On First Looking into Gollancz’s Pearl


(Yes, I realise the title isn’t as mellifluous as its inspiration, but then I’m no stout Cortez.)

I read Pearl for the first time in the autumn semester of 2008 in Sarah Stanbury’s TEAMS edition as part of Jamie Fumo’s excellent Dream Visions course at McGill. (The course was life-changing for me, but more on that at a later date.) This was my first full-and-proper encounter with the poem; I’d read about it here and there, most memorably in Tom Shippey’s Tolkien: Author of the Century, where he discusses the similarities between the earthly paradise that the mourner-dreamer visits and Lothlórien—between two rivers, the otherworldly colours, the freshness of the place, the timelessness. (Shippey is also interested in the parallels between the Pearl-poet and Tolkien as writers from the West Midlands, but more on that too, perhaps, at a later date.) In Stanbury’s introduction—a wonderful initiation for readers coming to this difficult text for the first time—we’re given an overview of the critical readings and, briefly, the editorial history of the poem. As part of this discussion, she explains that her own editorial practice follows that of Sir Israel Gollancz (1891, rev. 1897; 2nd ed. 1921) rather than Vantuono (1984): she aims at emendation to restore a generally regular metre where supposed scribal change or error has marred it. Whereas the plupart of Pearl  scholars today use Andrew & Waldron’s 1979 edition, I prefer E.V. Gordon’s posthumous 1953 edition and use it as my base text in all my work on this best of poems. All this to say that, in contemporary Pearl studies, at least where the ‘poem itself’ is concerned, Gollancz’s book does not come up too terribly often.

When most latter-day Pearl scholars deal with Gollancz, I reckon they think of one of the two giants of the great Allegory-or-Elegy debate, with Schofield as the Titan of Allegorisis. This Great Debate was, thankfully, settled some time ago, and the Gollanczian party won out, though not because of the accuracy of Sir Israel’s insistent autobiographical argument. (More on this below, to be sure.) While the Gollancz edition has been superseded, there are still valuable grains to be gleaned from it. Too frequently, we read about old editions and the arguments advanced in their introductions or notes, maybe at best turning to the specific pages to check a citation. Perhaps more often, trusting the recent editor to have got it right, we plug in the (usually dismissive if not derogatory—how benighted, our forebears!) quotation or citation and move on. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. However, as part of my recent work on Pearl and Holy Name devotion and an ongoing project on overlooked translations of Pearl, I recently picked up Gollancz’s 1921 2nd edition of Pearl. (I also consulted the 1891 first edition online, which you can access here. I quote from the 2nd edition, except where noted.) I didn’t go through the whole volume. Instead, I read the introduction, finding a few items of real use for both projects, and then turned to the appendix, Boccaccio’s Olympia. What follows here are some reflections on what I found there, both of academic and human (or humanistic or humanising) interest.

(Gollancz himself is a fascinating figure in early Medieval Studies. It should not be overlooked, I think, that, in a profession dominated by protestant men of Anglo-Scots-Irish descent, he was the son of a London rabbi. You can read his obituary in the London Times here.)

One of the pieces of joy in Gollancz’s edition is the frontispiece which the editor had done. He apparently requested or inspired (or, if one parses the Victorian “induce” [xxx] correctly, needled and commissioned) his dear friend William Holman Hunt, the pre-Raphaelite artist, to produce a silverpoint illustration of the Pearl-maiden standing on her side of the river with the New Jerusalem seen in the distance. The illustration was produced for the 1891 first edition. The original image was sold in 2010 for £74,000 and again at Christie’s in 2012 for over £91,000, including Mrs. Edith Holman Hunt’s signed copy of the first edition. You can read about the history of the artwork here. And for your viewing pleasure  (note the double rainbow):


Holman Hunt Pearl

This is not the only gem of Victorian England to grace the edition, however. Sir Israel also solicited a prefatory quatrain from the Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then in the penultimate year of his life. It reads:





In all the editions (first, revised, and second) this quatrain is printed in ALLCAPS, and I suspect that the consequent epitaphic effect is no doubt intended. There is, of course, a tension between the polished stone gleaming in the “lyric coronet”, now safe from that moul that marreȝ a myry iuele, and the graven quality of the words.

