John Ridland’s translation of Pearl – review

Pearl: A New Verse Translation in Modern English by John Ridland, Able Muse Press, 467 Saratoga Avenue #602, San Jose, CA95129, USA; pbk 154 pp.; £16.95

Pearl is a poem of 1212 lines written by an anonymous author in late fourteenth century England and surviving in a single manuscript. It’s one of the high points of medieval English literature. The author is usually thought to have written Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and two other poems preserved in the same manuscript.

Pearl presents itself as the speaker’s account of a dream in which he has been granted the vision of a girl he describes as his pearl. From several indications it appears that she was his daughter and died at less than two years old, though in the vision she appears as a fully grown young woman. It takes him a while to recognize her. The narrative moves from the garden where he falls asleep mourning his loss to the glittering wonders of his vision: first the Earthly Paradise, where the girl appears to him, and then the heavenly Jerusalem, where he sees Christ the Lamb surrounded by more than a hundred thousand souls of the saved, including her. He is separated from them and her by a river. She warns him that he cannot cross this until he dies. In the end, overwhelmed by yearning to join her, he does plunge in, only to wake in the garden again.  Between these narrative passages there are long stretches of dialogue in which the Dreamer questions the girl and she explains doctrines of grace and salvation. So there are three areas of particular interest – visionary description, religious teaching and, poignantly intertwined with these, human dramas of loss and grief and yearning for the inaccessible afterlife.

Unfortunately, although Pearl is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, it’s written in the West Mercian dialect, which is far more difficult for a modern reader than Chaucer’s own London dialect from which modern English basically descends. I suspect only practiced medievalists can read it with ease. For most of us, reading it in the original involves concentrated work and constant cross-reference between text, glossary and footnotes.

If you can read the original, its form offers particular pleasure. It’s intricately constructed in twenty sections, each of five stanzas, except for one which has six. Each stanza rhymes ababababbcbc, producing a fluent, sustained but varied run. That means, of course, that any given stanza must use the same rhyme sound six times. Other patterning devices work powerfully on a larger scale. All the stanzas of a given section end with the same word or phrase. This has a hypnotic, spellbinding effect but it’s no mere mindless repetition. The reader’s understanding and imagination are held in the orbit of a particular idea or emotion through each section, but the idea or emotion doesn’t remain static, it progressively unfolds or is presented from different angles as it recurs. Such linking both carries you forward and makes sure that you retain a clear sense of the direction the poem is taking.

Such a form poses extreme challenges to the translator. The rhyme scheme is almost impossibly demanding in modern English, which is blessed with a rich variety of vowel sounds and is therefore poor in full rhymes.  Ridland has adopted a compromise, rhyming abab cdcd efef and allowing half rhymes where he couldn’t find a suitable full rhyme. Even mitigating the demands in this way, there’s a price to be paid in terms of intermittent clumsy or bathetic expression. In a more subtle trade-off, his approach prioritizes the smooth run of the whole over local intensity. His phrasing is less vivid, less rhythmically varied and aurally expressive than Jane Draycott’s in her Pearl. However, because Ridland detains your imaginations less in the particulars and gives more attention to the linking devices of rhyme and refrain, he makes it easier to absorb a clear picture of the whole.

All that may seem too abstract to tell you whether you’ll like his version as poetry. The opening stanza will demonstrate the sensuous vividness he achieves. To get the full effect, read it aloud quite slowly, pausing on words and phrases to savour the images and shifts of feeling. The simplicity of the sentence constructions and the shortness of the lines will maintain momentum:

Pearl that would please a prince’s eyes
In a bright gold setting, radiant,
I never met such a precious prize
Among all those out of the Orient.
So round, so right in any display,
So smooth, so slender her sides, in my mind,
Wherever I judge fair gems I say
I set her off as one of a kind.
In a garden of herbs I lost her and mourn.
She dropped from me through the grass to that plot.
By love’s loss I’m stricken and grief-torn
For my hidden pearl without a spot.

Even before the pearl has been identified with the speaker’s lost child, his yearning love and his grief come across strongly. Throughout the poem, short lines and grammatically simple statements are the perfect medium for suggesting his bewildered humility, his vulnerability and the fluctuations of his emotional state. In this particular passage, his wonder, love and grief are made the more poignant by the way in which, even as he expresses these emotions, he obeys the constraints of graceful form. Images are sharply outlined, statements are emphasised by alliteration, and (as we go on) key elements of doctrine will be preached in clear terms by the girl, but such clarity combines with a kind of dreamlike elusiveness: many layers of symbolism shimmer through these clear outlines in a way that is constantly refocusing itself in our minds.

The fact that the poem as a whole completes a circular journey encourages us to reflect on this play of ideas as we might contemplate the play of light in a faceted jewel, or on the surface of a pearl. The last stanza echoes the first, beginning (in Ridland’s version) “To please the Prince with what is right / Is easy enough for the Christian to do” and ending “Lord, grant us to be humble servants of Thine, / And precious pearls unto Thine own pleasure. / Amen. Amen.” The symbol of the pearl has accrued a number of associations and meanings through the poem. The great shift that we see by comparing the first stanza with the last is from its expressing a human father’s particular love for his own individual child to its symbolizing God’s love for all his saved children. The human prince of the opening, valuing material things, has been replaced by Christ the Prince of all with his cherishing of souls. The father’s sharp grief at the loss of his child finds a precarious consolation by being gathered into this larger vision of God’s love.

The consolation seems precarious because the speaker has to pray that his faith will continue. I think it is the beauty of Pearl that human love and grief aren’t abolished or undone by being transcended. The sharpness of the original feelings goes on echoing in the mind. The peace the dreamer finds depends on submission to the inevitable, underlined by the breaking of his dream when he attempts to cross the river. If the universal vision offers the dreamer consolation for his loss, it does so by offering him the hope that the loss is only temporary. In a sense, then, human love remains in tension with the universal vision. This is very different to Dante’s sternness when he makes the inhabitants of Purgatory and Paradise unable to look back on loves now condemned to Hell. One of the great virtues of Ridland’s approach is that the clarity with which he presents the outline makes it easy for the reader to let his or her mind play over these and other infolded and unfolding implications as they develop through the poem. In this context, lapses in expression become passing irritations, like flaws in the weave of an attractive piece of cloth.

The text is beautifully presented, in a clear font, with one stanza to a page and blank pages between sections. As well as a translator’s preface by Ridland himself, there’s a short historical note on background by Maryann Corbett and a contents list of the first lines of stanzas. Altogether, this new translation of a great poem will be a source of pleasure in itself and a useful complement to existing versions.

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