The Manifold Singularity of Pearl
Author(s)Bahr, Arthur W.
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I argue that the Middle English Pearl, which survives in just one manuscript, gains literary value from this material uniqueness. By blurring the distinction between scribe and author, this single-manuscript text invites unexpected modes of literary analysis. Physical singularity thus creates wide-ranging, enduring, and in that sense “manifold” interpretive potential. My argument proceeds in three parts. First, I demonstrate that the tension between uniqueness and multiplicity underwrites the poem’s narrative drama and complex lexicon of value; my subsequent investigations are therefore grounded in the concerns of the text itself. I then present close readings of three irregularities in the poem’s highly wrought form. Because we have no other manuscripts to use for comparison, we cannot conclusively designate these irregularities as either scribal error or authorial innovation; this uncertainty creates uncanny resemblances between Dreamer and reader, Pearl-Maiden and Pearl-manuscript. Finally, I analyze modern editorial manipulation of a single contested letter in the manuscript, arguing that Pearl’s physical uniqueness makes this instance of the literal playful, elusive, and metaphorical. These readings show how interpretive energy can emerge from unknowable historical contingency; this most self-consciously belletristic and beautiful poem thus brilliantly undermines an essentialist understanding of the literary.
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Humanities. Literature Section; Massachusetts Institute of Technology. School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Johns Hopkins University Press
Bahr, Arthur. "The Manifold Singularity of Pearl." ELH 82.3 (Fall 2015): 729-758. © 2015 The Johns Hopkins University Press
Final published version