Comparison of Jane Draycott’s and Simon Armitage’s translations of Pearl

REWRITING PEARL: Translations by Jane Draycott and Simon Armitage

Pearl is an anonymous fourteenth century poem of 1212 lines, very alien in some ways, piercingly moving in others. Its speaker tells how, mourning the loss of his “pearl”, apparently his daughter, he fell asleep in the garden where he lost her before she turned two. While his body slept, his spirit journeyed to the Earthly Paradise, a landscape of miraculous beauty and light where he saw a Maiden on the far side of a river, his lost daughter, crowned, robed in white and shimmering with pearls. No longer an infant but a saved soul speaking with the authority of heaven, she instructed him in Christian faith and salvation, and showed him the the city of heaven with Christ himself with his 144,000 pearl brides. When he tried to cross the river the vision shattered and he woke.

I loved this poem as an undergraduate, struggling through it with a glossary and editorial notes. Linguistically, it’s much more challenging than Chaucer, though. I never read it again till Jane Draycott’s translation came out in 2011, and since then I’ve only read it in translation. We can be grateful to Armitage and Draycott for presenting it in forms that make it easily accessible to a modern reader.

Neither simply transmits the original in the way a scholarly translation might aspire to do. They’re poets: their business is to transmit what stirs them imaginatively in the original and to make a poem that can live in the twenty-first century. This means both interpreting and building on the original. “A good poet is no more like himself in a dull translation than his carcass would be to his living body,” says Dryden. Sir John Denham wrote in 1656 that “Poesie is of so subtile a spirit, that in pouring out of one Language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a Caput mortuum.” Introducing Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems, T S Eliot wrote “Good translation is not merely translation, for the translator is giving the original through himself, and finding himself through the original.”

An obvious difference between Armitage’s and Draycott’s versions is to do with pace. Reading Armitage’s, we move rapidly through and between stanzas; reading Draycott’s, we linger over details, and, if my own experience is anything to go by, we are much less likely to read the whole poem at a sitting.

Armitage achieves his driving pace partly by writing in a rhythm that echoes the Old and Middle English alliterative tradition of writing lines that fall into roughly equal halves with two main stresses in each. This (basically speaking) is the metre of the original Pearl itself. Many stresses are emphasized by alliteration at the beginning of the stressed word or syllable. Here are the first four lines of his version. I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables, putting the first person pronoun “I” in lower case to avoid confusion:

FIT to be MOUNTed in FINest GOLD,
i  SAY for CERtain that in ALL the EAST
her PRECious Equal i NEVer FOUND.

You easily slip into this rhythm, which helps you read rapidly and makes it easy to focus on the overall narrative arc. I think the best way of reading this version of Pearl is surrendering to its propulsive force, absorbing it as you might a novel. I first read it on a busy train, and it gripped me even in those circumstances.

As with all aesthetic choices, such a rhythm comes at a cost. It flattens variety, and makes you pay less attention to particulars. More than simply enabling faster reading, I’d say that it positively makes slower reading feel unnatural.

Draycott uses pauses within the line to create a much more varied music. Here are her first four lines. You’ll see that by dividing them into phrases of unequal length and by driving phrases over the line endings she makes it impossible to read them in terms of two balancing halves with two stresses in each:

ONE thing i KNOW for CERtain: that SHE
was PEERless, PEARL who WOULD have ADDed
howEver BRIGHT with GOLD. NONE

In the original, the lines go:

Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere:
Oute of orient, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.

Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron translate the literal meaning as “Lovely pearl, which it pleases a prince to set radiantly (or chastely) in gold so bright, I declare assuredly that I never found her equal in value amongst those of the orient”.

Armitage and Draycott both give life to what reads leadenly in exact paraphrase, but do so in very different ways. There’s a line by line correspondence between the original and Armitage’s version. He’s inserted “fit to”, but otherwise takes very little liberty with the literal sense:

Beautiful pearl that would please a prince,
fit to be mounted in finest gold,
I say for certain that in all the East
her precious equal I never found.

