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«Piotr Spyra University of Łódź Beyond the Garden: On the Erotic in the Vision of the Middle English Pearl AbstrAct The Middle English Pearl is ...»

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Text Matters, Volume 3 Number 3, 2013


Piotr Spyra

University of Łódź

Beyond the Garden: On the Erotic in

the Vision of the Middle English Pearl


The Middle English Pearl is known for its mixture of genres, moods and

various discourses. The textual journey the readers of the poem embark

on is a long and demanding one, leading from elegiac lamentations and

the erotic outbursts of courtly love to theological debates and apocalyptic visions. The heterogeneity of the poem has often prompted critics to overlook the continuity of the erotic mode in Pearl which emerges already in the poem’s first stanza. While it is true that throughout the dream vision the language of the text never eroticizes the relationship between the Dreamer and the Pearl Maiden to the extent that it does in the opening lines, the article argues that eroticism actually underlies the entire structure of the vision proper. Taking recourse to Roland Barthes’s distinction between the erotic and the sexual to explain the exact nature of the bond which connects the two characters, the argument posits eroticism as an expression of somatic longing; a careful analysis of Pearl through this prism provides a number of ironic insights into the mutual interactions between the Dreamer and the Maiden and highlights the poignancy of their inability to understand each other. Further conclusions are also drawn from comparing Pearl with a number of Chaucerian dream visions. Tracing the erotic in both its overt and covert forms and following its transformations in the course of the narrative, the article outlines the poet’s creative use of the mechanics of the dream vision, an increasingly popular genre in the period when the poem was written.

AbstrAct O Piotr Spyra One of the most contentious issues enlivening the critical debate about the Middle English Pearl is the problem of its internal divisions. The dream vision defies most critical attempts to pinpoint the exact character of its narrative structure, and while some scholars see the poem as a  diptych, the twofold structure reflecting its Gothic character (Harwood 61–65), others discern a distinctly tripartite structure in the text. The latter view, endorsed by the majority of critics (Chance 31–32), arises quite naturally out of the framing which the scenes in the garden, where the narrator falls asleep, provide for the dream he relates. Whatever their view on the exact 14 number of the text’s internal sections, however, most critics acknowledge that a substantial shift in mood and tone occurs in stanza five as the narrator swoons with grief and the vision begins.1 What sets the first five stanzas of the poem apart from the rest is their distinctly secular character, which is most ostensibly seen in stanza one, the first twelve lines of Pearl hinting at nothing of the complexity of the theological debate to follow.

Conley notes that “[u]nless we interpret the introduction postpositively, according to data transposed from the vision, we surely must acknowledge that the imagery of this crucial stanza has neither an ethical nor a theological tinge and is, in fact, markedly secular” (57–58). This distinctly secular quality of the poem’s opening is mostly achieved by the text through eroticizing the imagery of the pearl and thus engaging the medieval tradition of love allegory, perhaps even specifically alluding to the Roman de la Rose (cf.

Pilch 168–69). What is difficult to explain in the context of what the readers learn later is that the language of this key stanza seems to imply that the woman the narrator lost was for him not so much a daughter as a lover.

While some critics dismiss “the dreamer’s lack of explicitness” in making clear who exactly he is talking about as a symptom of his confusion and grief (Anderson 21), others prefer to see the eroticism of stanza one as a by-product of the linguistic contrast between the earthly discourse of the dreamer and the heavenly-inspired words of the Pearl Maiden (cf. Gross).

Attempting to re-evaluate and underline the role of eroticism in the poem, this article takes issue with the common assumption that the erotic can only be found in Pearl in the initial garden setting or that its nature is predominantly verbal; by following the narrator from the garden into the vision he experiences, the argument aims to expose the transformation of The  one obvious set of divisions that cannot be dismissed is the formal pattern

–  –  –

the erotic as the narrative proceeds and posits eroticism as a foundational principle which, intertwined with the oneiric quality of the vision, provides much of the tension which informs the Dreamer’s encounter with the Pearl Maiden.

