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Vision or seeing as a method for knowing and understanding the world, in Pearl. Alexander Moss (

uk) For many religious in the Middle Ages, the universe was understood, in geocentric terms, as a hierarchy, or Scale of Perfection.1 At the apex of this scale was God: the perfect, omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe, while human beings, by virtue of their sensory awareness and reasoning intellect, have a dual condition that bestrides the sensible and intelligible realms. The principle of analogy which insists that all virtuous relationships must reflect the hierarchical relationship of God to His created universe, formed part of the dominant idealist weltanschauung, which saw all of the created universe as an idea in the omniscient mind of God. Thus, any method for knowing and understanding the world should, in the best possible case, progress hierarchically toward a revelation of divine experience. It is in these terms that the act of seeing with ones eyes is demoted in favour of the cultivation of a religious sensibility that allows the agent to perceive truth from within; to be able to see with the eyes of ones soul. I believe that it is this hierarchical-analogical model that provides Pearl with its epistemic narrative structure. I wish to proceed now to a thirteenth-century mystical tract that exemplifies this idealist epistemology, and that seems well placed to inform the close analysis of the cognitive and scopic strategies of the poem know as Pearl. The separation of modes of experience in this treatise is tripartite. In the model of Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274):
Man has three faculties. He addresses himself to three spiritual directions or outlooks (tres aspectus principales). The first of these employs animality or sensual perceptions (animalitas seu sensualitas) of the external world. The second, that of spirit (spiritus), permits mans entrance into himself. The third, or mind (mens), connotes his regard for self-transcending realitiesthe inclination of the soul toward that which is beyond itself; toward spiritual things and pure truth; in a word, toward God, the Logos, and Christ2

According to this trajectory, the gaze of the mystic should move inward, from the external world to an introspective sphere, and then upward, ascending to God and the superlunary, divine realm. Looking at the overall narrative of the dreamers spiritual pilgrimage in Pearl, it appears that this is the very trajectory he follows: from cogitation, (of received sense impressions in at erber grene (l.38), and his anguished memories as he wyschande at wele (l.14)) to the meditation prompted by the Pearl-Maiden in the debate section and climaxing with the apprehension of a pure truth in the brief contemplation of the New Jerusalem, and the problematically delightful procession of angels. The dream-vision experience enables the narrator to relinquish his sensory apparatus and so aspire to the absolute elevation of the soul.3 He achieves mystical union with the divine only for a tantalising ephemeral instant however, before his senses rush in and he is returned to the mundane, empirical world. The structuring technique, whereby the poems last line is linked, by concatenation and
1 2

The model is self-contained by the title of Walter Hiltons classic l.14thC vernacular treatise. Introduction to Bonaventure in The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XIII, Late Medieval Mysticism edited by Ray C. Petry, (London, 1957), pp.127-128 3 The phrase is used by Bonaventure in Itinerarium mentis in Deum translated by Father James in The Franciscan Vision, (London, 1937) extracted in Christian Classics, vol. XIII, p.141

alliteration, to its first, Ande precious perle3 vnto his pay / Perle plesaunte to prynces paye (ll.1212 / 1) demonstrates that the poems seemingly linear temporality in fact describes a perfect circle; an endless narrative band. The ineluctable problem facing the poet (how to resolve the paradox between the mystical experience, which by definition resists human understanding and relinquishes sensory process, and its expression in verse, which seeks to encapsulate and communicate such understanding, by recourse to the sensory processes of reading and listening) is reflected by the predicament of the iueler who is unable to transcend his animal sensuality, and is thus destined to repeat the cycle of temporary spiritual elevation and the return to mundane experience, over and again, for the course of his earthly life. Having sketched the overall scheme of the spiritual trajectory that the poem traces, I wish now to look in more detail at three significant scenes that demonstrate the respective stages in the tripartite definitions of mystical experience that I began by looking at, and by which the poems religious discourse would seem, ultimately, to be shaped. The end-stopped versification lends the poem a paratactic quality, which delineates the visual objects:
at spot of spyspe3 mot nede3 sprede, er such ryche3 to rot is runnen. Blome3, blayke and blvve and rede, er schyne3 ful schyr agayn e sunne. Flor and fryte may not be fede er it doun drof in molde3 dunne, For vch gresse mot grow of grayne3 dede; No whete elle3 to wone3 wonne. Of goude vche goude is ay bygonne; So semly a sde mo3t fayly not, at spryg and spyce3 vp ne sponne Of at precios perle wythouten spotte.