Draycott changes the order in which ideas are presented and interprets them by breathing her own poetry into them:

One thing I know for certain: that she
was peerless, pearl who would have added
light to any prince’s life
however bright with gold.

Rearranging the sequence of ideas, she creates an arresting opening, fraught with a sense of the speaker as an individual person in the grip of complicated feelings. The sheer emphasis of “One thing I know” creates the impression of someone clinging to such certainty as they can.  Furthermore, ending the line with that very emphatic “she”, Draycott immediately tells us that the speaker is thinking about a person who, as the beginning of the next line suggests, has been lost. In Armitage and the original the pearl doesn’t become a person till line four. This makes an enormous difference to the emotional resonance of what follows. Finally, “Pearl who would have added / light to any prince’s life / however bright with gold” doesn’t merely find modern words for the Middle English ones, it adds its own metaphors, flooding the lines with radiance and emotional intensity.

We see similar contrasts if we compare the two poets’ translations of stanza ten. In Armitage’s version, the clarity and force of the writing combine descriptions of the marvellous with an unimpeded onward flow. In a directly physical way, it’s a pleasure to say the words aloud. Imaginatively, there’s joy in the vividness and beauty of the imagery. These two pleasures combine to make a third: reading aloud, you feel as if you yourself are acting out the river’s vigorous flow:

At the water’s edge, ornamenting its depths,
were bountiful banks of bright beryl.
The surface swirled as it swept by,
pouring forward, murmuring as it flowed.
And the bed was studded with brilliant stones,
glinting and glowing like light through glass,
as radiance streams from distant stars
in the winter sky while the world sleeps.
Because every pebble set into that pool
was an emerald or sapphire or another jewel;
the river looked luminous along its length
so gleaming were those gem-like ornaments.

Though there are parentheses here, they don’t hold up the onward movement: because each idea is easily grasped, because we’re being swept along by the rhythm and because they fit snugly within the rhythmical units, we barely notice them as interruptions. We’re swept on a current of verbs, too: “swirled” and “swept”, “pouring”, “murmuring” and “flowed”, “glinting” and “glowing”, “streams” and “sleeps” – a very high proportion of the stressed words.

Armitage’s stanza  revels in the physical, muscular power of water. Draycott’s focus is on contemplation and thought. True, there’s a burst of verbs in the third line, but it’s contained by the stillness of contemplation. It’s not what the river does that we focus on so much as what it is, and what it is isn’t muscular and material, like Armitage’s water, it’s light:

Brightest of all were its banks, blazing
with rays of beryl, a channel of light
where echoing water circled and swirled
in an eddying flood that was almost like words.
The stream-bed itself was bright with stones
that shone like sunlight through glinting glass
or stars streaming deep in the winter sky
while men in this wooded world lie asleep.
Every pebble that lay in the lap of that pool
was an emerald or sapphire, a storehouse of jewels,
so the length of the river seemed lit from within,
radiant with glitter and glistening.

Rather than forward movement, there’s a glittering stillness, animated by forceful stresses and alliteration. If the main impression in Armitage’s stanza is of the river sweeping on, in Draycott’s it seems to be of the water circling and swirling. The circle is a traditional emblem of eternity, so the idea of the eternity of heaven shines through the description of the river that separates heaven from mortal men. The stanza is full of other symbolic reverberations too, and by suspending our imaginations over it, Draycott gives us time to catch them.

The dreamer sees the Maiden and realises she is his lost pearl. Armitage and Draycott both describe the encounter powerfully, but in very different ways. Here’s Armitage:

‘O pearl in those priceless pearls,’ I said,
‘are you really my pearl, whose passing I mourn,
and grieve for alone through lonely nights?
Endless sorrow I have suffered and endured
since you slipped from my grasp to the grassy earth;
I am hollow with loss and harrowed by pain,
Yet here you stand, lightened of all strife,
at peace in the land of Paradise.’

