Medieval readers loved metaphor. The whole phenomenon of courtly love and romance poetry was built on allegory as a way of giving substance to otherwise abstract virtues like love, courage or humility. The late fourteenth century poem, Pearl, places the jewel at the centre of the narrative as the embodiment of purity and preciousness. In the poem it is used variously to signify the death of a child, immortality, celestial wisdom. The storyline concerns a bereaved father who dreams of a vision of a pearlescent maiden who comforts him with the news that his “pearl”, the infant, is among the saved with whom he can be reunited after death. By the end of the poem, the dreamer willingly commits his “pearl” to heaven and gains peace.
The poet reinforces the metaphor with a pen picture of the pearly maiden, her dress entirely covered in pearls and wearing a crown of pure white pearl. Heaven itself is likened to the pearl, where every gate is made of a single, unfading pearl. The advice of the maiden to the dreamer is that a matchless pearl can help him secure his own entrance into heaven. It’s a moving piece, written at a time when infant mortality would have been an all-too-frequent part of daily life and a reminder that even when death was so prevalent, the pain of loss needed to be assuaged with a vision of hope embedded in light and lustre.
Over 600 years later, we still hear the echoes of these allegories today in notions of modern day chivalry or the associations attached to a single strand of pearls, whether they are paired up with a prom dress, bridal gown or a leather jacket.