Pearl and Duchess


“Experience, though noon auctoritee” from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is perhaps the clearest distinction which can be applied to the differences between Chaucer and the Pearl poet when considering an extended survey of each of their works. While the Pearl poet’s works have survived in only one extant manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x., Chaucer’s for the most part abound (as much as 600 year old manuscripts can). Here I will be looking at all four of the Pearl poet’s works, Pearl, Purity, Patience and Sir Gawain, and four of Chaucer’s works, The Book of the Duchess, Parliament of Fowls, House of Fame, and Troilus and Criseyde.

The Pearl poet’s four poems are written with the authority of a man speculatively devoting his entire life to learned scholarship, most likely within the confines of a monastery, far removed from worldly concerns (although some like E. Gordon have argued against his formal training).  These poems are entrenched in theological debate, exposing human nature in its incapability to fully understand the divine. He elevates his text beyond the apparent words, and constructs his poems within the confines of an intricate numerical design that serves to further distinguish between the worldly concept of language and the superior mathematical proportion symbolic of Heaven. Chaucer’s four poems, albeit complex and powerful in their own right, serve to depict another aspect of literature: the creative endeavor, less concerned with perfection on paper, especially in terms of a numerical design, and much more inclined towards the human condition, emotion, and otherwise familiar affairs. This is not in any way to negate the thematic effects of the Pearl poems, or the numerical design within certain Chaucerian works, but merely to shift focus towards a more predominant theme, and align a Chaucerian plot to Cotton Nero A.x’s inclination towards mathematical unity, essentially superimposing experience over authority, and combining them to create a whole.

The mere structure of the eight poems invites initial comparison that only deepens after a rereading, and hopefully upon closer inspection leads to an unambiguous parallel. Yet, it should not be assumed that the two poets knew each other, just as it would surely be wrong to believe that the two sets of poems belong to two entirely different cultures. The safest stipulation lies within the interpretation that the two sets simply represent the same world through two lenses: a theological one, highly appropriate for a supposed monk, and a more cultural stance associated with a courtly patronized man like Chaucer. Without much divergence from the interiority of the poems, a quick glance should immediately signal a pattern of three smaller poems directly related to the grand narrative closing each quartet. It has been adequately, and appropriately argued that House of Fame was in fact written after Troilus and Criseyde in direct response to negative criticism of the larger work, but the chronology of the poems does not detract from the greater scheme since a reasonable explanation for a discrepancy of time would allow Chaucer to write Troilus and Criseyde a priori Fame, and then create Fame as a “prologue” for the other. Thus the overall structure of the quartet remains intact concerning both sets of poems and allows the comparison to be taken a step further, analyzing not only the quartets as wholes, but constituent poems as well. Such an interpretation would group the poems in several ways. First, would be the interpoetic pairing of Pearl and DuchessPurity and FamePatience and Parliament, and Sir Gawain and Troilus and Criseyde. Second, would follow the intrapoetic comparison concerning the numerical unity of the Pearl poems as a group, in relation to the dramatic dream vision climactically concluding with a very realistic narrative in the Chaucerian quartet, essentially binding the divine and worldly, each providing a different piece of a larger puzzle.

The Pearl poems exhibit an unbroken consistency of thought throughout, containing a group of favored themes – patience and humility set against pride, earthly and heavenly courtesy, purity, and perfection. These themes are woven into a variety of patterns, while the resemblance of a structural thought pattern remains intact, as can be seen by the recurrence within all four poems of a human (whether it be the Dreamer, Abraham, Jonah, or Gawain) conversing with an other-world being. Similarly dream visions guide Chaucer’s works, not serving to exemplify perfect Christian conduct, but on the contrary reappearing to depict human folly. Yet it is this human folly, spiritual or worldly, that is the link between the eight poems, as humans by nature are imperfect and constantly erring. Whether it is a numerical design that illustrates what text cannot achieve, exhibiting an unattainable perfection that words inefficiently describe, or Pandarus’ third person presence in an intimate scene highlighting Troilus’ ineptitude, the two poets persist in reminding the reader of what different situations *should* be like while pointing towards where they fall short.

