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  • Rethinking the "Corse in clot":Cleanness, Filth, and Bodily Decay in Pearl
  • Katherine H. Terrell

Near the end of the Dreamer's vision in the Pearl, the Pearl Maiden elucidates a crucial, but critically underinterrogated, relationship between two of the poem's central images, the pearl and the corpse. Explaining her harmonious companionship with the other pearl maidens, she declares that

Lasse of blysse may non vus bryng perle vpon oure bereste,For of mote neuer myngeOf spotlez perlez beren creste. oure corses in clottez clynge,And remen for wythouten reste,We hauen cnawyng;Of on dethe ful oure hope is drest.1

For the Maiden, the pearl symbolizes spiritual purity and cleanness. She and her companions in heaven-who are chiefly characterized through their association with the pearl and its attendant virtues-are [End Page 429] unable even to think of "mote," or discord, and thus are kept free of any "mote," or blemish, on their spiritual purity. In token of this incorruptibility, they appropriately bear "spotlez" pearls. And although her reference to the maidens' corpses may appear to contrast strikingly with this image of purity, the Maiden clearly intends to draw a different kind of contrast: between the maidens' heavenly knowledge and joy and the earthly matters-their own corpses and the Dreamer's grief-that they have transcended. From her lofty perspective, the Maiden finds both the corpses and the grief equally irrelevant, and she seems to bring up this detail at all only to illustrate for the Dreamer the wide divergence in their perspectives on death. She views only "on dethe" as having a claim on her attention: the death of Christ, with its implied resurrection and consequent defiance of bodily corruption. Meanwhile, the Dreamer "remen[s] for " at her demise, languishing in a grief perpetuated by his own, radically different, understanding of the images of pearl and corpse, both of which he applies to the lost infant body that occupies the center of his mourning.

Although the Maiden and the Dreamer at times radically disagree in their interpretations of the pearl and the corpse, they both tend to link the two images together in a relationship that remains crucial to both characters' understanding of their universe. In her beatific stability, the Maiden naturally understands the proper relationship of things according to Christian doctrine and never sways from the position outlined above. But for the Dreamer, the relationship of pearl to corpse is a greatly vexed issue. Like the Maiden, he uses the pearl image to signify purity and cleanness, yet he applies these characteristics primarily to his daughter's corporeal form. Consequently, he views the image of the corpse as the corruption of that form-as a representation of filthy putrefaction and impurity that seems to degrade her bodily perfection. For him, the two images embody a tension between notions of cleanness and filth that is fundamental to his grief, and this misapprehension proves to be one of the main stumbling blocks in his ability to accept comfort. In order for the Dreamer to profit from his vision and to be enabled to turn his attention, as the Maiden does, to that "on dethe" that offers him hope, the images of pearl and corpse must be reconciled and their attendant connotations of cleanness and filth, recontextualized.2 I [End Page 430] would argue that the poem's examination of death, grief, and Christian consolation hinges upon this tension and its resolution.

Within this tension I see the corpse and pearl as bearing equal importance, yet most Pearl criticism has tended to replicate the Maiden's heaven-centered viewpoint, preferring to focus on the symbol of the pearl while setting the corpse aside as largely irrelevant to the meaning of the poem.3 Even Patricia Kean, who remarks that "no interpretation which does not take account of the new-made grave of the poem can be seriously considered," offers only a brief discussion of the grave and the decaying body.4 Since the publication of Kean's book in 1967, there has been little critical interest in the corpse.5 It is occasionally mentioned in passing, but there is a notable lack of sustained discussion...


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