luckily, the poet inserts clues into the end of this final stanza to help his audience understand where he might stand on the issue of the narrator’s growth. The first comes in the form of a weighted bit of wordplay in lines 1211 and 1212, “He gef uus to be His homly hyne / And precious perles unto His pay.” Here, “gef” can mean “gives,” “grants,” or “bequeaths.” While all conveying similar ideas, the slight differences showcase the amount of clarity the narrator has to his and Pearl’s existences. In the first sense of “gef,” the narrator expresses the seemingly arbitrary “give and take” nature of the Lord. Much like in the beginning of the poem, this is the narrator’s non-understanding of the situation and his distress over his daughter being taken from him. This would suggest that he has not progressed.

However, the second two of the aforementioned three meanings of “gef” insinuate that the narrator has in fact developed beyond the poem’s onset as a result of his spiritual experience and verbiage. In his understanding that the Lord “grants” the people on earth to serve him, the narrator shows that he realizes the honor and importance of living in God’s grace. It transforms the previous “give and take” nature, first assumed to be the narrator’s outlook, into a nature of allowance. God allows the narrator to make the profound sacrifice of letting go of his daughter, and the narrator, after an understandable period of grieving, ultimately comes away as thankful.

This also plays through the “bequeath” meaning of “gef;” this language connotes a transferal of ownership. As such, a “bequeath” reading illustrates that the narrator has acceptingly given his daughter over to God. With these readings illuminating the levels of understanding the narrator develops over the course of the poem, it is evident that he has learned from the endeavors across Pearl.

The narrator and his dream representation of his daughter Pearl, at the climax of the poem.

Considering the loaded meaning behind this solitary word in the original version, while Marie Borroff’s translation often excels structurally, the demands of alternative Middle English definitions make Pearl difficult to translate completely. Take Borroff’s translation of lines 1211 and 1212: “O may we serve Him well, and shine / As precious pearls to His content.” Though the clear metaphorical use of “pearls” and her adherence to the key phrases of the original come through strongly, gone is the weight of the epiphany-like “He gef us to be His…” However, as the difficulty of the original’s style is so demanding, it is a compromise that, likely, had to be made.

In translating, Borroff could have either tried to mirror the original poem’s style or shoot for exact accuracy in meaning—it probably is impossible to replicate both together, and any attempt would likely come up short on both ends. Therefore, critiquing Borroff’s translations should be done with the guidelines of the original’s form in mind. As the translator lays out in her introduction, “One of the most striking and significant aspects of the poem is its conformity to an all-encompassing and highly elaborate design.” Her adherence to the complete concatenation (“Pearl, that a prince is well content,” “As precious pearls to His content”—the first and final lines of the poem), using alliteration in moments of heightened drama (“His gifts gush forth like a spring in spate” (XI.1)), and unwavering rhyme scheme is remarkable:

Flash in winter form frosty space;
For every one was a gem to praise,
A sapphire or emerald opulent
That seemed to set the pool ablaze,
So brilliant their embellishment. (II.116-120)

This strict design, as Borroff refers to it, is the most important part of the poem; to honor it as closely as possible is necessary in a modern English translation, especially if this might be the only way in which some readers could be exposed to it.

For the most part, by conforming to the original Pearl’s design, Borroff retains much of the experience of reading Pearl in Middle English. The ababababbcbc rhyme scheme and alliterative passages convey the fairytale-like flow. The employment of the linking words and phrases matches the spiritual overtones of not only the poem’s plot, but also its style. The repetition, along with the poem’s ending in “Amen” imply that the poem is meant to be a prayer, read over and over. For example, the concatenation that occurs between the last line and the first line tie the poem together into a potentially never-ending circular narrative. By keeping this in, Borroff portrays much more than she would have if she attempted to only translate for as much accuracy as possible with each individual word. Instead, Borroff’s translation focuses on aesthetic accuracy and presents much more of Pearl’s most significant qualities.

Matthew McMahon
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Missing the “Spot”: Borroff’s Oversights in the First Stanza in Pearl

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]


Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere:
Out of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydez were;
Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gaye
I sette her singeley in synglure.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurȝ gresse to ground hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle withouten spot.


A pearl lovely and pleasing to a prince
To purely enclose in gold so clear:
Out of Orient, I hardily say
Proved I never her precious pair.
So round, so noble in each setting,
So slender, so smooth her sides were;
Wherever I judged splendid jewels
I set her singly in uniqueness.
Alas! I lost her in one garden;
Through the grass to the ground it slipped from me.
I pined, grievously wounded of distance from my beloved
Of that privy pearl without spot.

