The loss of a child is the most difficult experience any parent can suffer. Whatever the cause, no parent should have to mourn their own child. The question we often struggle with, then, is Why? Why him? Why me? Why, God? Six hundred years ago, one English father recounted his own struggle in perhaps the only way he knew: in meter. The Pearl is therefore a poem about the very real questions one father asked when confronted with the loss of his little girl.
In his grief, he quite naturally wondered what kind of sick justice is served by her death. Why should “that pearl, mine own, without a spot” be thus paid “the wages of sin” in death (line 12; Rom 6:23)? In sorrow, he turns his anger toward the very dirt packed within her grave: “O mould! Thou marrest a lovely thing” (23). In life, his daughter was a precious pearl unstained by sin, yet the Grave had robbed her of her beauty, sullying her glaze with the filth of a loamy burial.
Yet as he slips into a sorrowful sleep at her grave, the Pearl herself comes in a dream to calm her father’s doubts, well aware of what has become of her since her departure. She exhorts him to forsake the fleeting comfort of lament, and instead to behold the bliss in which she now finds herself (340). But rather than comfort, his grief gives way to scoffing. Just as he had strained at the injustice of his loss, he struggles even more with his daughter’s exaltation as the bride of Christ. So many before her had lived so much longer, and suffered so much more; what was her faithfulness compared to theirs (409-420)? The maiden, however, replies that she has merely inherited the promise given to every faithful child of God: “That each who may thereto obtain / Of all the realm is queen or king” (446-447; see Rom 8:16-17, 2Ti 2:12).
To illustrate the veracity of her claim, she then recounts the parable spoken by Jesus himself, in which he compares the kingdom of Heaven to a master and his laborers (lines 493-575; see Mat 20:1-16). One morning, the master goes and hires workers from those standing idle in the agora and returns at times throughout the day to hire additional hands. But at dusk, when the workers are each paid a denarius for their labor, those who had worked longer are outraged. Their master’s response, however, quickly quiets their grumblings: “am I not allowed in gift / To dispose of mine as I please to do? / Or your eye to evil, maybe, you lift, / For I none betray and I am true?” (565-568). Christ is therefore just, and the Pearl has received her due.
But as she also knows there is yet a deeper justice that illuminates her father’s sorrow. He is not the first to have lost an innocent child, nor will he be the last. Thus, the story he must understand is not his own, but that of another Father:
Of Jerusalem my tale doth tell,
The Pearl thus reminds her father of God’s own great loss, one neither deserved nor desired, where God’s own “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” God would not return the Pearl to her father’s embrace, but he would stand with her father in the pain, and greet him with open arms in the hereafter. Because like her, he would be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11; see 2Sa 12:15-23).
Many things have changed in the world since the Pearl, but our world is still imperfect, striving still in the throes of redemption through him who died to save it (John 3:16; Rom 8:19-25; Col 1:15-17). A world where parents mourn their children, and where we’re still asking, Why?. And yet as the poet reminds us, God provides for us even in our suffering—looking back to the blood of the cross and looking forward to the world to come. For what Paul knew by faith, the poet’s Pearl knew by sight (2Co 5:7). He therefore closes, giving his pain to God and his peace to us. Because Justice had indeed come, and his name was Jesus:
To please that Prince, or pardon shown,