Here the dreamer proceeds to a consideration of the miracle of life, by a logical cognitive process that originates with the receipt of visual sense-impressions. The dreamers experience is the result of an act of cogitation: he proceeds by examining the world around him as a series of sense-data, in a manner that is informed by the painful memory of the pearl that he has lost. The principles of the external world (fecundity, regeneration and variation) are all suggested by a descriptive inventio of natural events in a concrete setting: such ryche3 to rot is runnenFor vche gresse mot grow of grayne3 dede; (ll.26 / 31). The method of universal analogy is then employed to deduce that the regeneration of new life (in the grass as a result of the death of the seed) is mirrored in the abstract ethical plane: Of goude vche goude is ay bygonne; (l.33). This entire train of thought is understood through the visible evidence of Gods creative superabundance, as exemplified by the focalized descriptive couplet in which Blome3, blayke and blvve and rede, / er schyne3 full schyr agayn e sunne. (ll.27-28). The analogical unity of this visual moment enacts the primary stage of St. Bonaventures hierarchy, in which in the range of sense perceptions one sees God mirrored in the external world not only per speculum, i.e., as the cause of this world, but also in speculo, or as present in this outer world.4

Christian Classics, vol. XIII, p.128

The dissolution of this external, empirically verifiable, sensible world transpires as the dreamer first swoons: I slode vpon a slepyng-sla3te (l.59) and the dissonance between knowledge as derived from sense-data, and spiritual knowledge is suggested:
Fro spot my spyry3t er sprang in space; My body on balke er bod in sweuen. My goste is gon in Gode3 grace In auenture er meruayle3 meuen.

(ll.61-64) It is a problematic feature of this poem that the intangible, imperceptible topoi of spiritual and intelligible knowledge (as opposed to sensible knowledge) are consistently represented by lavish visual descriptions of meruayle3, such as those of the rych rokke3 (l.68) and the crystal klyffe3 so cler of kynde (l.74). The technique clearly subserves the developing trajectories of ascent and elevation. The poetic imagery has to be seen to be somehow superior, as the dreamer ascends through the stages of his spiritual enlightenment; and yet this fundamentally misses the point that the ascent is not to do with enhancing the splendours of visual sense-impression, so much as relinquishing them altogether for a divine experience that does not depend upon a sensory manifestation for the revelation of its truth. As I will go on to suggest, this problem is never satisfactorily resolved, but the expression of this irresolution is itself pursued to startling effect. It certainly seems to be an ever-present concern for the poet, who frames the didactic intercession of the Pearl-Maiden in terms of ocular skepticism,5 significantly, in the debate section of the visio. This seems to be a direct attempt to work out the opposition between knowledge that is achieved through seeing, and the spiritual knowledge that is the product of inner meditation:
'Jueler', sayde at gemme clene, 'Wy borde 3e men? So madde 3e be! ou says ou trawe me in is dene, Bycawse ou may wyth y3en me se; I halde at iueler lyttel to prayse at leue3 wel at he se3 wyth y3e, And much to blame and vncortoyse, at loue3 noynk bot e hit sy3e; And at is a poynt of sorquydr3e, at vche god mon may euel byseme, To leue no tale be true to try3e, Bot at hys one skyl may dem.

(ll.289-90, 295-96, 301-03, 308-312) In this statement, then, there is an explicit description of the situatedness of the dreamer, in aevo. The Pearl-Maiden castigates him for the folly of relying on his senses, So madde 3e be! (l.290) and goes on to elucidate how his re worde3 are singularly Vnavysed: primarily it is a folly for him to believe that she has a material existence, solely because he is seeing her with his eyes (she is a divine agent now, and ordinarily imperceptible in material or sensible terms); she then deflates his nave belief in the permanence of their

see Sarah Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-poet: description and the act of perception, (University of Pennsylvania, 1991), p.16

