Pearl, translated by Jane Draycott, Oxford Poets, Carcanet Press, £9.95
Jane Draycott’s Pearl is a remarkable poetic achievement and fills what has been a frustating gap in our translated literature. There is a translation by J. R. R. Tolkien, but it preserves the formal patterns of the original at the price of syntactical contortions that make it virtually unreadable as poetry, however useful as a crib. The original is a 2500 line long, fourteenth century dream poem, probably by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It narrates a dream vision in which a grieving father speaks to the soul of his dead two-year-old daughter, receives consolation and spiritual instruction from her, and is shown the Heavenly City, a procession of saved souls and Christ himself in the form of a lamb before he wakes again on his daughter’s grave. The daughter is (at least initially) the “pearl” of the poem. It thrilled and profoundly moved me as an undergraduate but I’ve barely looked at it since; the English in which it was originally written is far more difficult than Chaucer’s.
A first reason to read Draycott’s version is the sheer beauty of the language. She has dramatically loosened the tight, complicated formal knots of the original, but as her readers will know, her own original work is striking for its intricate but fluid phonetic patterning. We can see how her music works in a short extract from the beginning of Pearl:
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. None
could touch the way she shone …
In the original, that rhymes ABABA, with three or four stressed syllables in each line alliterating. By lowering the incidence of alliteration Draycott has heightened the distinctiveness and so the significance of the individual alliterating words, so that the thematically central words “peerless”, “pearl” and “prince” jump out at you from the beginning of the poem1. She has supplemented alliteration with assonance so that “light”, “life” and “bright” stand out as a group of phonetically linked words, foregrounding from the start the imagery of light that is so central to the poem’s imagery of the afterlife. There’s little end-rhyme but what there is is supplemented by strong internal rhymes (“one” / “none”, “light” / “bright”) which feel as if they’re evolving spontaneously and with particular expressive significance rather than in obedience to a formal scheme.
Though the short poems in Draycott’s other volumes are precisely honed and clear on the level of the individual phrase, she brings these phrases together in ways that are often profoundly ambiguous, making the whole poem to which they belong seem unsettled and disorientating, hauntingly suggestive and mysterious at the same time, speaking all the more powerfully and tantalizingly to the imagination by eluding the intellect. This is very true of the wonderful Pearl-inspired sequence “Matchless” in The Night Tree. Her Pearl itself, however, achieves different beauties by its overall clarity and transparency. Clarity gives compelling force to the dream narrative with its sumptuous medieval fantasies of the heavenly kingdom, and its poignantly contrasting glimpses of earthly life. In this way it opens the lost world of a medieval imagination very different to Chaucer’s. Above all, though, transcending its medieval setting, Pearl is a poem about love, about the joys and the agonies of loss that his love for his daughter brought a particular father, and about his struggle to find consolation in religious faith. Draycott expresses the tenderness of his feelings and dramatises the way they shimmer between grief, joy, doubt and yearning hope with extraordinary beauty and sensitivity. At the same time, even for a non-believer, the poem’s use of the myth of Christ’s love for man and of a dream-dialogue between the father and his dead daughter allows it to extend this presentation of a particular instance of love into an imaginative and even analytical exploration of the nature and meaning of love more generally.
1 The meaning given to these terms is to be profoundly altered and deepened as the poem develops. The casually hyperbolic idea of “any prince” is replaced by Christ, the “prince of peace” whose bride the daughter has become. The speaker’s human fatherly love which makes his daughter seem “peerless” to him is contrasted with the way Christ’s love equally embraces all pure souls, and by the complete lack of rivalry characteristic of heaven. The original pearl of the poem is the lost daughter; by its end both Christ and all saved souls are described as pearls. In a short review there isn’t time to explore how immensely these expansions of reference contribute to the reading of the poem.
I wrote this for the Manchester Review, and would like to thank the Manchester Review’s editors for permission to repost it here.