Oct/Nov 2016 Reviews & Interviews

Pearl: a New Verse Translation (c.1390s)

Pearl: a New Verse Translation (c.1390s)
Version by Simon Armitage.
Allen & Unwin. 2016. 103 pp.
ISBN 78 0 571 30295 6.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! As an expression of grief, hope, love, loss, and yearning, Pearl is a sad yet beautiful poem by an unidentified Medieval poet who lived at about the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer. Just one manuscript copy, written in Middle English, has survived. It is less well-known than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is also part of this old manuscript, perhaps because it has less story and drama. It is, however, a beautiful poem, and Simon Armitage has translated the difficult Middle English into fluent, easily-read language that vividly captures the imagery and the powerful emotions for the present-day reader.

The poem is spoken by an unnamed narrator who, on visiting a flower-filled garden where his infant daughter (his "precious pearl") is buried, experiences a sudden soul-soothing vision of the nearby forest in which suddenly every leaf is "like burning silver," every stone underfoot gleams like precious Oriental pearl, so that "even sunbeams" seem "dark and dim." He walks full of wonder through a forest filled with light and music until he comes to a river, on the far side of which, beneath a "crystal cliff," he sees "a child/ a noble girl, a young woman full of grace" and recognizes her as his lost "pearl."

The conversation he has with this young woman, the questions he asks, and her responses, form the remainder of the poem. And the whole poem becomes an allegorical lesson, based on Biblical stories and laced with Christian teachings on how to live, how to cope with grief, and how to understand God's ways.

Yes, the teachings and the purpose of the poem are now no longer central to many readers' lives. But the poetry, the feelings, and the beauty of the imagery are timeless.

Armitage in his Introduction speculates the poet himself had felt the loss and grief he expressed so powerfully in this poem. So, as a parent of one daughter, he offers his translation "in memory of the lost pearl—as a tribute to the courage of her father and as an act of condolence." As a poet, too, Armitage describes the careful and intricately complex structure of the poem, the ordering of rhythm and rhyme, the alliteration and the repetitions that, especially when read aloud as it used to be, carry the narrative along. He also writes feelingly of the difficulty any translator has in choosing whether to stick to the author's rhyming scheme and retain archaic words in order to do this, or to adopt the difficult alternative of maintaining the "musical orchestration" of the piece and finding appropriate modern alternatives to replace old words, many of which have no exact modern equivalents. "Every decision," he writes, "feels like a trade-off between sound and sense, between medieval authenticity and latter-day clarity, and between the precise and the poetic."

His own choice is to try to keep as much of the rhythm and rhyme as possible while making the text clear and modern. In this he succeeds admirably, and although I missed the formal rhythm and rhyme and was jarred at one point by his substitution of the modern-day slang word "yobs" for the archaic "boyes bolde," I found this new version lively and moving. It will certainly bring the poem to many who would never read the original.


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