Like many other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Pearl scholars—Schofield, Osgood, Garrett, and Wrenn—Gollancz makes sweeping gestures to English literary history in his discussion of the poem, invoking the would-be Great Masters of Yesteryear. (Or yesterday, in the case of Tennyson.) There is, as I mentioned above, the effort to cast the anonymous dream vision as a proto-In Memoriam. Likewise, he invokes Spenserian heroic portrayal as a parallel to the Pearl-poet’s form of romance candour. (In one essay, Wrenn suggests the Elizabethan poet had in fact read SGGK.) What is perhaps the most striking about Gollancz’s plotting of the Pearl-poet on the line of what he calls “the evolution of modern English poetry” (1891; xi) is his deliberate capital-R Romanticising of the man behind the Cotton Nero poems. As part of the fanciful biography that he provides, Gollancz imagines a young Pearl-poet clambering over rocks on the Cumbrian shore and contemplating the wild sea; he suggests that “like a later and greater poet, he must already as a youth have felt the subtle spell of Nature’s varying aspects in those West Midland parts; he too loved to contemplate even in his childhood,

‘. . . Presences of Nature in the sky

And on the earth! . . . Visions of the hills

And souls of lonely places!’

Wordsworth’s country may perhaps justly claim our poet as one of its sons” (xli). Imagine The Prelude in alliterative long line!

The “Imaginary Biography,” which runs nearly five and a half pages (xl-xlvi), is the longest section of the Introduction. Right or wrong (note: it’s wrong), it forms the backbone of Gollancz’s argument contra Schofield’s allegorical reading and so informs the Pearl-as-elegy reading that underpins so much modern criticism. Gollancz is no fool; he acknowledges that he is engaging in speculation.

But though he be nameless, the poet’s personality is so vividly impressed on his work that one may be forgiven the somewhat hazardous task of attempting to evolve an account of his earlier life from mere conjecture and inference. Such an attempt, though fanciful, at all events serves to link together certain facts and impressions, and with this reservation cannot but prove helpful. If documentary evidence is ever discovered, hypothetical conjecture will no doubt be put to a very severe test. (xl-xli)

Now, even without the discovery of hard documentary evidence confirming the identity of the Pearl-poet, I think we can say that Gollancz’s conjectures can be found to be severely wanting. Nevertheless, as many wise voices (Alexandra Gillespie, Ann Meyer, me) have argued, such speculation is still a worthwhile undertaking: it exercises the imagination and opens criticism to fresh considerations; the possibilities it puts forward are just as valuable to future scholarship once they are no longer considered viable; it is lively and it is fun (and we need more of that).

As with any biography, real or imagined, there are highs and lows in the one Gollancz creates for the poet. He sees him as a contemporary of, but superior to (!), Chaucer, born around 1340 or so and, as I’ve alluded to above, growing up further north than more-recent, linguistic scholarship has confirmed: Gollancz has the poet as a native of Lancashire, just south of the Tweed, rather than a son of the Cheshire-Staffordshire border region. Wherever the boy grew up, the biographer places him in a fine home to which his father was attached, “amid the gay scenes that brightened life in some great castle” (xli). This upbringing, which would accord with the accounts found in studies such as Richard Firth Green’s Poets and Princepleasers, is used to explain his extensive knowledge of courtly culture, from the ins-and-outs of the hunt to his deep reading of secular literature.

Gollancz’s biography stands at odds with most modern considerations of the poet for its insistence that he was a layman:

[T]he intensely religious spirit of the poems, together with the knowledge they undoubtedly display of Holy Writ, makes it probable that the youth may have been destined for the service of the Church. He must have studied sacred and profane literature at some monastic school, or at one of the universities. It is evident that theology and scholasticism had formed an important part of his education. But the author of ‘Pearl’ was certainly no priest. (xlii)

The reason behind Gollancz’s insistence, of course, is his ardent belief that the poem is autobiographical, that “[h]is grief found expression in verse” (xliv). (To explain the daughter, Gollancz needs to provide the poet with a wife, which he does. The poet apparently married a few years before he penned Sir Gawain. “[H]is wedded life was unhappy; the object of his love had disappointed him, and had perhaps proved unfaithful” [xliii]. The poet, we’re told, is speaking through Gawain in the misogynistic tirade at the Green Chapel. Also, this marital disappointment explains the omission of the girl’s mother from Pearl [see xliii-xliv, n. 1] and, I might add, why the Pearl-maiden is said to be closer to the mourner þen aunte or nece.) The autobiographical interpretation is now rightfully passé. And even the death of any specific patron’s loved one is no longer deemed a necessary condition for the poem. As Tolkien writes, “even a feigned elegy is an elegy.” But Gollancz’s insistence that the Pearl-poet was a layman, perhaps one with university or clerical training, is not so far from some latter-day arguments. In the nearly nine decades since since Gollancz died, scholars have advanced many arguments wherein the poet is a secular figure, even a noble one: Michael Bennett put forward Sir John Stanley as the author of Sir Gawain; Ann Meyer posits Gloucestershire links with the Despensers and Newtons; Simone d’Ardenne, Tolkien’s one-time student, first suggested a connexion with the Green Count of Savoy; and there are the various arguments for John or Hugh Massey, John Donne, and the clerks of the Duke of Clarence, Roger Mortimer, or an ecclesiastical court.