The first stanza of any poem functions as the foundation for the key themes that a poet then explores and expands upon throughout the remainder of the text. In the case of Pearl, within twelve lines, the poet alludes to Catholicism, creates layered language with literal and figurative meaning, and establishes an active first person narrator. All three topics serve as the basis of understanding the poem, and the reader can only comprehend their importance because the poet emphasizes them at the beginning. However, in Marie Borroff’s translation, her word choice removes the most important aspects of the opening stanza, and so one cannot trace these overarching themes.

Borroff actively eliminates the first person narrator in the opening section of the poem, and by doing so she removes the individualized nature of the Dreamer’s journey. In lines three and four, the original poet wrote, “Out of orient, I hardyly saye,/ Ne proued I neuer her precious pere.” Instead, Boroff translates the line as, “Boldly I say, all Orient/ Brought forth none precious like to her.” She places the motivation of the action behind the personified “Orient.” The original stated that the “I” never “proued” or proved a match as precious as his pearl. In the translated version, the reader does not understand the narrator, but in the original the Dreamer clearly performs the action.

The individual Dreamer falls asleep by the river. From Cotton Nero A.x.

Borroff continues to diminish the important individualized nature of the Dreamer when she says, “Ever my mind was bound and bent/To set her apart without a peer.” (7-8). The original poet says, “Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gaye/I sette her singeley in synglure.” The “I” executes the actions, as he is the one who “jugged” and “sette.” On the other hand, Boroff does not include the word “I.” Remvoing the power of the first person narrator shifts the power dynamic of the poem. Even when Boroff maintains the “I,” she structures the sentence in order to stress the direct object instead. For example “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daugenere” (11), or what could be translated as I pined, grievously wounded of distance from my beloved, becomes “Now, lovesick, the heavy loss I bear” (11). The “heavy loss” acts the focus of the line, and the reader fails to notice the “I” between the powerful words of “loss” and “bear. Since the poem focuses on one man’s individual religious journey, to diminish his role is to lessen the impact of the poem.

At the opening of the Pearl, the speaker does not immediately declare who or what this pearl may be. It functions both literally as an object and also as a representation of someone. The reader understands the metaphoric meaning of the pearl because of the poet’s use of courtly language. He describes it as “So rounde, so reken in vche araye,/So small, so smoþe her sydez were” (5-6). The Dreamer characterizes the literal pearl as “round” and “smooth,” but allegorically these descriptions draw upon what Andrew and Waldron call “stock epithets used in courtly literature to describe beautiful women” (53). The poet continues to use this literal and figurative language up until he explicitly labels the maiden with the pearl: “Oh perle,” quoþ I, “in perlez pyȝt,/Art þou my perle þat I haf playned,/Regretted by myn one on nyȝte? (241-243). Even though the reader easily figures out that the pearl functions as a metaphor of some unidentified character, the poet specifically uses images that keep the reader guessing about whether or not this pearl is literal as the poet also describes an actual object.

An image of Courtly Love

Borroff translates some of the first stanza lines as “So comely in every ornament,/So slender her sides, so smooth they were” (5-6). She removes the mystery of the pearl by translating “round” and “reken” as “comely.” The word comely typically describes a woman, not a pearl and so Borroff eliminates the layer of allegory of the metaphorical depiction of the maiden. Her translation forces us to understand the pearl as a woman, not as a literal object. However, the reader must also understand the pearl literally, as it functions religiously. The poet alludes to the “pearl of great price” in the Gospel of Matthew. By focusing only on the courtly description of the Pearl, Borroff fails to convey the multiple allegorical meanings of its presence.

Throughout Pearl, the poet alludes to Christianity and to the Bible, especially once the Maiden enters the story. Eventually, the Maiden brings the Dreamer to see the heavenly Jerusalem and explains salvation to her father. Yet, the poet stresses the importance of religion with the very first stanza. The poet states,“Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere” (9), meaning that he lost her in a garden. While gardens could function as a symbol for love and romance, medieval authors also associated them with the sacred. The image of the garden harkens back to the story of creation and the earthly paradise. Therefore, “erbere” represents a literal garden, a place of romance, but most importantly the Garden of Eden. Borroff translates that line as, “In a garden of herbs I lost my dear” (9), which is a correct paraphrase. However, by choosing a translation with the phrase “of herbs,” Borroff implies that this garden is literal and so she fails to convey the religious allegorical level of the garden.

The Dreamer sees the Maiden, his daughter, in heavenly Jerusalem. From Cotton Nero A.x.

