Friday, September 30, 2005

I'd never read the Pearl before, and am finding it ravishingly beautiful. I used to be able to kind of muddle through Middle English but no way, no how, now. So I'm wholly reliant on J.R.R. Tolkien's translation--you forget the guy was a scholar, and not just a major inventor of 20th century geek-culture. But he's facile at keeping the rhyme scheme true, and I bet there's a host of sonic effects he's conscious of too, which he's incorporated and lend themselves to that luminous sense of wholeness good translations maintain.

It's really the story that gets me though. A guy loses his pearl, and has a dream-vision of it, dressed in pearls (!) chiding him to not be focused on earthly possessions. Reading it, two aspects struck me, regarding those-poets-who-would-follow-this-anonymous-poet (who is known as "the Pearl poet" . . . how wonderful would it be to write a poem people called you by?). One, the periodic density of the word "woe" is similar to Milton's. Two, how incredibly much the tone, as well as the characterization, reminded me of Herbert (not to mention Spenser--always Spenser). Now there are characteristics of the Pearl which mark it as unmistakably pre-Reformation, but it is nevertheless surprising to me that the poetic (and, entwined with that, the religious sensibility) of these two highly Protestant poets can be so clearly seen in a Catholic poet two and a half centuries their predecessor. I mean, not surprising once I assimilate it, but I guess because those pre-Reformation religious poems I am familiar with do not smell similar to Herbert et al., I always thought of this sense (which I have not, notice, actually defined here yet--and will probably leave for a future post) as uniquely post-Reformation. Very interesting.

A certain delicacy of conceit towards one's relationship to the eternal . . . majesty is one-on-one, face-to-face; still top-down, but not impersonally so . . . probably something along those lines. I'll save it until I'm done with the poem.

I have to think about why I am so drawn to the poetry of this period. I find it heartbreakingly beautiful.

Here's the speaker responding to the pearl, when told he cannot cross the river and live with her in further paradise until after death:

"If my doom you deem it, maiden sweet,
To mourn once more, then I must pine.
Now my lost one found again I greet,
Must bereavement new till death be mine?
Why must I at once both part and meet?
My precious pearl doth my pain design!" (28.1-6)

"Why must I at once both part and meet?" That line could have been written by the author of "Love (III)," no? Lovely.

And this poem also suggests itself to me as a bridge between Dante and Milton. I mean, the connection there I see reading PL, but I couldn't see Milton assimilating such a Catholic, let alone such a great, poet without the usual ferocious down-taking which accompanied all such adoption-of-predecessors. Filtered through the Pearl, though, I could see something. This is pure conjecture, and may dissipate in the morning, or the morning after, like usual.

Conjecture + blogger = bloviation. Welcome to my thoughts.

Also, it's possible that the translation itself highlights these effects. Whatever. I'm loving this poem. I'm also beginning to tell Jonah the story of Beowulf again. He loves the whole arm-getting-ripped-off thing. As long as it's comfortably light outside, that is!

update: it took me until 1/3 of the way through to realize the pearl was a child of the speaker who died young . . . explains that sense of heartbreak, at the very least. In general (and I think this is pretty obvious to most readers) I think it's better to find such things out from the text itself, in your own readerly time, even if it means you miss some definitive stuff in the beginning, than from external introductions, which leave you running behind someone else, perceptually speaking (this attitude is, of course, what got me in trouble with Ulysses those years ago!).

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