Following the lengthy biography, Gollancz enters into another bit of speculation, one that is perhaps slightly less fanciful than the Wordsworthian childhood romp or the trouble in paradise of the previous section. Here, we get an argument for Chaucer’s friend, the “philosophical” Ralph Strode, as the author of the poems in the Pearl manuscript. This theory, so far as I can tell, originates with Gollancz. (The editor was, it seems, something of a Strode fanboy; he also wrote the philosopher’s entry for the DNB.) The theory is based largely on the now-familiar Merton catalogue entry that Leland discovered: “Radulphus Strode, nobilis poeta fuit et versificavit librum elegiacam vocatum Phantasma Radulphi.” This Phantasma is of course lost, but it is tempting to want to believe Gollancz here—especially for a guy who is working on a book tentatively titled Elegiac Dream Visions. Gollancz draws on elements of Strode’s (reported) biography to link him to the Pearl-poet’s poems—an Oxford-educated man who debated Wyclif, widely travelled on the Continent and in the Holy Land, and, if the Two Strodes Theory is false, a London-dweller who could have witnessed the return of the Feast of St Erkenwald—but he also acknowledges the limits of such speculation: the Ralph Strode who lived in London died in 1387, which is only a year after the Erkenwald revival and, moreover, shortens the date range for the Cotton Nero poems considerably; little to nothing is known of Strode’s early life, including where he came from. Still, Gollancz optimistically plays into the gaps and closes his Strodian speculation with a deft-if-whimsical move, linking Chaucer’s philosopher friend back to the Romantic figure he’d so imaginatively crafted: “The question still remains unanswered,

‘           . . . Who and what he was—

The transitory Being that beheld

This Vision; when and where and how he lived.’”

Beside indulging in fin-de-siècle academese and the other small delights found in the edition, one of the best rewards of turning to Gollancz is reading Boccaccio’s Olympia, which the editor appends to his 1921 edition. He had issued a stand-alone volume of his translation in 1913. There is very little in the way of commentary, except to explain the allegorical significance of the speakers in the eclogue and to give some critical and publishing history for the poem. In terms of modern Pearl criticism, it was Schofield who first argued for Boccaccio’s Latin elegiac vision as a direct source for the Middle English poem in 1904, which he was of course using to push his non-autobiographical, pure-allegory reading—all this despite Olympia being very much an autobiographical poem. Boccaccio wrote it after the death of his daughter Violante c. 1358. Gollancz, ever against Schofield (whom he nevertheless calls a dear friend), does not accept that the Pearl-poet knew of Boccaccio’s poem and instead argues that the parallels in the two works are due to “the poets’ common knowledge, ideas, and belief” (244). I don’t know enough about the circulation of Boccaccio in England in the late-fourteenth century to really weigh in on this, but we do know that Chaucer was reading and translating the Teseida and Il Filostrato in the early to mid-1380s, so I don’t see why an eclogue or two shouldn’t have been circulating as well.

My Latin is admittedly not spectacular, but it’s good enough to note that Gollancz’s translation is heavy-handed in a number of places. In his short introduction, he tries to dismiss one of the parallels Schofield makes between the poems by laughing it off as mistranslation. Schofield had identified the lovely arboreal setting of both visions as an important theme—but, then, where else does an eclogue take place?—but Gollancz isn’t having any of it: he writes that when Schofield says that “the poet [read: ‘shepherd’, ‘singer’, or ‘speaker’] . . . falls asleep on the ground in a leafy arbour” the American scholar is clearly misinterpreting ex molli cespite recumbans, for, Sir Israel assures us, the phrase refers to “a soft pillow, and not the ground” (245). A pillow stuffed with horsefeathers, Izzy! This reading, which leads, in Gollancz’s translation, to Silvius (the Boccaccio figure) giving his shepherd underlings orders “from downy bed”, completely ignores dozens of lines both before and after in which birds sing and flutter from tree to tree, the setting sun streaks the sky and pours through chinks in the canopy, and the shepherds’ hound Lycos scampers through the underbrush. What is more, our translator elsewhere obscures meaning to accord with this nonsensical bedroom setting: he has Silvius send his servant after the dog, “Therapon, do thou unbar the door!”, which, though subtle, again suggests an indoor setting and is not at all in line with stabuli tu solve repagula nostri, clearly indicative of a sheepfold (because shepherds, because eclogue).

