Thought to have been written by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl is one of the glories of Middle English poetry, and counts among the great poems about paternal love in the language. As Bernard O’Donoghue points out in his introduction to Jane Draycott’s fine new translation (Carcanet xxpp £9.95), the poem has struggled to emerge from the long shadow cast by Gawain, despite having had a history of notable translators, including J R R Tolkien. It hasn’t helped matters that Pearl has a remarkably complex metrical system, consisting of groups of five twelve-line alliterative stanzas with interlocking rhymes and a series of ‘link-words’ that generate continuity and a sense of resonance throughout. Sensibly, though she preserves the stanza form, Draycott makes no attempt to reproduce the rhyme scheme, relying instead on alliteration and link-words (pearl, bliss, radiance, jewels, glitter, longing, quarrel and so on) to capture something of the weight and circular allusiveness of the original. The effect – notwithstanding the odd prosaic line – is mesmerising.
The poem relates a grief-stricken father’s vision, across a river, of his lost infant daughter, who has become a bride of Christ in the New Jerusalem. At its heart is a partially resolved conflict between the father’s earthly suffering and the will of God. Pearl’s central sections are