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This poem is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

Pearl
Lines 973-1092
Simon Armitage
Note on the Translation

Heartbroken and in mourning, a man describes the terrible sorrow he feels at the loss of his beautiful and irreplaceable ‘Perle’. In August, with flowers and herbs decorating the earth and perfuming the air, he visits a green garden, the scene of his bereavement. Tormented by images of death and decay, devastated by grief and overpowered by the intoxicating scent of the plants, he falls into a sudden sleep and begins to dream, embarking on an out-of-body experience that will lead to an encounter with his departed pearl, who we learn is his child, and a journey to the gates of heaven.

Probably composed in the 1390s, only one copy of Pearl remains in existence, surviving as the first poem in a manuscript that also includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness (or Purity). All four poems are in the same hand, and although the writing probably belongs to that of a scribe rather than the original author, most scholars believe they were composed by the same person, about whom we know very little.

Pearl presents a substantial challenge to any would-be translator because of its unique form and intricate structure, involving elaborate number-symbolism, alliteration, a four-beat line, rolling concatenation, and a strict ababababbcbc rhyme scheme impossible to render into contemporary English without falling back on archaisms or tweaking the sentence structure and subject matter beyond acceptable limits. Given those technical challenges, every decision feels like a trade-off between sound and sense, between medieval authenticity and latter-day clarity, and between the precise and the poetic. My own response as far as the rhymes are concerned has been to let them fall as naturally as possible within sentences, internally or at the end of lines, and to let half-rhymes and syllabic-rhymes play their part, and for the poem’s musical orchestration to be performed by pronounced alliteration, looping repetition and the quartet of stresses within each line. So formalists and fusspots scanning for a ladder of rhyme-words down the right-hand margin of this translation will be frustrated and disappointed, though hopefully my solution will appeal to the ear and the voice.

Pearl consists of twenty sections, every section containing five twelve-line verses, with the exception of section XV which contains six verses, bringing the number of verses to an enigmatic one hundred and one and the number of lines in the poem to 1212, thus mimicking the structure of the heavenly Jerusalem: twelve by twelve furlongs in dimension, with twelve gates for the twelve tribes of Israel, as specified in the Book of Revelation.

                     S. A.


XVII

1

‘To find a view of that flawless place
walk upstream alongside the water
to the valley head, till you come to a hill,
and I will follow on this far bank.’
Then I wouldn’t delay a moment longer,
but went beneath leaves through dappled light
till I saw that city perched on its summit,
and stumbled towards that stunning sight
some distance away beyond the brook,
shining brighter than the sun’s beams,
in its features, facets, size and structure
...


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