Discuss the idea of virtue and the ‘endless figure’ in the works of the Pearl-poet Essay

Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as ‘a certain fullness of ability, measured by a perfect fitness to act.’ This notion of a perfect ability is one of the primary concerns of the Pearl-poet, particularly in a moral sense. The idea of a moral completeness is central to all four texts: Pearl, Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Moral virtues require further definition:

Moral virtue is primarily a disposition to choose well, which involves intending a goal (the role of the moral virtue) and picking out the means (the role of prudence…Moral virtue then is a disposition to choose a balanced course of action such as a prudent man’s reason would decide is right.1

Aquinas distinguished between virtues which are innate and God-given, and those which require man’s will in order to be achieved. The words ‘choose well’ indicate the freedom man has to decide the course of action he will take. The Pearl-poet’s works reveal a preoccupation with the fate of the individual: Jonah in Patience, the Dreamer in Pearl and Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and their moral condition. In each case there is a progression in terms of the character’s own moral awareness from the beginning of the tale to the end, although this progression is accompanied by a curious sense of circular movement, a return to the beginning.

This circular or endless movement is embodied in the poet’s two most important symbols: the pentangle ‘the endeles knot’ (Gawain, 630) and the pearl ‘the endelez rounde’ (Pearl, 738). Both of these represent completeness, perfection and virtue, and are bound up in the wider symbolic functions of the works as a whole. The pentangle, for instance, is the most obvious example of the poet’s numerical fascination, and especially his focus on the number five. The fivefold virtues of the pentangle (and Gawain’s embodiment of them) are enumerated thus:

Fyrst he watz funden faulez in his fyue wyttez

And efte fayled neuer the freke in his fyue fyngres

And alle his afyaunce vpon folde watz in the fyue woundez

That Cryst kagt on the croys, as the Crede Tellez

And queresoeuer thys mon in melly watz stad,

His thro thoght watz in that, thurgh alle other thyngez

That the hende Heuen Quene had of hir Chylde….

The fyft fyue that I finde that frek vsed

Watz fraunchyse and felaghschyp forbe al thing

His clannes and his cortayse croked were neuer,

And pite, that passez alle poyntez- thyse pure fyue.

(Gawain 640-54)

The five senses and the five fingers are ‘fives-within-fives’, adding to the sense of endlessness or repetition within the symbol. The emphasis is meant to be on the equality of the virtues within the pentangle: how the adherence to each one is bound up in its relation to the others, the implication being that falling down on one virtue may result in the unravelling of the pentangle altogether. It is interesting however that the last line quoted ‘And pite, that passez alle poyntez’ is somewhat ambiguous. ‘Poyntez’ can mean ‘virtue, quality’ as well as ‘point’, perhaps implying that ‘cortayse’ is the most important or significant of the five, a premise which would destroy the entire symbol.

This proves to be meaningful in terms of the adventure of Gawain in that his strict adherence to ‘cortayse’ brings him very close to endangering the other virtues of the pentangle at various times in the tale. The first mention of his renowned courtesy is at the beginning, when he will not rise from the table to come to Arthur’s aid in accepting the Green Knight’s challenge for fear of being discourteous to Guinevere: ‘Wolde ye, worthilych lorde’, quoth Gawain to the kyng/ Bid me boche fro this benche and stoned by yow there…And that my legge lady lyke not ille…’ (343-6). Although it could be argued that there is no real urgency required here on the part of Gawain, the Green Knight’s challenge nevertheless swings in the balance between a game and a threat. Later in Bertilak’s castle, Gawain’s dilemmas become more serious as he is tempted by the ‘luflych lady’:

Such semblaunt to that segge semly ho made

Wyth still stolen countenaunce, that stalworth to plese,

That al forwondered watz the wyche and wroth with hymseluen,

Bot he nolde not for his nurture nurne hir agaynez

Bot dalt with hir al in daynte, how-se-euer the dede turned


(Gawain, 1658-63)

