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 Among the treasures of the British Museum is a manuscript which contains four anonymous poems, apparently of common authorship: "The Pearl," "Cleanness," "Patience," "Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight." From the language of the writer, it seems clear that he was a native of some Northwestern district of England, and that he lived in the second half of the Fourteenth Century. He is quite unknown, save as his work reveals him, a man of aristocratic breeding, of religious and secular education, of a deeply emotional and spiritual nature, gifted with imagination and perception of beauty. He shows a liking for technique that leads him to adopt elaborate devices of rhyme, while retaining the alliteration characteristic of Northern Middle English verse. He wrote as was the fashion of his time, allegory, homily, lament, chivalric romance, but the distinction of his poetry is that of a finely accentuated individuality.  
The poems called "Cleanness" and "Patience," retell incidents of biblical history for a definitely didactic purpose, but even these are frequently lifted into the region of imaginative literature by the author's power of graphic description. "Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight" is a priceless contribution to Arthurian story. "The Pearl," though it takes the form of symbolic narrative, is essentially lyric and elegiac, the lament, it would seem, of a father for a little, long-lost daughter.
The present translation of "The Pearl" was begun with no larger design than that of turning a few passages into modern English, by way of illustrating to a group of students engaged in reading the original, the possibility of preserving intricate stanzaic form, and something of alliteration, without an entire sacrifice of poetic beauty. The experiment was persisted in because its problems are such as baffle and fascinate a translator, and the finished version is offered not merely to students of Middle English but to college classes in the history of English literature, and to non-academic readers.
If "The Pearl" presented no greater obstacle to a modern reader than is offered by Chaucer's English, a translation might be a gratuitous task, but the Northwest-Midland dialect of the poem is, in fact, incomparably more difficult than the diction of Chaucer, more difficult even than that of Langland. The meaning of many passages remains obscure, and a translator is often forced to choose what seems the least dubious among doubtful readings.
The poem in the original passes frequently from imaginative beauty to conversational commonplace, from deep feeling to didactic aphorism or theological dogma, and it has been my endeavor faithfully to interpret these variations of matter and of style, sometimes substituting modern colloquialisms for such as are obsolete, or in other ways paraphrasing a stubborn passage, but striving never to polish the dullest lines nor to strengthen the weakest.
A reader who will observe the difficult rhyming scheme, a scheme that calls for six words of one rhyme and four of another, will understand the presence of forced lines, an intrusion that one must needs suffer in even "The Faerie Queene." These padded lines are a serious blemish to the poem, but the introduction of naïve and familiar expressions is one of its charms, as when the Pearl, protesting like Piccarda in Paradise[1] that among beatified spirits there can be no rivalry, exclaims: "The more the merrier."[2]
The translation may, at many points, need apology, but the original needs only explanation. Readers familiar with mediæval poetry expect to encounter moral platitudes and theological subtlety. Dogma takes large and vital place in the sublimest cantos of Dante's "Paradise," and the English poet is consciously following his noblest master when he puts a sermon into the lips of his "little queen." To modern ears such exposition is at harsh discord with the simple human grief and longing of the poet, but to the mediaevalist symbolic theology was a passion. Precisely in the moment when she begins a discourse concerning the doctrine of redemption, Beatrice turns upon Dante "eyes that might make a man happy in the fire," and at its close he looks upon her and beholds her "grow more beautiful."[3] If even Beatrice has been considered mere personification, it is natural that the Pearl should be so regarded, but the plain reader finds in the symbolic maiden of the English poem, as in the transfigured lady of the Italian, some record of a human being whose loss was anguish, and whose presence rapture, to a poet long ago.
The lover of things mediæval will find in this little book not only the familiar garden of Guillaume de Lorris, of Boccaccio and of Chaucer, but an unexpected and enchanting vision of great forest and rushing water, of hillside and plain, of crystal cliffs and flame-winged birds; of the Pearl among her white peers; of the Apocalyptic Jerusalem, discovered to the poet, it may be, as a goodly Gothic city, though its walls are built of precious stone, and its towers rise from neither church nor minster.
If even a few readers turn from the modern to the original version, the translation will have had fair fortune, for the author of "The Pearl" is, though unknown and unnamed, a poet second only to Chaucer in Chaucer's generation.
It is a pleasure to record my many debts of gratitude: to Professor Frank H. Chase of Beloit, Professor John L. Lowes of Swarthmore, and Dr. Charles G. Osgood of Princeton, for their careful reading of the translation in manuscript, with invaluable assistance and suggestion; to Professor Martha Hale Shackford, and Miss Laura A. Hibbard, for constant aid while the work was in making, and, above all, to Professor Katharine Lee Bates for a critical, line by line, comparison of this version with the original.
[Footnote 1: Par. III.]
[Footnote 2: Pearl, stanza 71.]
[Footnote 3: Par. VII, II. 17-18; Par. VIII, I. 15.]
June, 1908.
EDITIONS: R. Morris, Early English text Sc. 1864; I. Gollancz, London, 1891; C.G. Osgood, Boston, 1906 (with admirable introduction, etc.). TRANSLATIONS: Gollancz (above); S. Weir Mitchell, New York, 1906 (poetic, but incomplete); G.G. Coulton, London, 1906 (metre of the original); C.G. Osgood, Princeton, 1907 (prose).

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