Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Pearl

The Pearl poet, who is thought also to have written Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanliness is the second greatest poet in Middle English after Chaucer; and, although he is much more inconsistent and is writing a rougher type of poetry, at his very best he arguably exceeds Chaucer at his best. And yet we are stuck with calling him the Pearl poet, or the Gawain poet, because we do not even know his name. It sets one thinking, to realize that one of the greatest poets of the English language is likely forever to remain unknown. We're lucky we even have any of his writings; only one manuscript survives of his major poems (British Library MS. Cotton Nero A.x), and that one narrowly survived a major library fire.

Here is a sample of Pearl; the first is the Middle English, the second is J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of it. I tried to come up with my own, but had to give up - that Tolkien managed to do so well is a tribute to the effort he put into it.

Ryght thus I knaw wel in this cas
Two men to save is god by skylle:
The ryghtwys man schal se hys face,
The harmles hathel schal com hym tylle.
The Sauter hyt sas thus in a pace:
Lorde, quo schal cklymbe thy hygh hylle,
Other rest wythinne they holy place?
Hymself to onsware he is not dylle:
Hondelynges harme that dyt not ille,
That is of hert bothe clene and lyght,
Ther schal hys step stable stylle.
The innosent is ay saf by ryght.

*

It is a right thus by reason, as in this case
I learn, to save these two from ill;
The righteous man shall see His face,
Come unto him the harmless will.
This point the Psalms in a passage raise:
"Who, Lord, shall climb Thy lofty hilll
Or rest within Thy holy place?
He doth the answer swift fulfil:
Who wrought with hands no harm nor ill,
Who is of heart both clean and bright,
His steps shall there be steadfast still":
The innocent ever is saved by right.

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