Josephine Livingstone at The New Yorker:
The medieval poem “Pearl” was written by someone whose identity we do not know, and is set mostly within a dream. Neither of these facts is unusual in medieval poetry. Authorship is often unclear for works from that period, and dreams were popular as literary devices: then, as now, dreams allow poets to illustrate ideas that might otherwise be inexpressible. The “Pearl” poet used the technique to account for an experience that still seems impossible to describe—the loss of a child.
In the poem, the narrator visits the spot where a pearl once slipped from his grasp and got lost among “Gilofre, gyngure, & gromylyoune, / & pyonys powdered ay bytwene” (“ginger, gromwell, and gillyflower / with peonies scattered in between”). Swooning into unconsciousness, he comes to in a dream, in a place he has never been before, where cliffs split the sky (“ther klyfez cleven”). Across a river, he sees his pearl again, but now the “perle” is no mere thing—she is a young girl, richly arrayed in an elaborate outfit covered in pearls. Pearl also seems to be her name, or at least it is how the man addresses her: “ ‘O perle,’ quod I . . . ‘Art thou my perle?’ ” In reply, she calls him a jeweller, and he refers to her as a gem (“ ‘Jueler,’ sayde that gemme clene”).