Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"O Perle": Apostrophe in Pearl

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"O Perle": Apostrophe in Pearl

Article excerpt

This article addresses the Pearl-poet's use of apostrophe in his elegiac dream vision. Drawing on classical and medieval discussions of this rhetorical device, as well as contemporary poetic criticism, it argues that the trajectory of apostrophe in the poem traces the development of the Mourner-Dreamer as he gains insight from the Pearl-maiden's lesson and moves toward consolation. The Mourner's calls to his lost pearl in the proem demonstrate the unproductive cycle of his sorrow. His apostrophes to the Maiden in the early part of his dream similarly threaten to undo the solace he gains in the earthly paradise. By contrast, the Maiden's three short apostrophes serve an exemplary function and show the Dreamer how to deploy apostrophe without getting caught up in the diversionary aspects of the device. In the closing frame of the poem, the now-awakened Dreamer uses apostrophe in a controlled manner that permits him to turn away from the isolation of grief.


THE Middle English dream vision Pearl is a poem about loss. It is also a poem about language. Throughout the poem, the sorrowful Jeweller struggles to articulate his grief. The use of apostrophe is the first and perhaps the best example of the Mourner-Dreamer's difficulties with language. The device opens the poem and returns at intervals in the proem, in the dream that follows, and twice more in the final scene after the Dreamer wakes. While few critics have overlooked the importance of the opening line--"Perle, plesaunte to prynce? paye" (1)--no one, to my knowledge, has offered an extended analysis of the poet's use of apostrophe. (1) This essay investigates the poet's use of apostrophe as a means of exploring the challenges that both the Pearl-mourner and the elegist face. I contend that apostrophe stands at the crux between the successful elegy and the depressing failure of the incomplete work of mourning. (2) In the funereal garden before his dream, the Mourner's apostrophes bring him no consolation; indeed, they only redouble his sorrow. In his dream, apostrophe threatens to undo the solace he manages to gain from the salutary landscape and the encounter with the Pearl-maiden. As I will argue below, the Maiden's apostrophes stand in contrast to the Dreamer's wayward speech. Whereas his calls to the lost pearl are predicated on intense feeling and indicate a forfeiture of emotional control, her brief apostrophes are reserved and carefully meted. These exemplary utterances demonstrate for the Pearl-mourner the appropriate measure of apostrophic expression. The Mourner bears this lesson back to the waking world. When he rises from the mound where he slept, he deploys the device with care and solemnity. Apostrophe can thus be read as a gauge for the Dreamer's progress through and beyond his grief.


Apostrophe is particularly important to the elegist. The core principle behind the apostrophe, to give voice to and converse with an otherwise silent (and possibly absent) entity, is remarkably similar to one of the idealized goals of the elegy, to conjure the deceased, to have her turn back from the grave and toward the speaker. Both apostrophe and elegy depend on an element of invocation--a hope, if not a belief, that the poet can do things with words. "[T]o apostrophize," writes Jonathan Culler, "is to will a state of affairs, to attempt to call it into being by asking inanimate objects to bend themselves to your desire." (3) The apostrophizing poet reaches out to the object of the address, and the elegizing poet aims to overcome the distance between the quick and the dead. It should be no surprise, then, that so many elegies make frequent use of the device. (4)

The definition of apostrophe is deceptively simple. In its broadest sense, the term refers to any poetic address, but is generally understood to mean a direct address to unhearing and unresponsive entities-insentient objects, natural forces, animals, abstract emotions or concepts, or absent persons. …

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