The poet continues to allude to Christianity with the line, “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere” (11). Andrew and Waldon state, “The whole line is perhaps reminiscent of the phrase quia amore langueo (‘for I am sick for love’). The Song of Songs, from which this phrase comes (2:5, 5:7-8) was interpreted spiritually as the soul’s longing for Christ” (54). While the poet created the phrase “luf-daungere,” he connects the connotation of his idiom with words in the Bible. On the other hand, Borroff fails to express the religious connotation with her translation: “Now, lovesick, the heavy loss I bear” (11). While the Dreamer does bear his loss, Borroff’s translation focuses too heavily on the loss itself, rather than on the emotion of longing. “Lovesick” does not effectively signify the spiritual importance of his deep desire to be reunited with the pearl.

Marie Borroff attempts to balance creating a translation, maintaining alliteration, and conveying meaning throughout her translation of Pearl. While I believe her work efficiently communicates the literal text, levels of deeper understand and allegory become lost in translation. A reader can only understand these important themes by returning to the original text, and placing the poem in its context.

Elizabeth Miggins
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Exeter: U of Exeter, 2007. Print.

Borroff, Marie. The Gawain Poet: Complete Works: Patience, Cleanness, Pearl, Saint Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Analysis of original and translated Pearl lines 121-144

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

Marie Borroff is widely considered to be the best American poetic translator of Middle English. I was skeptical of her translation abilities when I first read her modern English versions of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight because she did not maintain the rhyme scheme as perfectly as the original, nor the alliteration. However, having attempted my own “modern English” poetic translation of Pearl, I now recognize Borroff’s tremendous skill. I attempted to translate the first two stanzas of section III (lines 121-144) of Pearl. I began by reading over the original text, provided on pages 60-61 of The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, and translated word by word – with help from the glossary in the back of the book. When the glossary failed to illuminate the meaning of the verses, I consulted Andrew and Waldron’s prose translation. I chose to keep the twelve line stanzas and the grammar of the original, but lost the rhyme, alliteration and rhythm. Here is my translation:

In the beloved splendor of hill and valleys,
Of wood and water and fine plains,
Where I dwelled in bliss, my sorrow abated,
My stress quelled, my pains destroyed.
Down along a stream that continually flows
I went blissfully, my heart brimming with joy*;
The farther I followed those stream-filled valleys,
The greater my joy strained my heart.
As Fortune goes where she tests a person,
Whether she sends someone solace or sorrow,
The person who receives Fortune’s will
Always seeks to have more and more of the same.

There was more of prosperity in that scene
Than I could describe even if I had the time,
For a mortal’s heart could not handle
Rejoicing in just one-tenth of such joys.
Therefore I thought that paradise
Was there over the wide bank nearby;
I believed the water was a divide
Between the joy beyond the boundary and myself;
Beyond the brook, somewhere or other,
I believed that paradise was situated.
But the water was deep, I dared not wade across it,
And I longed more and more than ever.

*The Andrew and Waldron prose translation writes this as “my brains brimful [with joy]” (3), but I feel the sentiment is better demonstrated by the narrator’s “heart brimming,” rather than his brain.

The Andrew and Waldron prose translation writes this as “I supposed that the water was a division between pleasure-gardens laid out beside pools” (4), but I simply cannot find evidence for the word “pleasure-gardens” and therefore stick to my own version.

Here is the original version of the poem, edited by Andrew and Waldron:

The dubbement dere of doun and dalez,
Of wod and water and wlonk playnez,
Bylde in me blys, abated my balez,
Fordidden my stresse, dystryed my paynez.
Doun after a strem that dryʒly halez
I bowed in blys, bredful my braynez;
þe fyrre I folʒed þose floty valez,
þhe more strenghþe of joye myn herte straynez.
As fortune fares þeras ho fraynes,
Wheþer solace ho sende oþer ellez sore,
þe wyʒ to wham her wylle ho waynez
Hyttez to haue ay more and more.

More of wele watz in þat wyse
þen I cowþe telle þaʒ I tom hade,
For vrþely herte myʒt not suffyse
To þe tenthe dole of þo gladnez glade.
Forþy I þoʒt þat paradyse
Was þer over gayn þo bonkez brade;
I hoped þe water were a deuyse
Bytwene myrþez by merez made;
Byʒonde þe broke, by slente oþer slade,
I hoped þat mote merked wore.
Bot þe water watz depe, I dorst not wade,
And euer me longed ay more and more.

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f. 38v. The dreamer admiring the maiden in paradise.