As the brief quotation above might suggest, Gollancz’s translation is antiquated, deliberately no doubt, but seems even more so 105 years later. Direct influence or no, I’d like to put Olympia in conversation with Pearl in class, but I will certainly use a more modern translation. (Janet Smarr’s 1987 text appears to be the go-to.) Pace Gollancz, it offers many interesting parallels to Pearl and in a much more economic package: the Latin runs to a total of 285 lines. Olympia’s explanation of her heavenly reward, which is couched in a curious syncretic Classical allegory where Pallas is the Virgin and the self-sacrificing Athenian king Codrus is Christ, reads like a combination of one of the Pearl-maiden’s early efforts to help her father and the climactic vision of salvific blood pouring out of the Lamb and running through the streets of the New Jerusalem. The apocalyptic elders are there, too, in the guise of crownèd satyrs singing their new song.

Quite a lot going on, to be sure, and I think there’s plenty of exploring of the allusions and parallels to be done—both in the classroom and on the page. I will confess that Boccaccio’s Olympia is, like too much else in the orbit of Pearl, one of those things I’d read about in introductions, articles, and footnotes but had never read, and I suspect this might be the case for many others. I’m very much the richer for having now done so, and I think that my scholarship of Pearl will be improved, too. If you haven’t read it, please do; I’d love to talk about it. (The Smarr translation may be hard to find: it’s unavailable on Amazon and AbeBooks; the U of T and McGill each have a copy or two, but smaller university libraries like Regina and Acadia don’t have it. You might be stuck with Gollancz or a newer, less-scholarly but likely not so heavy-handed one such as David Slavitt’s.)

Gollancz includes excerpts of two letters by Boccaccio alongside his translation. One is from a letter to Petrarch about a visit the younger poet paid to the laureate’s daughter, Francesca, at Venice where he met Petrarch’s granddaughter. Boccaccio tells how delighted he was with the little girl, how charming and sweet she was, and how much she reminds him of his deceased daughter (he does not name Violante):

Your little Eletta is the very image of my lost one. She has the same laugh, the same joyous eyes, the same bearing and gait. . . . Had their dialect been the same, they would have spoken the same words—the same simple artless words. . . . Ah me! How often, while I . . . listened to her sweet prattle did the memory of the little daughter reft from me bring tears to my eyes! How often, when no one observed, did I sigh my tears away! (253, 255)

The touching story here is complemented by the second, shorter epistolary excerpt in which Boccaccio explains to Martin de Signa that his fourteenth eclogue is written about his departed daughter, whom he does identify by name. The autobiographical aspect of Boccaccio’s work—the Freudian pun is very much intended here—no doubt appealed to Gollancz, but I think it is worth considering alongside Pearl, even when we discount that the poet was himself a grieving father, for it shows the consoling power that the making of such texts can hold.

Given what we know of Gollancz’s affection for children, I think it quite likely that he was moved by Boccaccio’s personal grief and his poetic efforts to mourn. I think, further, that his attraction to Pearl (stemming in part from his assumption and subsequent insistence that the poem was autobiographical) flowed from a corresponding sympathy. He really felt these poems and was moved by them. If his critical writing isn’t enough to demonstrate this—those with a cynical bent can’t help but smirk at some of his phrases—then one page from his 1921 edition might do so. Between his short introduction to Olympia and Boccaccio’s letters, Gollancz includes a sonnet:


Olympian! From thy laurel that ne’er fades

A tender leaf athwart our pathway falls,

And, fragrant with sweet violet, recalls

The dearest blossom in thy love-lit glades.


Far from thy Roses, with desire imbrued,

Far from thy Garden, where with wanton lays

Plague-haunted dames and gallants sped their days,

A floweret all too frail thy tears bedew’d.


Not Fiammetta, but thy angel-child

Led thee foot-sore the Hill-top to ascend,

The high Olympus of the undefiled.


There Beatrice on Violante smiled,

And told of fair Eletta, thy child-friend,

And played with Pleasant Pearl, so wise and mild.



This might not be superb poetry, but it comes from a place of genuine feeling and honest response. I remain curious about the unnamed children, standing just out of view, that Gollancz may have had in mind as he read Pearl, worked on his edition and translations, or penned the lines above. More importantly, the sonnet is a counterpoint to so much dry and lifeless criticism, and it would be a relief to see a bit more of this from time to time. Like speculation, it’s good for the mind, it’s lively, and it’s a source of joy.

2 thoughts on “On First Looking into Gollancz’s Pearl

  1. Really enjoyed this – must have a look for this edition. So much to be learned from older editions. Feeling inspired to finally read Olympia, which I’ve always been intending to do! Wasn’t aware of the stunning frontispiece – fab stuff.


    • Thanks very much! Olympia is worth a read, to be sure. As for the frontispiece and Gollancz’s marshalling of Victorian hot-sellers more generally, I’ll post something more on his use of Tennyson (and perhaps also Holman Hunt) in a few days; I cut a considerable chunk of that off to make this post more manageable. (Thanks again for ploughing through all of it!)

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s