Piers Plowman Analysis
by William Langland

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Piers Plowman Analysis

"Piers Plowman," which is also sometimes titled as "William's Vision of Piers Plowman," is a poem by English writer William Langland. The poem was written during the 1300s in Middle English, which was the form of English spoken in Great Britain after the Norman conquest of the British Isles. The poem centers on the narrator, Will, and his desire to live a pure Christian life. The narrative of the piece, like most epic poems, deals with a journey within the narrator's dream. Each adventure is a part of a long dream sequence. The narrator, or dreamer, is trying to find mythical characters named Dowell, Dobet, and Dobest (which, respectively mean "Do well," "Do better," and "Do best"). Essentially, the narrator is trying to find higher forms of himself within his dream world. By creating these characters, the dreamer can literally interact with his aspirations on becoming a better person.

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Langland begins the psychological and religious motifs by using the character of Will—which alludes to one's will as much as it is the poet's actual name—as his proxy. Will, the narrator, had fallen asleep on a tower and dreams of heaven and hell. He also dreams of a parallel universe mirroring reality, which represents mankind. In that version of human civilization, there is a kingdom just like the one in England, but in the context of Will's vision of the higher cosmic world, the social structures appear to be synthetic compared to the heavenly order of God.

This part of the poem satirizes the concept of monarchy and the absurdity of serfdom's hierarchical structure by portraying a king as a cat and his subject as mice. The king in his dream world is predatory and arrogant, knowing hd has the power to consume his subjects, whilst the subjects are rodents trying to survive in miserable conditions.

Other parts of the poem examine the philosophical concepts of truth and reason, specifically from a medieval Catholic context. In essence, the poem is meditation on theology in the form of a fantastical tale. The different worlds and characters that Will come across are different elements of his own consciousness as he tries to seek the divine.

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator, generally referred to as Will and presented as the author of the poem, wanders the world dressed as a hermit, until one May morning, near Malvern Hills, he falls asleep and dreams. In the vision, he sees a field full of folk of all social classes, including beggars, members of religious orders, knights, kings, and plowmen, going about the various activities of life, with a tower at one end and a dungeon located in a hollow beneath. At this point, a group of mice and rats assemble to determine what action to take against a cat at court who has been terrorizing them for some time. They agree that the best plan will be to put a bell around the cat’s neck, but then they realize they do not have the courage to attempt it. One sensible mouse suggests that they are better off with the cat than with a different cat or on their own.

A woman named Holy Church explains to Will that the castle is the home of Truth, or God, and that the dungeon is the home of Wrong, or Satan. She advises Will that to save his soul he needs to follow Truth. The poet then witnesses the making of arrangements to marry Lady Mede (Reward) to False; dispute over the marriage is eventually brought to London to be adjudicated before the king. The king proposes instead that she marry Conscience, who refuses the marriage, precipitating a series of debates on the nature of meed, or reward. The vision ends hopefully, with the king resolving to rule with the help of Reason and Conscience.

In a second dream vision, the poet hears a sermon calling for the repentance of society delivered to the field of folk by Reason, followed by the public confessions of representatives of each of the seven deadly sins. Society decides to search for Truth, and the farmer Piers Plowman, a long time follower of Truth, offers to show the people the way if they...

(The entire section is 1,724 words.)