Simon Armitage's Translation of Pearl - Review

23/05/2016 13:31 | Updated 23 May 2016


"If every person in the country was buying poetry and it was available on every street corner and when you turned on BBC 1 on Saturday night, poetry probably wouldn't be doing its job."

- Simon Armitage, The Independent, 13 March 2004

I only ever met Simon Armitage once. I was reading at an event he was hosting at the Poetry Library in 2010 and I'd formulated a perfect plan to ensnare his attention and secure his benevolent, avuncular mentorship for years to come.

Two years earlier, I'd read Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a single sitting on a train from Manchester to London. I'd studied the original poem at university with the mildest enthusiasm but suddenly, here in Armitage's masterful refurbishing of the text, I was floored by the scope of the narrative and the alliterative music of the piece. I jumped onto a tube train, head buzzing, and wrote a poem called 'Sir Gawain on the Northern Line' almost entirely as it exists now. The poem went on to be featured in an anthology, an academic text book and my debut collection.

So here in front of a large audience (in poetry circles, seventy people is a monumentally large audience) I had the opportunity to read this poem in front of the man who inspired it. I could see the evening unfolding before me - Simon would hear the poem, at the end of the show he would brush past the crowds of sycophantic well-wishers trying to get his attention, he'd look me dead in the eye and say "I like your style, kid. How would you like to be part of a team I'm putting together" and before I knew it I'd be part of the extended Faber universe.

Didn't pan out that way. Surprisingly. In fact, the whole plan seemed a bit too on-the-nose, even for me, so I just read some different poems and then everyone went home. But Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the accompanying documentary he made for the BBC continue to be two of my favourite resources to use as an English teacher and I was particularly impressed by his last collection of (sort of) poems, Seeing Stars.

I was overjoyed then, in 2012, when Armitage released 'The Death of King Arthur', a new translation of the anonymously written, alliterative 4000-line text. Like many readers, I was fairly disappointed when I actually read the thing - it was never going to be as captivating or as lean as 'Sir Gawain', not least of all for structural purposes. Gawain is broken into four episodic 'Fitts', each made up of short metrical stanzas, each ending with the 'bob and wheel' technique which serves a similar purpose to a sententia, lulling the reader into a type of rhetorical agreement with the narrative and the moral of the tale.

'King Arthur', by contrast, is a far more structurally and linguistically loose source-text and spans a wider and less predictable narrative path in erratically sized stanzas and no 'chapter-breaks'. At only 156 pages, Armitage's translation of 'King Arthur' will lose most of its audience early on; it has far less of the mesmeric storytelling that made his first translation so successful, but is still a valuable addition to Armitage's body of work for the reason that it has brought an otherwise esoteric and largely undiscussed historical document back into our cultural consciousness for a brief time. Perhaps the recent success of the indulgently sprawling Game of Thrones will signal a sympathetic return to 'The Death of King Arthur'.

What, then, of Armitage's third medieval outing, 'Pearl' ? Many of the gripes I had with 'King Arthur' are addressed in this latest choice of source-text; it is less than half the length, and is broken up into 101 twelve-line stanzas. It is also widely considered to be the handiwork of the same anonymous author who originally wrote Gawain, and so conditions are as perfect as they could be for a return to what made the 2007 work so engaging.

As ever, what makes Armitage's work so inviting is his approachable turn of phrase; in a recent interview for the Poetry Review podcast, Jack Underwood cited a discovery of Armitage's colloquial diction as the moment he realised that poetry could be written in a modern vernacular. Armitage's register in this translation is simple and accessible, but interestingly seems to hover around the linguistic field of the King James Bible. The key challenge to any translator of a medieval text, not least of all a translator whose own poetry is so heavily rooted in modern parlance - is that the vast majority of turns of phrase and cultural touchstones are unusable.

What sets 'Pearl' apart from Armitage's previous two translations is that it is almost entirely devoid of plot. The sequence opens with a man returning to the field where his infant daughter died. She then comes to him as a grown woman, telling of her existence in the afterlife as Christ's wife, with many hundreds of other virgin brides, the two of them discuss the nature of the afterlife, she shows him New Jerusalem, which is in an English forest, and the daughter disappears when the man attempts to swim across a river to get to her. The man's Christian faith is galvanised by the experience.

In this sense, there is none of the visceral questing which a reader may come to a medieval poem looking for, but rather this is an emotional and religious meditation. The agon at the centre of the dialogue between father and daughter, is how it can be right for one who died as an infant to have gained such a prestigious place in heaven:

"Our gentle Lord acts too generously

if what you say is actually so.
You lived for less than two years in our world..."

The experience of reading these stanzas en masse then, is far more akin to reading through Shakespeare's sonnets, or an extract from The Divine Comedy, than any Arthurian tale. The overt Christianity at the centre of this text and its narrative stillness will continue to leave audiences who want a repeat performance of 'Gawain' feeling un-satisfied but Armitage continues to contribute the same service to culture as Carson, Heaney, Hughes and Graves; he gives blood transfusions to the texts which deserve preservation.