Pearl is the first work in British Library, Cotton Nero A.x (c. 1400), which also contains Cleanness (q.v.), Patience (q.v.) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (q.v.). All four poems are very probably by the same poet. Technically, Pearl is an astounding work of art. The poem, which conatins much ornamental alliteration, is written in octosyllabic lines in loose iambic tetrameter; the lines are grouped into stanzas rhyming ababababbcbc. In their turn, the stanzas are organised into twenty sections of five stanzas each (except for section XV which contains six stanzas); all five (or six) stanzas within each section end on the same refrain word. In addition, the first line of each stanza repeats a key word from the last line of the preceding stanza (a device known as concatenatio or “interlinking”). The poem aspires to perfect circularity by repeating the first line of the poem in the last, and by the total number of stanzas (101, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Finally, the number of lines within each stanza is twelve, while the poem contains 1212 lines: these numbers recreate the mystical numerology of the heavenly Jerusalem, described in the poem as having twelve foundations, twelve gates, walls of twelve furlongs, and as containing 144,000 (i.e. 12 x 12 x 1000) brides of the Lamb.
Within these formal constraints the poet expresses, often hauntingly, his experience of loss and the otherness of heaven. In a prologue (1-60) the poet tells how, one August, he went looking for his lost “pearl” (representing, as we discover, his daughter who died in infancy), and fell asleep on the spot he lost her. In his sleep, the Dreamer's spirit enters a beautiful land (reminiscent of the earthly paradise) through which he wanders feverishly until he comes to a river. On the far side of the river, the Dreamer sees a splendid maiden, in whom he recognises his lost daughter. She has been transformed into a celestial queen and a bride of Christ. The Dreamer engages her in a “debate” concerning a number of heavenly mysteries which the Dreamer, being human, cannot understand. For example, how could she have become a “queen” after less than two years on earth, when others have worked much longer in God's service? How can she be queen when the Virgin Mary is already Queen of heaven? And there are emotional demands on her, too: how could she be so happy, when his own life has been so miserable since their separation? In response the Pearl-maiden rebukes the Dreamer: it is impertinent to question God's will; and, since she has exchanged the corruptible earthly life for perfect and eternal bliss, he should be thankful for her fate. Instead of lamenting the loss of “his” pearl he should strive to obtain the “pearl of great price”, i.e. the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 13:46). The Dreamer's objections to divine justice are countered by the Pearl-maiden's retelling of the parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), in which the Lord of the Vineyard pays all labourers a penny each, beginning with the latecomers who have worked less than two hours (as the Pearl-maiden “laboured” less than two years). Similarly, in heaven everyone is “payed inlyche” (603) - in the double sense of Middle English payen: “paid” and “satisfied”. The similarity and difference between the queens of heaven (the blessed) and the Queen of heaven (Mary) are likewise resolved in word-play: Mary is Queen of courtesy, while the maiden is queen by courtesy (of God). The purposeful chiming of the refrain words by courtesy and of courtesy in section VIII meets one of the poet's self-imposed formal constraints, but, here as elsewhere, the poet makes virtue of necessity by exploiting the expressive possibilities of those constraints.
The Dreamer is finally a granted a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, described by the poet with explicit deference to the scriptural authority of the Book of Revelation. He also sees the Lamb in procession with the blessed, including ‘his own' daughter. Oblivious to her earlier warning that no mortal being can enter the city, the Dreamer impulsively tries to cross the river that separates him from her - at which point he wakes from his dream. In an epilogue he strives to reconcile himself to his loss and commends his ‘pearl' to Christ.
As critics have noted, Pearl achieves, insofar as any poem can, the perfection and beauty of the pearl that it describes.