The Magic of Medieval Poetry – Simon Armitage Translating Pearl

Medieval Poem PearlSpeaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Simon Armitage admitted that, when translating the Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, someone literally had to take it off him, before he would allow it to be finished. “Translation is addictive,” he explained, “and much easier than writing your own poetry, because you can concentrate on it for longer, and it’s far less open-ended”. He added that “working with poets from the past is like tracing family members or finding ancestors; it’s like harmonising, like singing along to the Beatles in the car, two voices together.”   

Pearl is another anonymous Medieval poem, written in Middle English. Armitage described it as “the story of a dreamer who has lost his pearl”. The ‘pearl’ is the man’s daughter, who died as a young child, but it is also a symbol of what we most treasure, and has religious significance too. Armitage described it as “a poem of bereavement and consolation” which, though over 600 years old, is touching and universal in its themes.

Direct Translation vs. Poetic Effect

pearlThe original poem has a set rhyme scheme, which Armitage decided, early on, not to attempt. “It would have been too forced”, he explained. Instead, he focused on translating the meaning, then using rhymes and half rhymes where they fitted naturally, as well as echoing the other literary devices used in the original, such as concatenation and alliteration. This had a rather unusual effect on his own conversation, as he found himself unwilling to speak without using alliteration.

I found the translation immensely satisfying to read. Some lines did seem a bit discordant, and I would rather have had a stronger emphasis on rhythm than the direct meaning of the text in parts, but much of it flowed beautifully, and I was able to read it at a brisk pace:

“Beautiful pearl that would please a prince,

fit to be mounted in finest gold,

I say for certain that in all the East

her precious equal I never found.”

I also really enjoyed the concatenation, where a word from the final line of one stanza is repeated in the first line of the next, and so on, throughout each section (something you don’t often come across in modern poetry). It sounds good, but also helps you to keep concentration whilst reading.

What all poems are about…

The poem centres around a scene in which the man sees a beatific vision of his daughter as a grown woman. She tells him that she is in heaven, and he struggles to believe her, doubting how someone who died at such a young age could have made it to heaven so easily. She then attempts to persuade him that it is true, using biblical arguments from parables and showing him a vision of the New Jerusalem, taken from Revelation.

Armitage explained that, while he personally disagrees with the message of the poem, it still resonates, dealing with the universal theme of grief. “No matter where you stand on the religious debate, the chances are that you will suffer bereavement and loss, and you will ask what that means,” he added, “that is what this poem is about and, ultimately, what all poems are about”.

The key argument of the poem (and the reason for writing) seems to be in order to persuade the reader (and the protagonist) that Jesus’ death and resurrection are enough to save anyone, even if they die young:

“For sinners He set His innocence aside

though He Himself had never sinned.

For us He was tortured, twisted and torn

then stretched and broken across a beam.”

In this way, it deals with the universal question of human suffering and is as relevant now as it would have been 600 years ago. Pearl is a beautiful, well-structured, rhythmic poem which has been translated with clarity and verve. It is theatrical and bright, and well worth a read.

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3 thoughts on “The Magic of Medieval Poetry – Simon Armitage Translating Pearl

  1. Pingback: Lit Fest Highlights of 2016

  2. I think that to do a translation you need to be familiar with the language from which you are translating and the language into which you are translating. I don’t believe Simon Armitage’s ‘translations’ qualify in this sense, but are just re-workings of other people’s translations – in the case of ‘Gawain’, the translations of genuine Middle English scholars like Tolkien, Sisam and Gordon. I don’t trust Armitage’s familiarity with Middle English, nor do I accept spurious claims by some of his promoters that his Marsden origins give him a special kinship with the distinctive Middle English dialect of North East Cheshire/Staffordshire in which ‘Gawain’ is written. Armitage claims to have translated Homer, but how familiar is he with Ancient Greek? Not that I see any harm whatsoever in re-working other people’s translations, but you have to be honest and say that’s what they are, and I’m afraid claiming these works as translations is clearly not honest.
    Simon Armitage gets away with this kind of fraud because he is allowed to by the lack of critical appreciation that is characteristic of the times. ‘Anything goes’, and the image of ‘the poet’ is more important than what’s actually written. It would never have happened in the days of I. A. Richards or Robert Graves or Dr. Johnson! The University of Sheffield’s Firth Hall has a wall currently graced by one of Armitage’s poems. It is titled ‘Air’, and the important first line begins, ‘I write of air…’. Well, I think if a poem is titled, ‘Air’, most readers can be credited with sufficient intelligence not to need telling that the author is writing of air! That’s almost an entire line wasted on a rather pompous announcement! Yet the author of this line has recently had the effrontery to complain about Bob Dylan being offered the Nobel Prize for Literature, implying that a child could have written songs like ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Visions of Johanna’, ‘Isis’, ‘Black Diamond Bay’, ‘No Time to Think’, ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’. He also claims that songs can’t be poems, something with which the Elizabethans and poets like Burns might have disagreed. I think Simon Armitage would be better advised to complain about his own elevation to the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, but I don’t think it’ll happen. Instead he’ll probably become the next Poet Laureate, in which case he should bear in mind what the Laureateship has done to poets in the past, notably Ted Hughes, who wrote one of the most unintentionally comic books of verse that’s ever been written – ‘A Rain Charm for the Duchy’!

    • Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. Simon Armitage did acknowledge the previous translations of people like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as essential “gateposts” for his own work, I just couldn’t include everything in my post or it would have been too long. I also happen to agree with him about songs not being poetry – there is a blurry dividing line of course, but personally I can’t ever see the lyrics of a song as poetry – they are lyrics which are written to go alongside music. Poetry stands alone. You can see more of what Simon Armitage said about Bob Dylan at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on my post about it –

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