Although his actions could possibly be misconstrued, Gawain risks this in order to remain true to his ‘cortayse’ and ‘nurture’ or good-breeding. Despite the supposed equality of the virtues, Gawain seems intent on maintaining his courtesy almost at any cost. When the lady first visits his room Gawain feigns sleep- surely this dissembling does not accord with ideas of ‘trawthe’? Aquinas points out the necessity of ‘balance’ in the virtues, and Gawain struggles to maintain all the virtues equally in the face of such temptation: ‘He cared for his cortaysye, lest craythen he were/ And more for his meschef if he schulde make synne/ And be traytor to that tolke that that telde acht’ (1773-5). The lady pushes him so near the limits of his courtesy that he is almost forced into making a choice between the two virtues, ‘cortaysye’ and ‘trowthe’.

Interestingly, Aquinas imagines this sense of balance and equality as a unified organism:

Virtues grow all together, proportionately like a man’s fingers, sharing the one growth of prudence which makes virtue virtue. But because the inclinations which are the material for virtue are not necessarily equal, and vary with temperament, practice and grace, one saint is praised for one virtue and another for another.2

The choice of a man’s fingers as a metaphor for virtue echoes the five pentads of the pentangle, indeed, one of the pentangle’s virtues is the infallibility of Gawain’s five fingers. Aquinas notes that while, in theory, the virtues are equal, differing inclinations can result in different virtues being emphasised. We can see this quality in Gawain. Courtesy could be seen as the most artificial or constructed of the virtues, in its secular function at least.

It is dependent largely on social considerations and outward appearances. Laura Hubbard Loomis describes talk in Gawain as ‘an art’ and comments that ‘the conversations between Gawain and the lady suggest the advances and retreats of a courtly dance.’3 To achieve perfect courtesy it certainly seems necessary to be very skilled, but I am unsure whether goodness and virtue is truly a part of that.

In Pearl however, we see the sacred incarnation of courtesy. Each of the five virtues had a secular and sacred counterpart, and whereas secular courtesy seems to be synonymous with a kind of emphatic and delicate social politeness, heavenly courtesy is associated with divine graciousness. Fitt VIII is circles round the virtue of courtesy, describing Mary as ‘the quen of courtaysye’. (Perhaps this association is why Gawain is especially linked with Mary: when he is being tempted by the lady ‘Gret perile bitwene hem stod/ Nif Mare of hir knight mynne (1768-9)). The poet refers to St Paul, saying that through courtesy,

Al arn we membrez of Jesu Kryst:

Als heued and arme and legge and naule

Temen to hys body ful trwe and tryste

Rycht so is vch a Krysten sawle

A longande lym to the Mayster of myste.

(Pearl, 458-62)

He sees courtesy as uniting Christ’s followers in the way that the parts of a body are united. We are reminded of Aquinas’s metaphor of the virtues as the fingers, and there is this same sense of an organic whole, a living church. But the reference to the body also makes us think of the ‘body politic’. While Pearl takes place in an imagined heaven, the marks of feudal hierarchy are very much present in its organisation. Throughout the work there is a constant interplay between a Christian and a courtly ethical vocabulary. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron imagine the dreamer in Pearl as ‘a social inferior trespassing in the grounds of a castle’4 and the Pearl-maiden finds him ‘vncortoyse’ later.

The intrusion of courtly virtues into heavenly ones can also be seen in Pearl in the allusions to courtly love practices. The divine love of Jesus for the Pearl-maiden is realised in the language of the courtly lover: ‘Cum hider to Me, My lemman swete’ (763). The glossary of Norman Davis’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives ‘lemman’ as ‘loved one or mistress’ and then notes ‘though there are exceptions, this word was generally already derogatory’, something on a par with ‘wenche’.5 Whether the word had these connotations at the time Pearl was written or not, the sense is certainly one of a human rather than a divine love. The compliment is reciprocated by the maiden a few lines later in 796, referring to Christ as ‘my Lemman fre’ and then in 805 ‘In Jerusalem watz my Lemman slayn’.

Although our initial impression was that the Dreamer and the Pearl-maiden were father and daughter, later in the poem he looks at her almost through the eyes of a courtly lover:

Delyt in me drof in yche and ere,

My manez mynde to madding malte;

Quen I sech my freely, I wolde be there

Byonde the water thach ho were walte.

