Pearl and Middle English

Marie Borroff’s translation of Pearl is useful enough for our purposes; but if you’re curious about the “original” language, see the following excerpts:

Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere:
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precious pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydez were;
Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gaye
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurȝ gresse to grounde hit from me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle withouten spot. (1-12)

Pleasing pearl, pleasing to princes, so purely set in fair gold: out of the Orient, I dare say, I never found one equal her value. So round, so noble in any setting, so small, so smooth her sides were; wherever I judged bright jems I set her apart singularly. Alas! I lost her in a garden; it ran from me, through the grass, to the ground. Languishing, I was grievously wounded from the love-loss of that special pearl without a spot.

If you’re seeing a “?” anywhere, it’s probably the Middle English character “yogh,” which is not a regular character in most English fonts.

The More I frayste hyr fayre face,
Her fygure fyn quen I had fonte,
Suche gladande glory con to me glace
As lyttel byfore þerto watz wonte.
To calle hyr lyste con me enchace,
Bot baysment gef myn hert a brunt.
I seȝ hyr in so strange a place—
Such a burre myȝt make myn herte blunt. (169-76)

The more I sought her fair face, when I had perceived her fine form, such rejoicing glory began to glide to me as little before then was accustomed. Desire to call her began to provoke me, but confusion gave my heart a shock. I saw her in so strange a place—such a shock could stop my heart.

While Borroff’s translation is good, nothing is quite as good as the original. For example, line 41 refers to the “garden” where the pearl is buried as a “huyle,” which connotes both a grouping of plants and a grave mound. If you read Borroff’s introduction, you’ll note that the poem is packed with vicious word-play, especially surrounding the theme of death.

This handout only gives you a taste of this difficult Middle English dialect, which John Bowers and others believes to originate near Cheshire. If you want to see more, please see me.