To outline the secular quality of the poem’s first stanza, it is necessary

to quote it in its entirety:

–  –  –

The narrator’s relationship with the pearl is immediately established as physical and intimate: the stanza focuses on the way the pearl feels to the touch, and the readers follow the speaker in relating how his hands move around her perfect roundness in a gesture reminiscent of bodily caress. The erotic tension produced by the sense of somatic familiarity and closeness is also heightened by the reference to the Orient, a place which functioned in the medieval imagination as a realm of forbidden pleasures and carnal delights (cf. Heng 242–46). Andrew and Waldron rightly note that in employing the imagery of lines five and six, “the Poet draws on stock epithets used in courtly literature to describe beautiful women” (53), and it is, indeed, difficult to see the pearl in this stanza as a metaphor for anything other than the female body. The act of losing the pearl, which, as the readers later learn, has an elegiac overtone to it, can also easily be subordinated to this reading and seen as an expression of erotic dejection on the part of the abandoned, or rejected, lover. Though the following stanzas quickly subvert the mood and tone of the poem’s opening, the first twelve lines of Pearl quite consistently orient the narrative in the direction of the traditional love allegory; the impression is strengthened by the vocabulary of line 11, which, in showing the speaker pining for love (“I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere”), clearly engages the discourse of amour courtois.

Pilch, who translates the line as “I languish, grievously wounded by the love-dominion,” finds in the language used by the poet a direct reference to the character of Daunger from the French Roman de la Rose (167–68).

Piotr Spyra Whatever the true nature of this particular allusion may be, there is little in stanza one that would provide clues to the way in which the poem later develops.

Though with each stanza the elegiac mode becomes stronger and stronger, the garden setting of the opening section of Pearl makes it impossible for the reader to abandon the association with love allegory altogether. The  place where the narrator finds himself is, after all, a  version of the traditional locus amoenus. The text indicates that he enters the garden “In Augoste in a  high seysoun” (l. 39), presumably August 15th (Stern 76), which marks the feast of the Assumption. Providing a degree of specificity about the date of the dream experience is common among medieval dream visions,2 but the choice of August, the time of harvest and the dwindling of summer, signifies a substantial departure from the mood of the opening stanza and heralds the fact that this is more of a garden of sorrow than of love. Far from being literally enclosed, the place nonetheless functions as a hortus conclusus of a sort, for the numbing grief of the narrator forcefully binds him to the flowery mound where he falls to the ground and makes it impossible for him to abandon the presumed grave of his pearl, locking him within the desolate inner landscape of his sorrow. Challenging the genre with its interplay of the narrator’s erotic longings and dirge-like lamentations, Pearl seems to be a good example of “reinventing the dream vision,” a process which Brown sees operating in England in the second half of the fourteenth century, when “the longexisting and familiar literary currents expressed through the dream vision became revitalized, charged with new possibilities, and the stimulus to original compositions” (23).

To outline the originality of the way in which Pearl uses eroticism to structure its narrative, one needs, however, to clarify the nature of the concept. More than any other understanding of eroticism, it is the conceptualization of the erotic as a form of absence and longing that seems to capture the spirit of the poem. In her study of eroticism on the Renaissance stage, Daileader points to two possible ways of seeing absence as the epitome of the erotic (28–29). On the one hand, there is the psychological experience investigated by Jacques Derrida in his analysis of Rousseau’s Confessions, The Roman de la Rose begins in May, the “tyme of love and jollity” in Chaucer’s translation (l. 52), thus establishing May as the season of love, a  convention that other dream visions would follow. Among dream visions that begin in May one finds the Middle English The  Book of Cupid (cf. Olson 572), as well as, for instance, the Middle Scots “Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past” by William Dunbar, where the dreamer “is summoned from his bed by a personified month of May as if he were a lover who has failed to do her honour” (Burrow 136). One of the most notable exceptions to invoking May in this manner is Chaucer’s House of Fame, which begins on December 10th.