Ceys and Alcione are the primary figures in Duchess, leading to the central figure of the dream vision, the Black Knight. Yet, as the dreamer and the Black Knight meet, the Black Knight does not impart some extraordinary morsel of knowledge onto the dreamer like the Maiden does in Pearl. The Black Knight’s discombobulated harangue, if anything, leads to a simple acceptance of reality. His greatest epiphany is an emphatic “she ys ded” opposed to the Maiden’s superior knowledge of the inner workings of the universe while she reigns on the throne of heaven as, presumably, one of the 144,000 chaste brides of Celestial Jerusalem. However, the mortal mind is not created to conceive the unintelligible universe. The Black Knight is not wrong for his postponed acceptance, much like the Dreamer of the Pearl is not inherently amoral or unethical for being unable to truly understand the Maiden. Chaucer depicts the imperfect nature of both the Dreamer and the Black Knight through their inherent inability to discern higher matters, especially apparent in the Black Knight’s complaint about Fortune:

“For fals Fortune hath pleyd a game

Atte ches with me, allas the while.

The trayteresse fals and ful of gyle,

That al benoteth, and nothing halt,

She goth upright and yet she halt,

That baggeth foule nad loketh faire,

The dispitouse debonaire,

That skorneth many a creature!”

He does not understand the ways in which Fortune works so he may only apply them in terms of his own earthly understanding, comparing Fortune’s bidding to a game of chess, where Fortune wins through foul guile that scorns his human mind – she does not cheat, but moves pieces in ways he cannot perceive. He cannot comprehend that he is a part of a larger scheme and Fortune’s actions do not necessarily focus on him. Further, the Dreamer has difficulty looking beyond the chess metaphor to grasp the Knight’s loss, consoling him not on White’s death, but reminding him that he should not weep over a game. Tellingly, and unwittingly, the Dreamer actually pinpoints the exact shortcoming in comprehension on both their parts – life is little more than a game where everyone loses in the end. However the Knight’s immediate concern justifiably revolves around his own immediate circumstances and his mourning of White, unappreciative of the idea of an afterlife where they may again meet. He does not even rely on the common convention of the time, linking Fortune and Fate in order to discern meaning from a negative situation and basically rationalize his loss. Instead he is guided by raw emotion, and his comfort is no more than an acceptance of grief, yet it is difficult to judge his reaction too negatively as anyone reading the poem can sympathize to a certain extent, understanding that the temporal world has a firm grasp on the human mind, which is reflected in his refusal to accept a greater sense of spirituality as consolation.

The Dreamer in Pearl encounters a similar problem in his incapability to comprehend the Maiden’s role in heaven except in terms of royalty as he has known it on earth, applying the language of social hierarchy to an infinite universe of Heaven. In other words, he cannot accept her as Queen of Heaven, for he interprets the role to belong to Mary:

“Thou lyfed not two ther in our thede;

Thou cowthez neuer God nauther plese ne pray,

Ne neuer nawther Pater ne Crede;

And quen mad on the first day!

I may not traw, so God me spede,

That God woulde wrythe so wrange away.

Of countes, damysel, par ma fay,

Wer fayr in heuen to halde asstate,

Other ellez a lady of lasse aray;

Bot a quene! Hit is to dere a date.”

(When quoting from the Pearl poems special characters have been omitted and all letters are modernized according to the sound they make when read out loud – this is not what the actual text looks like).

While the Dreamer and the Black Knight have difficultly grasping the higher order of existence by which other-worldly beings, such as the Maiden, Fortune, or God, function, drawing a neat parallel for comparison, this is also where the poets diverge. Duchess does not attempt to ever understand Fortune, or why White is dead, but rather to accept it and move towards other matters – it is what it is. The Black Knight ceases to focus on death, and with help from the mortal dreamer that has come to visit him, he moves away from his lament, towards his “long castel with walles white,” further concerned with life on earth. The poem ends in a rather abrupt manner, with little attempt on Chaucer’s part to create any higher poetic form, not because he is incapable, but because he recognizes the need to end his work in a place that has direct thematic importance. He begins Duchess with Ceys and Alcione, drawing attention to the possibility of an afterlife, and proceeds to absolutely diminish the notion by the end, transforming the Black Knight’s lament into an emotional avalanche. Therefore, the abrupt ending, similar to waking from a dream, is chosen specifically to bring the reader, much like the Dreamer, back to reality, distanced from flights of fancy of greater meanings. Consequently, the dreamer does not wish to analyze his vision in the same way the Dreamer from Pearl will, but rather set it down in poetry to create a pleasing physical form of art, or at the very least capture a unique story on paper, which is exactly what Chaucer does when creating his works.