I chose to study these two stanzas largely because of the beauty of line 128: “Þe more strenghþe of joye muyn herte straynez.” The dreamer, in these stanzas, experiences his first sense of relief from the overwhelming grief following his daughter’s passing. He writes of the splendid hills and valleys that “bylde in me blys, abated my balez” (line 123), yet the reader never forgets the underlying tragedy of the loss of the dreamer’s daughter. The paradoxical statement that his heart strains with joy captures the narrator’s conflicting emotions – how his heart is torn between joy at the sight of paradise and sadness for his daughter’s death. Describing his heart as “straining” rather than “full” or even “bursting” adds an element of distress to the stanza, and reveals the depth of emotions portrayed. Marie Borroff, however, does not preserve the imagery of the strained heart in her translation. Instead, she writes: “The greater strength did gladness gain” (128). Her version lacks the distress of the original, and fails to present the dreamer’s mixed emotions. Borroff’s diction otherwise maintains the richness and sentiment of the original manuscript – though she translates “bredful my braynez” (line 126) to “with busy brain” for the sake of continuing the rhyme scheme, whereas I think “heart brimming with joy” better captures the essence of the verse. Other than these two instances, however, I believe that Borroff translates the Middle English to modern English quite well in these two stanzas.

Borroff preserves the linking words as well as the layout of the original poem, with twelve verse stanzas. She mostly maintains the same rhyme scheme as well. Every stanza in the original Pearl rhymes according to the pattern ababababbcbc; Borroff’s translation of the first stanza of part III maintains this pattern brilliantly. Her translation of the second stanza, however, breaks with the rhyme scheme twice, on lines 133 “prize” and 136 “joy”. The rupture of the rhyme scheme is somewhat disorienting, but given the difficulty of updating the language and keeping the rhyme, I understand that Borroff could not make it impeccable. Many scholars argue that the original poem maintains such a tight rhyme scheme because the author used this meticulousness to cope with his grief; perhaps Borroff could not achieve the same level of perfection because of a lack of drama in her personal life.

I argue, however, that Borroff’s sudden break from the rhyme scheme actually preserves the tone of the original poem. Though the poet of the original Pearl keeps the rhyme scheme throughout, there is a dramatic shift in alliteration between the first and second stanzas of part III: the first stanza contains several instances of three and even four alliterative stresses within a verse, whereas the second stanza contains only four verses with three alliterative stresses. This establishes a disconcerting effect to the rhythm: the first stanza skips along pleasantly, with verses like “The dubbement dere of doun and dalez” (121) and “I bowed in blys, bredful my braynez” (126). In the second stanza this quick, lighthearted rhythm halts, becomes disjointed, with lines like “þen I cowþe telle þaz I tom hade” (134) and “I hoped þe water were a deuyse” (139). Though I found four verses with three alliterative stresses (133, 137, 140, and 143), these serve as a reminder of the poet’s ability to alliterate, and reinforce the lack of alliteration within the other lines of the stanza. The alliteration – or lack thereof – reflects the tone of the stanzas. In the first stanza of part III, the poet describes the alleviation of his grief, and hence the alliteration mirrors the joyful scene. In the second stanza, the alliteration reduces significantly, in correspondence with the change in tone: the narrator realizes that he cannot explain paradise, because the mortal heart cannot handle the joy he saw. Furthermore, the narrator wants desperately – “more and more” (144) – to cross the brook and enter paradise, but he cannot. The second stanza, therefore, discusses the narrator’s dashed dreams and awareness of his incapacities – to enter paradise or even describe it – and the reduction of alliteration reflects this gloomy turn. Therefore, when Borroff misses two rhymes in her translation of the second stanza of part III, the rupture coincides with the tone of the original poem: it expresses the idea that something has gone wrong for the narrator, that he is no longer skipping along full of hope and optimism.

Since the original Pearl contains such dramatic four-stress lines, with three or four alliterative stressed syllables, I also decided to analyze Borroff’s treatment of these alliterations in her translation. Like the original version, Borroff provides more alliteration in the first stanza than in the second. Sometimes Borroff maintains the same alliterative sound as the original – such as updating “Of wod and water and wlonk playnez” (122) to “Were wood and water and shining plain” – therefore preserving the alliterative “w” stress. In other instances, she changes the sound but maintains the strong alliteration – for instance, she takes “Bylde in me blys, abated my balez” (123) and transforms it into “My pleasures multiplied apace” with the alliterative “p” stress instead of “b”. Though Borroff provides a decent amount of alliterative stresses, she does not achieve the same amount of skillful alliteration as does the original poet. I’m forced to conclude that, although Borroff’s translation is indeed an accomplishment, her work still falls short of the original version; not because of Marie Borroff’s own shortcomings, but rather because of the mastery exemplified by the original poet in Middle English. The original version of Pearl simply cannot be beat.

Elizabeth Orem
University of Notre Dame