Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Pearl. Trans. Victor Watts
and ed. David Fuller and Corinne Saunders.
London: Enitharmon Press, 2005. 91 pp. ISBN 1-904634-20-6.

The “Acknowledgements” states that “this modernization of Pearl was made by the late Victor Watts, apparently for his own use, and as a gift for friends” (6).1 Watts’s reasons for his modernization, which he apparently originally intended for a very limited academic audience, however, may be found in his introduction:

Pearl was introduced at university to students of Middle English as a jewel of exquisite form and sensitivity. Coming back to it after all these years and trying to make a more readable version I am forced to ask myself whether that was a just or a typically romantic estimation of the poem because of its medievalness, and whether the poem is not really a misguided and overwrought failure. Depth of feeling, semantic subtlety, didactic force, humanity, humour even, there certainly is. But although he poet subtly varies his style between the didactic and the narrative passages, nevertheless the preciousness and awkwardness of his style has impressed itself upon me more forcibly than hitherto in making this experiment of modernisation. (7-8).

Although Watts clearly views Pearl as “a jewel of exquisite form and sensitivity,” he specifically acknowledges the difficulties presented to a modern audience by the “preciousness and awkwardness” of the Pearl-poet’s style and language. If anything, this might be an understatement. Even for readers of Middle English, the dialect used by the Pearl-poet, one usually associated with the North West Midlands around the Cheshire-Derbyshire-Staffordshire border area, presents a challenge. Thus, in an attempt to acquaint his friends with the original text of Pearl rather than with a translation, he provided them with the original text of Pearl with a facing-page “modernization” of the text itself. The term modernization, however, requires a more precise definition. According to the editors,

Victor Watts’s version preserves as far as possible the original wording and word order but modernises the spelling. This is a limited form of modernization, but the only way in which all the features of the original text’s elaborate formal structure, which are so important to its feeling as a poem, can be retained—the alliteration, patterns of rhyme, and patterns of linked opening and closing lines by which stanzas are grouped. Some archaic spellings remain or have been slightly modified.

Thus, the words in the original text for which there is a modern equivalent have been transliterated, but Watts preserved archaic spellings for which a modern equivalent did not exist. He also, in his original modernization, provided some notes and glosses for difficult words. In general, his “experiment in modernization,” if one assumes his audience possessed some facility for Middle English, would cause them to focus on the original text and to use the modernization and glosses for difficult words and lines. This approach would obviate some of the problems traditionally associated with translations, especially of poems ascribed to the Pearl-poet. For example, James Winny, in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, points out that an “inaccurate translation” results from several causes: “an assimilation of the poem as a private work which is unconsciously reshaped to reflect the translator’s response to it” and “the attempt to render the alliterative measure, which cannot be reproduced without falsifying the original.” In many ways, therefore, Watts’s modernization of Pearl succeeds admirably: it privileges the original text rather than a translation; it provides the reader with glosses for difficult archaic words that must be preserved but for which no modern equivalent exists; and it maintains the poem’s original alliteration and patterns of rhyme. In short, Watts’s “experiment in modernization” makes accessible to the modern reader not only the poem’s exquisite artistry but also its profound treatment of loss, despair, and consolation.

At some point directly prior to or shortly after Watts’s death (presumably after), Thetis Blacker, who provided the magnificent cover design, suggested that Watts’s modernization of Pearl be published so that it might be available to a more general audience. Thus, the final published work consists of introductions by Victor Watts (a few remarks about the poem and its modernization), Kathleen Raine (a short commentary from one who acknowledges herself as neither “a scholar . . . of Linguistics or of History”), and Corinne Saunders (an insightful short critical analysis of Pearl and the medieval dream vision tradition); a short section on the text and its modernization; and the original text of the Pearl (based primarily on Sir Israel Gollanz’s edition) and the modernized version by Watts on facing pages. Keeping a wider audience in mind, editors David Fuller and Corinne Saunders provided, in addition to Watts’s original glosses and notes, marginal glosses for archaic or unusual words. The final stanza of Pearl should suffice as an example of Watts’s “experiment in modernization.” The first stanza is Watts’s slight modernization of the final stanza of the poem (modernized only with respect to its orthography); and the second stanza is his modernization of the same stanza, in which the original wording and word order are preserved but the spelling has been modernized, but archaic words have been preserved. Glosses on those words that modern readers would find difficult have been provided by Fuller and Saunders, based on editions by E.V. Gordon, A.C. Cawley and J.J. Anderson, and Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron.

To pay the Prince other sete saghte
Hit is ful ethe to the god Krystyin;
For I haf founden Hym bothe day and naghte
A God, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin.
Over this hyul this lote I laghte,
For pyty of my Perle enclyin,
And sythen to God I hit bytaghte
In Krystez dere blessyng and myn,
That in the forme of bred and wyn
The preste uus schewez uch a daye.
He gef uus to be His homly hyne
Ande precious perlez unto His pay.
Amen. Amen. (1201-13)

To pay the Prince or set Him saught         propitiate Him
it is full eath to the good Christine;         easy/Christian
for I have found Him both day and naught         night
a God, a Lord, a friend full fine.         most true
Over this hile this lote I laught,         upon/mound/fortune/received
for pity of my Pearl incline,         lying prostrate
and sithen to God I it betaught         then/committed
in Christës dear blessing and mine,
that in the form of bread and wine
the priest us shows every day.
He gave us to be His homely hine         members of His household
and precious pearls unto His pay.         to His pleasure
Amen. Amen.

For serious modern readers who find medieval poetry enchanting but linguistically formidable, Watts’s modernization of Pearl should be viewed with great enthusiasm. It avoids the various pitfalls found in most translations; it focuses the reader’s attention upon the original text; it provides the necessary “helps” for archaic or difficult words; and, as far as possible, it preserves the tone and linguistic brilliance of the original text. In short, it should make an exquisitely lovely poem more accessible to a wider audience. And that was Watts’s intention. Finally, the Enitharmon Press should be commended for the simple elegance of this edition, especially its layout, typography, and dust jacket. It is a tribute not only to Watts but also to the Pearl-poet.


1Victor Watts (1938-2002) was a linguist and leading authority on English place-names, and he taught Medieval Literature at the University of Durham, where he was Master of Grey College. His publications include a translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and the Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names. Return