This poem is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March – April 2016.
Note on the Translation
Heartbroken and in mourning, a man describes the terrible sorrow he feels at the loss of his beautiful and irreplaceable ‘Perle’. In August, with flowers and herbs decorating the earth and perfuming the air, he visits a green garden, the scene of his bereavement. Tormented by images of death and decay, devastated by grief and overpowered by the intoxicating scent of the plants, he falls into a sudden sleep and begins to dream, embarking on an out-of-body experience that will lead to an encounter with his departed pearl, who we learn is his child, and a journey to the gates of heaven.
Probably composed in the 1390s, only one copy of Pearl remains in existence, surviving as the first poem in a manuscript that also includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness (or Purity). All four poems are in the same hand, and although the writing probably belongs to that of a scribe rather than the original author, most scholars believe they were composed by the same person, about whom we know very little.
Pearl presents a substantial challenge to any would-be translator because of its unique form and intricate structure, involving elaborate number-symbolism, alliteration, a four-beat line, rolling concatenation, and a strict ababababbcbc rhyme scheme impossible to render into contemporary English without falling back on archaisms or tweaking the sentence structure and subject matter beyond acceptable limits. Given those technical challenges, every decision feels like a trade-off between sound and sense, between medieval authenticity and latter-day clarity, and between the precise and the poetic. My own response as far as the rhymes are concerned has been to let them fall as naturally as possible within sentences, internally or at the end of lines, and to let half-rhymes and syllabic-rhymes play their part, and for the poem’s musical orchestration to be performed by pronounced alliteration, looping repetition and the quartet of stresses within each line. So formalists and fusspots scanning for a ladder of rhyme-words down the right-hand margin of this translation will be frustrated and disappointed, though hopefully my solution will appeal to the ear and the voice.
Pearl consists of twenty sections, every section containing five twelve-line verses, with the exception of section XV which contains six verses, bringing the number of verses to an enigmatic one hundred and one and the number of lines in the poem to 1212, thus mimicking the structure of the heavenly Jerusalem: twelve by twelve furlongs in dimension, with twelve gates for the twelve tribes of Israel, as specified in the Book of Revelation.
‘To find a view of that flawless place
walk upstream alongside the water
to the valley head, till you come to a hill,
and I will follow on this far bank.’
Then I wouldn’t delay a moment longer,
but went beneath leaves through dappled light
till I saw that city perched on its summit,
and stumbled towards that stunning sight
some distance away beyond the brook,
shining brighter than the sun’s beams,
in its features, facets, size and structure
just as Saint John revealed in Revelation.
Yes just as the apostle John described it
I saw for myself that exalted city:
the new Jerusalem, luminously rich,
as though descended from heaven’s heights.
Its buildings gleamed with pure gold,
blazing and glinting like burnished glass.
They stood on a base of precious stones
formed of twelve well-fastened tiers,
a firm and cleverly fashioned foundation,
each stratum cut from a seamless gem,
as in the writings of Revelation
where John the apostle depicts the apocalypse.
John had described those stones in his scriptures
so I knew their names and also their nature.
I judged the first of those jewels to be jasper,
found at the very bottom of the base,
gleaming green on the lowest layer.
Sapphire occupied the second stage,
and clear, crystalline chalcedony
shone pure and pale on the third plane.
Emerald was fourth with its glaring green finish,
and finely striated sardonyx the fifth,
and ruby the sixth, exactly as stated
by John the apostle when depicting the apocalypse.
John also described the chrysolite,
the stone which formed the seventh stage.
The eighth was of brilliantly white beryl,
a table of twin-toned topaz the ninth,
a course of chysoprase the tenth,
noble and elegant jacinth the eleventh,
and twelfth, most trusted in times of trouble,
was a plane of purple and indigo amethyst.
The wall above that tiered base
was jasper, glistening and glittering like glass,
a vision I knew very well from the version
in John the apostle’s apocalyptic scriptures.
Then I saw still more of what John described:
those twelve tiers were broad and steep
with the city on top, perfectly square,
equal in every dimension, and exquisite.
The golden streets sparkled like glass,
and jasper glared as if glazed with egg-white.
Inside, those walls were studded and set
with every possible precious stone,
and every square side of that estate
in every dimension measured twelve furlongs,
in height and width and length the same size,
just as John the apostle had judged.
And I saw still more of what John had scripted:
each of its aspects had three entrances,
so twelve gates in total were visible.
The portals were plated in expensive metals,
and the doors adorned with a singular pearl,
a perfect pearl that could never fade.
Over every arch in carved characters
the names of the Children of Israel were inscribed
in order of age, that is to say
beginning with the first born, and so on and so forth.
Such light illuminated the city’s streets
that neither sun nor moon were needed.
They needed neither sun nor moon
since God Himself was their guiding light
and the Lamb their lantern. There was no doubt:
through God’s brilliance the city glowed.
And all was transparent, so my gaze passed
through wall and structure without obstruction,
till I saw with my eyes the high throne
arrayed in awesome ornaments,
as John the apostle correctly recorded,
with God taking His place upon it.
And running directly out of that throne
was a river more radiant than sun and moon.
No sun or moon ever shone so sweetly
as the plentiful water that poured through those precincts;
it surged swiftly along every street
without sediment or slime or foaming filth.
No church or chapel had ever been built
or temple constructed within the walls;
God Almighty was their one minster,
the sacrificial Lamb their spiritual food.
The gates were never bolted or barred
but open at every possible approach,
though none may enter in search of sanctuary
who bears any blemish beneath the moon.
The moon cannot practice her powers in that place,
she is pockmarked and pitted and impure in person.
Added to which, it is never night-time.
How could the moon, casting her moonbeams
from celestial circuits, hope to compete
with the light that sheens off that stream’s surface?
The planets are pitifully poor in comparison
and the sun too dim by some distance.
The riverbanks were bordered by bright trees
which bore on their boughs the twelve fruits of life;
twelve times a year those trees offer harvest,
their riches returning monthly like the moon.
No more amazement under the moon
has a human heart ever had to endure
than when I witnessed the walled city
and marvelled at its fabulous feats of form.
I stood as still as a stunned quail,
hypnotised by that holy vision,
every nerve and sense in my body numbed,
enraptured by unrivalled radiance.
And this I declare with a clear conviction:
any mortal man, having seen such a miracle,
despite the craft and cures of his doctor,
would go to his grave beneath the moon.