The Pearl, or Gawain, Poet is one of the greatest English writers of the middle ages. No-one knows who the poet was. The poet wrote in a North Midlands dialect, perhaps from as far south as Stafford. There are two wonderful long poems in the same manuscript – “Gawain and the Green Knight” and “Pearl.” One poem describes a real world, the other is a dream or vision.
“Gawain and the Green Knight” tells of a strange Christmas “beheading contest” and the story of Gawain’s journey from Camelot to the Green Knight’s mysterious home. It’s one of the first English poems to describe a realistic natural world, the wild and remote landscape of North Staffordshire. The dialect is north-western English. The poet seems to have known the setting as a far away and strange place. Could the poet have come from a little further south? The poem might have been written to be performed at King Richard 2nd’s visit to Lichfield at Christmas 1398.
St Chad’s was over two hundred years old then. Could the poet have visited the church and noticed the carving of the small figure standing over a giant’s head high on the south side of the arch? There is another severed head in St Chad’s.
This might be fanciful, but could these carvings have set the poet’s imagination working? Is there a connection between these carvings and stories and traditions the author might have come across in the wild moorlands?
“Pearl” begins with the poet lamenting the death of a child, the Pearl. In a dream Pearl appears as a beautiful maiden who leads the troubled poet upstream by a river until he sees the jewelled city of the New Jerusalem, the source of the River of Life, with its trees of life which bear leaves and “fruit for each moon”.
This enigmatic 14th century poet is known either as “The Gawain Poet” or “The Pearl Poet” after his two major works. Either name can be used, and there is always a possibility that they were two different people. The two poems are startlingly different in style and form, but both survive in the same manuscript, with two smaller poems, and both, though so different on most ways, have 101 verses. This may be a coincidence, or it may suggest that the author wanted them to be seen as linked in some way.
Both poems are about journeys. In “Gawain and the Green Knight” the hero makes a long winter journey through a wild and very realistic landscape. In “Pearl” the narrator makes a dream journey, following a river, towards a vision of the New Jerusalem
The only manuscript source of the poems of the Pearl Poet was once part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose library also included the Lindisfarne Gospels. The library was damaged by fire in 1731 and later left to the nation by Sir Robert’s descendant Sir John Cotton.
In Sir Robert’s library the books were houses in cases, each of which was marked by the bust of a Caesar, or a Roman Lady. The collection is still kept in this order at the British Library, so the works of the Gawain poet are catalogued as “Cotton Nero A. x.”
There are four poems in the manuscript – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and two shorter poems on biblical themes, Patience and Cleanness. The actual manuscript appears to have been copied by a scribe, or more than one scribe, who might have imposed his own dialect on the language. The two longer poems are illustrated by coloured pictures which are rather amateurish in style, but give us an interesting view of how a fourteenth century artist imagined the scenes in the poems.
The language of the poems is affected by local dialect and is usually said to be from the North West of England. The question is where might this “North West” be?
THE GAWAIN LANDSCAPE
The general opinion, based on the kind of dialect words that are used by the poet, is that he came from North West Staffordshire or South Cheshire. Perhaps this judgement is affected by the idea that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mentions places in the North West, as Gawain’s journey takes him from Wales and across the water into the Wirral. The adventure of the Green Chapel, where the contest with the Green Knight takes place, has become associated with the landscape of the Dane Valley on the Staffordshire and Cheshire border, especially the dramatic rocky feature of Lud’s Church, which is hidden in the forest on the Staffordshire banks of the river.
Some writers have suggested that the poet was connected with the Earl of Chester, whose lands lay in that part of the world.
The setting is vividly described but there’s a very important point –
To the poet, and the hero of the story, this landscape is somewhere far away and strange. Surely this implies that the poet knew this place, but it was far away and strange to him? He might have known the place, as strange and alien, if he had been a visitor to the nearby Dieulacres Abbey or Swythamley Hall.
It is as if the anonymous author knew this area but did not come from there. Is there a case for claiming the Pearl Poet for Stafford?
Marie Borroff, of Yale University, who specialised in the Gawain Poet, simply says the poet came from “near Stafford” in the introduction to her translation published in 1967. This is rather vague, but does push the poet southwards. The question is, though, what does “near Stafford” mean to someone used to the enormous distances of America?
H N Duggan, in “A Companion to the Gawain Poet” (Boydell and Brewer, 1998), a very thorough study of all kinds of aspects of the poet and his works, makes the case that the language of the poem is from further south than the large area of “North West Staffordshire/ South Cheshire”. He places the poet in Staffordshire itself.
Even now the Dane Valley seems a long way from Stafford. It’s about 34 miles, but north of Stone the land rises and the moorlands landscape begins. It would have been a long day’s ride in the fourteenth century, but business at Swythamley Hall or Dieulacres might have occasionally taken a clerk, a gentleman or secretary, there. Editors think the poet was not in holy orders, though familiar with theology.
The landscape of the Dane Valley would seem dramatically different and alien to someone from the agricultural land around Stafford, but it would be perfectly possible for someone to have travelled there on business and to have been inspired by its strangeness.
Stafford did have connections with the north of the county in the middle ages. The probable 12th century founder of St Chad’s church, Orm, held manors from Biddulph in the North to Essington in the South.
Gawain is a tale of wonders, but it is has a Christian message about virtue. Gawain’s shield is decorated with a five pointed star and has a painting of Our Lady on its inner side.
Pearl begins with the narrator mourning the loss of a very young daughter, the Pearl. He falls asleep on the spot where she was lost (perhaps her grave) and finds himself by a sparkling river, with a river bed of jewels. On the other side of the stream is a young woman, who is as bright as a pearl. This is his daughter, but as a maiden rather than a child. The narrator follows the maiden up the stream and they discuss how it can be that she appears a grown woman. In heaven people are as they should have been. Our souls are the pattern of what we aspire to become.
Finally, they reach “the bourne’s head”, the source of the river, and from this spot, which is presumably at the top of a hill, the narrator can see the Heavenly City, as described by St John, with its walls of 12 brilliant jewels.
This is a visionary poem, with the biblical imagery of the City. The river which the poet has followed is the River of Life.
Whether or not the Pearl Poet knew St Chad’s Church, the imagery of both poems has connections with the church – with its ancient stone carvings and its modern east windows, which show the River of Life and the Leaves and Fruit of the Tree of Life, which bring life from the Heavenly City into the world through which we travel and where we experience our adventures and mysteries.