Simon Armitage’s new translation of the fourteenth-century poem Pearl follows his energetic 2008 translation of the same anonymous poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which enjoyed great popularity and critical acclaim. Those hoping to find in Pearl a sequel to Gawain’s rollicking quest will search in vain, for the colloquialisms that tickled the ear in the Gawain translation (‘bogeyman’, ‘flummoxed’, ‘bamboozled’) are largely missing from the more melancholic Pearl. Here, the narrator mourns the death of his infant daughter, his Pearl. Entering a dream landscape he finds her again: their dialogue, across time and death and space, forms the poem’s central consolatory section.
Like the original, Armitage’s translation is steady and meditative in character; it is moralising, and steeped in biblical allusion. Recurring words (ornament, jeweller, judgement, limit, bliss) slide in and out of focus through the twenty sections, overlapping with each other as the poem’s various preoccupations float to the surface. Suiting Armitage’s own voice, the original Middle English is profoundly alliterative, with three recurring consonants in each line. Replicating these aggregating alliterations was, Armitage tells us, among his main aims. The resulting stanzas are musical, appealing, he says, to the ear and the voice – if not to the pedantic formalist, who will notice deviation from the original rhyming pattern.
Sonic rhyme may be the principle technique by which the poem operates, but there is also an underlying structure of material ‘rhyme’ that Armitage brings to the fore. Material qualities – spotlessness, flawlessness, purity; earthiness, dustiness, decay – resonate between different characters and objects, allowing subtle reverberations and allegories to ring throughout the stanzas. The transient organicism of earthly things is always opposed to the glittering, wrought permanence of the heavenly. Occasionally this very medieval material landscape might seem overpowering (a broad wound is bright with blood; the body is bloodied and bruised) but this is, it might be argued, a faithful recreation of a more powerful relationship with materials (pearl, blood, dust, gold) than most of us enjoy today.
The fact that the poem measures 1212 lines, and therefore echoes the dimensions of the Heavenly Jerusalem, hints that this is a foreign and magical mode of poetic construction. First and last lines mirror each other, suggesting not only the spherical pearl stone itself, but a sort of narrative time that is preordained, prophesied, patterned, and typologically structured. The form itself is therefore a tight allegory that vibrates to the salvific message of the poem itself. In his introduction, Armitage makes the comparison between the tight, buffed structure of the compact meter and the jewelled pieces that dominate the poem’s material landscape: it cannot have escaped his notice that this metaphor makes him, as translator, the jeweller, setting the ancient pearl diligently, in a flattering setting.
He undertakes this jeweller’s task with characteristic wit. Although the colloquial flourishes of the Gawain translation are largely absent (save for ‘slogged’, which pops up as an alliterative pair for ‘slaved’), there are punning lines of word-play which please the mind’s ear (‘wholly’ and ‘holy’, ‘manor’ and ‘manner’). The final journey into the Heavenly Jerusalem is, in Armitage’s hands, a particularly sparkling passage of ekphrasis: all is solid (‘brilliant beryl’ and ‘twin-toned topaz’) and yet the eye glides ‘through wall and structure without obstruction’. These paradoxes of the seer’s eye are beautifully captured.
Armitage felt, he says, that each decision while writing the poem was a trade-off between medieval authenticity and latter day clarity. Whilst this may well be true lexically, it is perhaps not true of the narrative. To a modern reader, the simple clarity of the medieval cosmos – with its binary oppositions of saved and damned, flawless and flawed, pearl and dust – is striking. The medieval narrative is therefore not unclear, but instead layered, recursive, ornamented. So Pearl is, if anything, a more straightforward form of consolation than that offered by modern poets: the same Christian themes are there in, for example, Eliot’s Burnt Norton ( – All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…), but they strain, crack, and sometimes break under the weight of modernity. Re-presenting a simpler eschatology, polishing and burnishing it for today’s reader: this is Armitage’s great success as jeweller.
By Robert Hawkins