(Pearl, 1153-6)

The idea of lovers being ‘smitten’ through looking at the loved one was current at the time, and here the metaphor is of secular love and passion overcoming the dreamer’s reason as he gazes upon the maiden. Andrew and Waldron describe this ‘terminology of earthly pleasures as typical of [the poet’s] willingness to use courtly language metaphorically to express the values and relationships of heaven.’6 Indeed, the concatenation word of this Fitt is ‘delyt’, a word which can mean both ‘delight’ and ‘desire’, and in this context, as Andrew and Waldron note, serves to emphasise both the bliss of salvation and the Dreamer’s desire to cross the river and join the saved.

This sense of multiple meanings attaching to words of symbols is also a particularly important one for Pearl and Gawain, and is part of the notion of the ‘endless figure’: it can accrue meaning indefinitely. Hence the pearl at the beginning represents the dead child (presumably) of the dreamer and simultaneously a jewel fit for a prince, it then represents a kind of beauty that can only be found in Paradise, an emblem of moral purity, a sign of salvation (along with the penny), the ‘badge of the elect’, the gates of the New Jerusalem and ultimately the kingdom of heaven itself. In its smooth, spotless, spherical perfection the pearl signifies virtue in its purest form. Unlike the jagged pentangle there is no fear that is might unravel: it is three dimensional and still a single entity.

The fivefold pentangle seems more vulnerable somehow, and ultimately it is broken down as Gawain gives in to the urge for life. It is not his adherence to courtesy that ultimately causes Gawain to sin as earlier episodes seemed to threaten, but his submission to cowardice in accepting the girdle:

For care of thy knokke, cowardyse me tacht

To accorde me wit couetyse, my kynde to forsake:

That is larges and lewte, that longez to knychtez

Now I am fawty and falce, and ferde haf ben euer

Of trecherye and vntrawthe… (2379-83)

Gawain, in accepting the Green Knight’s challenge, was acting as representative of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and his experience ultimately shows that they are not worthy to wield the pentangle as their symbol. Instead, they adopt the girdle of the Green Knight, thus changing Gawain’s ‘bende of this blame’, ‘token of vntrawthe’ into a positive emblem ‘For that watz accorded the renoun of the Rounde Table/ And he honoured that it hade, euermore after.’ (2519-20). The girdle, representing metaphorically the unravelling of the pentangle can also be seen as a physical embodiment of that, a single strand that was perhaps bound up in the virtues of the Knights.

The sense of the ‘endless figure’ represented symbolically in both Pearl and Gawain are reflected in their structure. Both poems end in the same way that they began, come full circle:

Pearl 1 Perle plesaunt, to prynces paye

1212 Ande precious perlez vnto His pay

Gawain 1 Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye

2525 After the segge amd the asaute watz sesed at Troye

In Pearl in particular the poem itself is ‘endelez rounde’. Each twelve line stanza has only three rhymes, one used six times per stanza. The stanzas are grouped in fives, the last line of each stanza in the group being connected to the first line of the next by a repeated syllable, word or phrase, and all the stanzas in the group are further linked by having the same rhyme in lines ten and twelve. There are twenty of these groups, which are themselves linked at the beginning and the end by similarly repeated phrases. A.C. Cawley has described the metrical form as ‘probably the most complex in English’7.

The poem itself becomes an emblem for virtue and heavenly bliss. The less complex but equally effective metrical pattern of Gawain links words by sound in the alliteration, creating much the same unifying effect as the rhymes and refrains of Pearl. Muscatine describes the forms of the works as ‘a kind of celebration of the ultimate unity of his work, whether it be God’s or the poet’s.’

Whether the ‘endelez rounde’ is discredited as in Gawain or upheld as in Pearl, there remains no doubt in the poems as to the poet’s pure and uncompromising morals. He may be tolerant of human imperfection, but he is always aware of the ideal, the pure, the perfect, the pearl. Indeed, his poetry could be described in the words of Aquinas describing virtue: ‘a certain fullness of ability, measured by a perfect fitness to act.’