The Pearl poet, on the other hand, elevates the subject matter to near perfection as he extrapolates the essence of the poem and places it within the realm of numbers, adding another dimension to the text and certainly enriching the quality. The allegorical sense of the poem, that is representative through his use of numbers, seems to be of greater importance to him than the apparent thematic effect. Following such a line of reasoning, it can even be stipulated that he first created the numerical design that governs Pearl, and the entirety of the manuscript, and then proceeded to fill in the words, almost as though creating an excruciatingly complex crossword puzzle unfathomable to most modern day writers. Words alone are inadequate to denote perfection, and even numbers are sometimes meaningless, but to a medieval mind, a combination of the two would immediately signal symbolic perfection. The task the Pearl poet undertook combines an intricate, alliterative style within a higher mathematical pattern used to create a highly theological debate.

Pearl is created from 101 stanzas, much like Sir Gawain (later to be discussed), but the number of stanzas themselves seems quite arbitrary, almost as though the poet aimed for a perfect 100 and missed. Dante’s Commedia, comprised of 100 cantos, was probably on the poet’s mind, but, as evidence may suggest, he aimed for an even higher purpose (my mathematical research comes from Edward Condren’s work on numeric principles, articles from various departments of mathematics and engineering as will be cited, along with an exploration of medieval ideas on numeric ordering and unity). It must be noted that 101 is the 25th prime number which is hardly a coincidence. Prime numbers were considered, during the Middle Ages, to be of a higher order than numbers of different series, due to their indivisible property. As Condren states, they were “inherently more self-contained, integral, ‘finished,’ than the quantities signified by numbers in other series.” Surely the Pearl poet was aware of this, and used it to signify the higher order of the matter he was writing. The square root of twenty-five is five, representative of the pentangle that may not be created without knowledge of the Divine Proportion which as M. Akhtaruzzaman points out “is said as Golden or Divine because of its unique properties to open the door of deeper understanding of beauty and spirituality”and consistently reappears throughout the manuscript, as much as it recurs throughout nature. So, as the poet attributed five stanzas to each of his twenty sections, he had to attribute an “extra” stanza in order to make 101. He did not simply tack on a sixth stanza to the last section, but decided to use this opportunity to yet again mark his first poem in relation to the three more to come. Thus the “extra” stanza is strategically placed in the fifteenth section, essentially demarcating the first fifteen out of twenty sections, reaching the fraction of 3/4, which is significant for several reasons. First, three smaller poems are to lead to the fourth, great allegory. Also, 3/4 is a musical beat, usually used next to a signature key denoting the pattern for the rest of the composition. In this sense Pearl is the signature for the rest of the manuscript, with its lines acting as a microcosm for the entirety of it. A third reason, one that ties in the thematic aspect of the poem and will lead us back to Chaucer’s work, delineates the “extra” stanza as a marking point for the Dreamer’s progression towards knowledge. He is elevated towards a new spiritual understanding that he had not even approached until the last stanza of the fifteenth section. Several times he had asserted his understanding, but his words proved him wrong.

Chaucer’s Dreamer functions along the same lines and maintains the 3/4 proportion, but with less care, as the author is here more concerned with artistic depiction than the numeric unity of the universe. Yet Chaucer is not unconcerned with the concept as can be seen in  his other work, the Astrolabe which is primarily centered around “nombres and proporciouns,” denoting his familiarity with them. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that it takes the Dreamer in Duchess nearly 900 out of the 1334 lines (roughly three fourth of the poem) to fully comprehend White’s death as the Black Knight relates it through different means, beginning with his chess metaphor. Yet just like the poem’s Dreamer, the Knight will not comprehend beyond the corporeal, focusing on White’s physical death and using the grandeur of his castle as his only means of solace. 

This is not, however, to infer that Pearl’s Dreamer will fully understand the Maiden at this point either. He will merely come away with greater knowledge of what is expected of him spiritually, even if he may never attain such status. Much like Chaucer’s Black Knight, at the end of the poem, the Dreamer is left to return to his worldly affairs, and both understand more than they had previously, even as their respective creators, the Pearl poet and Chaucer, focus on different types of understanding. Chaucer’s character must come to terms with death in a worldly fashion, having the Black Knight accept White’s departure only as a means to continue his own life, much like Chaucer’s Dreamer who awakens and considers the story as no more than amusement to be “putte… in ryme,” while the Pearl poet’s Dreamer will use his acceptance of the lost Pearl to gain insight into the inner workings of the universe, mending his ways only as a prerequisite for an afterlife, realizing that temporal concerns should not guide him. Both poets portray an optimistic view of progress, even if only ephemeral or corporeal. Nevertheless, as remains to be further elucidated through the remaining pairs of poems, their portrayals are defined in terms of contraries.

Next I would like to explore Pearl’s Purity and Chaucer’s House of Fame, together, and in the larger context of all eight works.

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