Saturday, June 10, 2006


Pearl Poet Pentangle
An Endless Knotty Problem
(Image from Wikipedia)

A couple of years ago, in preparing to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I bought Casey Finch's The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet, which contains all four works generally agreed to stem from the hand of the same unknown poet, plus another poem that has sometimes been attributed to him.

I read all five of these poems in translation, checking the Middle English on the opposing page when something intrigued me.

What I didn't notice at the time -- perhaps because I was more interested in gearing up to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- was the complexity of The Pearl. It tells the experience of a dream vision in which the author encounters his daughter, who died young and is now in heaven, which can be read biographically or allegorically, or both. The poem has 101 stanzas, each one of 12 lines with the following rhyme scheme: ababababbcbc. The stanzas are arranged in groups of five linked by the identical final word in each stanza. For instance, the final word in each of the five stanzas comprising the first group is "spot."

But there is one exception, group 15, which has 6 stanzas. Each of the first five stanzas of group 15 ends with the word "less," which is somewhat ironic since this this group has one extra stanza. Moreover, the extra stanza, while not ending in "less," does have its initial line end with that word.

Apparently, the Pearl poet has set out a complex puzzle here for us to notice and solve. Why the shift from 5 to 6 stanzas? Why the emphasis upon "less"? Why group 15?

These lead to other questions. Why 20 groups? Why 12-line stanzas? Why 101 stanzas in all? Why 1212 lines?

I have no earthly idea, which is appropriate, given the unearthly quality of this poem.

Yet, it's perhaps worth noting that the poet emphasizes the number 144,000 (borrowed from St. John's Revelation), so the 1212 lines could be code for "1000 x 12 x 12."

But I'm just guessing.



At 8:19 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

What a you post temptations? Seriously, has nobody written on the Christian numerology of Pearl?
I had not read Pearl until this morning. A revelation, just for its imagery! Will you have a look at my posting on Lycidas? The first change you notice comes after Section 14. I hope I have that right. That means 14x5=70 regular stanzas: and, like in Gawain, he is playing with pentagons of meaning.Instinct tells me your 1212 as 12 repeated is right and it refers to the gates and foundation of the New Jerusalem. The poem is represented as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Also 12 and 12 was viewed as the 12 earthly Apostles and the 12 gates of Heaven, so that 1212 reflects the union of Heaven and Earth, Death and Life...that has to be relevant to Pearl's theme.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, somehody must have written on the the Christian numerology in Pearl. The numbers are too obvious. I just happen to be ignorant.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

P.S. I've just now Googled and located a brief online article about The Pearl.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:36 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

There's a fair amount of useless stuff out there on the net:all about secret codes, none of it showing much awareness of poetry.
This appears to be at least in the right direction. One curious suggestion is that 101 instead of 100 stanzas occurs because the author dare not use the perfect 100 as that represented God's perfect creation. Hm. Using 100 didn't bother Dante too much. Don't buy that one. A nice conundrum to ponder anyway.

At 12:39 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

This appears to be at least in the right direction.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for the link to this:

"Pearl and Number Symbolism: the Mathematics of Meaning," Arnold Sanders

It looks interesting, and I gather that not a great deal has been written on this, so perhaps you're the one to do it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

By the way, let me show you how to make links. I would simply paste the code, but if I do that, it sets up a link, so I'll have to break the code down and tell you how to put it back together.

Take this:

a href=""My Website Title

Then, put "<" (minus the double quotation marks) before the entire sequence, ">" (minus the double quotation marks) before "My", and "<" "/" "a" ">" (minus the double quotation marks) at the end of the entire sequence.

There should be no spaces except for those within (but not before and after) the website title.

Now that the code is complete, paste the website address that you want to link to within the double quotation marks, then paste the article title within the angular brackets (i.e., where you see the words My Website Title), and you'll have your link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:09 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

I've been looking through some "Pearl" and "Gawain" bibliographies on-line, and noticed a familiar name.

Edward I. Condren, from whom I took a couple of courses at UCLA, has a recent book on "The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet: Beyond Phi" (University Press of Florida, 2002).

This may be what you are looking for.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, thanks. That looks interesting, and I'm sure that Eshuneutics will be glad for the reference.

Jeffery Hodges

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