Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Pearl Poet: Sarah Stanbury on 'numerological structure'

(Image borrowed from TEAMS, University of Rochester)

Various editions of Pearl are available for those interested in reading it. William F. Klein suggests in his review that we read "Condren's book with a copy of a good scholarly edition at hand ... for example, Andrew Malcolm and Ronald Waldron, The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, Exeter, 1987." I may need to obtain a copy of that.

Meanwhile, I've been searching the internet for online materials and turned up a piece that my sidebar indirectly links to but which I'll directly link to here. TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) has published online the introduction to Sarah Stanbury's 2001 edition of Pearl (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications).

Stanbury notes the poem's attention to number:

Integral to the poem's play with language are formal patternings that build repetition and change into the structure of the poem. In its principles of rhyme, versification, and numbering, Pearl is unmatched for complexity in Middle English poetry and perhaps rivaled only by Dante's Divine Comedy. Attention to number is a vital part of the poem's design. The use of a twelve-line stanza seems to be carefully chosen as part of a numerological structure: the New Jerusalem has twelve tiers in its foundation and is also twelve furlongs long; the poem itself, 1212 lines long, is a composite of twelves. Concepts of perfection and blemish parlayed through the image of the pearl are also graphed through number. Comprising twenty sets of five, the stanzas are grouped to add up to 100, a number of perfection. This symmetry is offset, however, by the curious addition of an extra stanza in the fifteenth set - with the result that the stanzas total 101. One hundred and one, a strong number that suggests new beginning after return, is doubtless no accident. This number appears as a stanza or chapter total in several other medieval texts; and most strikingly, 101 is also the sum of the stanzas of the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript's most famous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I cite this passage here merely to note that various scholars have encountered the fact of the poem's "numerical design" -- though Stanbury calls this its "numerological structure" -- and that there exists a tradition already at work interpreting Pearl and other poems according to number. In a footnote to the passage quoted above (footnote 5 in the online text), Stanbury cites several studies of poetry designed by number:

For Franciscan texts based on 101, see John Fleming, "The Centuple Structure of the Pearl," The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981), 81-98, which argues that "101," the number of stanzas in the poem Pearl, is the number of spiritual consolation.

For discussion of the uses of number in Pearl, see Ian Bishop,
Pearl in Its Setting: A Critical Study of the Structure and Meaning of the Middle English Poem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968), 27-32, on number symbolism.

For more discussion of the uses of number in Pearl, see Russell A. Peck, "Number as Cosmic Language," Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature, edited by Carolyn D. Eckhardt (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 15-64, on Boethian and Augustinian number symbolism with application to Pearl on 44-51,

For still more discussion of the uses of number in Pearl, see Maren-Sofie Rostvig, "Numerical Composition in Pearl: A Theory," English Studies 48 (1967), 326-32, a study of number and number symbolism.

This blog is beginning to look like a bibliographical essay, but as my motto states, I'm riding a "wagon hitched to a star," going wherever it takes me, and if this momentous expedition requires attention to some cartographic details concerning the cosmography of my mental universe, just remember that the ride is costing you nothing.



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