shared space in the visionary world. This is a premonitory signal as to the dreamers ultimate inability to transcend his animal sensibilities; an inability that is the eventual determinant of his bathetic collapse back into the waking world of sense impressions and melancholic anguish at the remembrance of the loss of his perle to grounde strayd (l.1173). The mystical trajectory culminates in the vision of the New Jerusalem, that is granted the dreamer by the concession of the PearlMaiden, who is careful to define the boundaries of his experience: he is to remain a viewer, and will not be tolerated to fully participate. (ll.966-968) In the sequences which follow, the dreamer comes as close as he ever can to harnessing the faculty of his mens; that inclination of the soul toward that which is beyond itself; toward spiritual things and pure truth; in a word, toward God, the Logos, and Christ 6. Yet the sitaution is problematised when the reader considers just how far the vision has truly been a product of the dreamers spiritual discipline and religious fervour: it comes, to be sure, after the debate in which he has been made to see the error of his earthly ways, but it is, in effect, simply bestowed upon him by dint of gret fauor. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this final section of the visio, is the way in which the poem enacts the ultimate transcendent mode of which Hugh of St. Victor wrote: Contemplation is that acumen of intelligence which, keeping all things open to view, comprehends all with clear vision. 7 Of particular relevance here is the intensification of the concatenating technique in which the theme word mone, is deployed in the first and last lines of every stanza in the eighteenth book, and is, simultaneously plundered for the widest possible range of semantic possibilities. For example, it is used more than once for its visual property of luminous irradiation; when grouped with the sunne and both are overshadowed by the brightness of Such ly3t er lemed in alle e strate3 (ll.1043-1044) and again Watz bry3ter en boe e sunne and mone (l.1056). Elsewhere it is employed for its temporal signification, And renowle3 nvve in vche a mone (l.1080). Furthermore it is exploited for its geo-spatial (and spiritual-hierarchical) ordinance Anvnder mone so gret merwayle (l.1081). The intensive concatenation in this section, working together with the exploration of such a wide variety of interpretive possibilities powerfully evokes a sense of epistemic simultaneity that properly bespeaks the condition of the soul in a state of contemplation in Victorine terms: of perspicacious and free attention, diffused everywhere throughout the range of whatever may be explored.8 Yet the climactic intensity of the vision is immediately followed, bathetically, by a rapid reversion to mundane experience. For Sarah Stanbury, the dreamers desire to join his lyttel quene [is] the desire that fractures the boundary between time in aevo, the visionary moment, and time in the world of creatures [and] describes a crisis, dramatized through the technique of focalized description, that is centered in the experiences of allegiances torn between sensory truth and spiritual abstraction.9 By this definition, the
6 7

ou may not enter wythinne hys tor. Bot, of e Lombe I haue e aquylde For a sy3t erof, ur3 gret fauor.

Introduction to Bonaventure, Christian Classics, a/a Christian Classics, vol. XIII, p.90 8 Ibid 9 Stanbury, p.24

visionary moment is disrupted by an impulse of cupiditas, or earthly desire that pulls the human agent down from the perfect apprehension of all-encompassing caritas, or pure, divine love. But it seems equally significant to point to the sensory overload with which the dreamer is afflicted in the moments before he returns to the erbere. Indeed, as I suggested earlier, the principal problem with this poem, as an exploration of mystical experience, is its overreliance on the technique of visual description, and sensory description per se, in order to describe a progression that, by definition, must lead the participant into an arena of imperceptible phenomena. Stanbury goes on to praise the originality of the protracted description in Pearl, which details both the exterior construction of the City and its interior space[and that] visualizes a place and an event that is most often understood in medieval scriptural exegesis to reflect a spiritual ideal10 but is seemingly reluctant to confront the impropriety of the dreamers sensory overload in a moment that is meant to represent the culmination of a process of complete sublimation to the abstract, mental apprehension of divine knowledge. The subordination of this nonsensible experience to the lavish employment of highly specific visual detail reflects the simultaneous failure, both of the poet, and of his dreamer, to transcend the necessity of their sensory bases for understanding. The genuine mystical experience is something that cannot be understood in material or sensible terms, but only through the abnegation of those very frames of reference:
Do thou, O friend, push on boldly to the mystic vision, abandon the work of the senses and the operation of the reasoning faculty, leave aside all things visible and invisible, being and nonbeing, and cleave as far as possible, and imperceptibly, to the unity of Him who transcends all essences and all knowledge. In this absolute elevation of the soul, forgetting all created things and liberated from them, thou shalt rise above thyself and beyond all creation to find thyself within the shaft of light that flashes out from the divine, mysterious darkness.11

It is the dreamers inability to relinquish the epistemic apparatus of his sensory nature that renders him susceptible to the Delyt me drof in y3e and ere; (l.1153) and thus unstates his perfect apprehension of the New Jerusalem. The high and pathetic price he must pay for this all-too human weakness is to be afflicted by the condition of melancholia, in an inescapable cycle, for the remainder of his earthly days.

Andrew, Malcom, and Ronald Waldron (eds.), The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, (London, 1978)
10 11

Ibid, pp.24-25 Bonaventure, Itinerarium, Ibid, p.140

Kruger, Steven F., Dreaming in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge, 1992) Padgett-Hamilton, Margery, The Meaning of the Middle English Pearl in PMLA, LXX, (1955), 805-24 Petry, Ray C., (ed.) The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XIII, Late Medieval Mysticism (London, 1957) Stanbury, Sarah, Seeing the Gawain-poet: description and the act of perception, (University of Pennsylvania, 1991) Vantuono, William (ed. and trans.), Pearl, (Notre Dame, 1995) The Created Universe Understood by Analogy at E-Text of Pearl at id=AnoPear&images=images/modeng&data=/lv1/Archive/mideng-parsed&tag=public