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.