Piotr Spyra wherein “the absence of the beloved stimulates the... imagination, with

the result that peripheral objects become central, are endowed with signification based on their past contact with the desired body” (Daileader 29):

How often have I kissed my bed, since she had slept in it; my curtains, all the furniture of my room, since they belonged to her, and her beautiful hand had touched them; even the floor, on which I had prostrated myself, since she had walked upon it! (Rousseau qtd. in Derrida 152) The sense of the erotic not only arises thus from the absence of the object of desire but is also heightened by the vestiges of its former presence, by the various paraphernalia of the object’s prior proximity which remain and animate the longing. This is clearly the case in Pearl, for it was precisely 17 the narrator’s almost fetish-like preoccupation with the flowery mound at which the readers find him in the garden that prompted the critics to suggest that the place could actually be the Pearl Maiden’s grave, even though the text never overtly suggested so.

On the other hand, absence endows the notion of the erotic with its key distinctive features which differentiate it from the sexual. Daileader’s reference to Roland Barthes’s treatise on the nature of photography neatly illustrates this point, for trying to distinguish between eroticism and pornography, Barthes observes that pornography, which represents the sexual principle, ordinarily represents the sexual organs.... The erotic photograph, on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame[.] (57–59) The contrast between the sexual and the erotic, which holds for photography, also holds for the Middle English Pearl and can help explain the enigma of the narrator’s relationship to the deceased girl. There is little critical disagreement among scholars about the Pearl Maiden being the Dreamer’s daughter, for not only does the text indicate that she died before she reached the age of two3 and was “nerre [to him] then aunt or nece” (l. 233), but the form of the blessing in the final stanza has also been identified as typical of a parental benediction (Davis 325–44). In this context the erotic language of the first stanza may seem an aberration difficult to reconcile with the filial nature of their connection. Yet, as Barthes makes clear, the erotic operates by engaging the imagination to go beyond what is immediately available to the senses and need not involve the sexual at all, “Thou lyfed not two yer in oure thede” (l. 483).

Piotr Spyra being only vaguely suggestive of it. As a form of longing predicated upon a vacuum that the narrator desperately wants to fill (cf. Daileader 29), the erotic mode can successfully be applied in Pearl to convey the father’s feelings for his little daughter without implying any kind of improper relationship, for the true ground of his grief and sorrow is precisely his desire to be reunited with the girl.

Indeed, what emerges from the first five stanzas of the poem is exactly this kind of possessiveness on the part of the narrator, betraying both his pain at the separation which took place and his craving that this estrangement be undone. The metaphor of the pearl slipping away from the narrator’s hands (l. 10: “Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot”) would thus justify the language of stanza one with its focus on the smoothness of the pearl’s sides described as if the Dreamer had the experience of holding her in his palm or caressing her body with his hands. The text may trigger associations of a sexual nature, but what it really communicates is a sense of somatic memory, the feeling of a painful vacuum, and that is what ultimately makes the passage erotic. The emptiness of the palm, the burning absence of what was once readily available to the Dreamer’s touch, is what structures his every word and thought. Hence the haunting repetition of the possessive pronoun throughout the first stanza set, which reveals the narrator’s obsessive longing for “my privy perle” (cf. ll. 24, 48, 53). Hence also the irony of juxtaposing the metaphor of the pearl with that of the jeweller.

Unlike precious gems, pearls are not made by jewellers, who can only trade rather than fashion or shape them. Presenting the narrator as a jeweller by introducing the metaphor of the pearl and having the Maiden address him in these terms, the narrative not only reveals his ignorance of the fact that the girl he lost belongs to her true Maker and Jeweller, i.e. God, but also reinforces the sense of tactile privation, for as a jeweller he had the privilege of handling the pearl’s body, an experience he now sorely misses.

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