The rhythm and the balancing echoes of word and sound give a swing and swiftness of movement to this, an incantatory rhetorical power of an essentially generalising kind. It’s a pleasure to say aloud and the clarity and force of the expression means that the words and ideas print themselves on the memory. Draycott’s speaker is more tentative and his words are less instantly memorable, but I think they’re more sensitively expressive of his feelings:

‘Young girl, all set with jewels and stones,
are you my pearl? The pearl I’ve mourned
and longed for night after night alone?
If you knew what silent suffering I’ve borne
since you slipped from me into the grass –
I live distracted and worn down by loss.
Yet here you stand in Paradise,
a land past pain, past sorrow, past strife.’

The words seem to grow out of the speaker’s situation rather than merely describing it. His feelings are caught in the texture of his speech. In “‘are you my pearl?’” the stress falls on “you” and “my”. Two adjacent stressed syllables push apart from each other, creating a gap or block in the flow of speech. The rhythm shivers with the conflict between the speaker’s doubt and his incredulous hope.  His “you” and “my” are explosively fraught in their relationship to each other, too, both here and in the wider context. In a quasi-dramatic way, they’re fraught with his immediate feelings and situation. Draycott intensifies this impression by inserting “If you knew” so that the line seems packed with feelings the speaker is desperate for the girl to understand but can’t express. At the same time, “Are you my pearl?” resonates in ways the speaker hasn’t begun to understand with the most profound themes of the whole poem. As he’ll learn, she both is and is not his pearl, not only because she’s been removed by death and transformed by her ascent to heaven but also because, as the whole poem insists, the one love that all souls truly and absolutely belong to is that of Christ.

I hope I’ve said enough to bring out some general differences between Armitage’s and Draycott’s versions of Pearl. I’d like to say a little more about its overall arc.

The pearl maiden tells the dreamer that she has become Christ’s bride and Queen of Heaven. He can’t believe this: how can someone who died before she was two achieve such eminence? She tells him that all saved souls are equally kings and queens in Heaven, under Christ and the Virgin Mary. She takes him to a point where looking over the river he sees the Heavenly Jerusalem and watches the procession of Christ and his multitudinous brides. She warns him not to try crossing the river. Suddenly he becomes aware that she is no longer just across the river from him but herself in the middle of the city. Overcome by the desire to be with her, he tries to cross, but the dream breaks and he wakes. Lamenting his separation from heaven and his girl, he consoles himself with the thought of her salvation: that she now belongs to a love infinitely wider and deeper than his own, where he prays to join her.

Without sharing the Pearl-poet’s faith, we can all be moved by what is generally human in this poem and enriched by the way it brings us closer to the mental frame of our fourteenth century ancestors.

Draycott and Armitage shine differently valuable lights on it. Readers wanting a quick, uncomplicated experience of it might be advised to go for the Armitage. Those who want a poem they can read repeatedly, discovering more each time and receiving deeper transfusions of personal emotion, should go for the Draycott. I’ve gained by both. However, although Armitage’s version is very effective at sweeping you along on a current of broad impressions, it doesn’t always stand up well to the kind of reading that focuses on the resonances of every word. I’ll give two examples of writing too slack to reward that kind of attention. In a stanza describing how the dreamer gazes at the maiden before addressing her, Armitage’s speaker exclaims:

Oh blissful one, oh unblemished soul,
so flawless, fragile, so flatteringly slender.

Describing the procession of Christ the Lamb through the Heavenly Jerusalem, he has

The delirious delight His coming occasioned
would indeed be difficult to describe in full.

“Flatteringly” and “delirious” are worse than inert (the fault I’d find with the expression in these two quotations generally); they’re jarringly inappropriate to their contexts.

Pearl, Jane Draycott (translator), Bernard O’Donoghue (introduction); Carcanet Press, ISBN 978 1 906188 01 6
Pearl, Simon Armitage, Faber & Faber, ISBN 978 0 571 30295 6
The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, eds Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, University of Exeter Press, ISBN 978 0 85989 791 4

This essay appeared in issue 5 of The High Window and I’d like to thank the editors.


You can read my essay, published in issue 5 of The High Window, by clicking here.

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