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Modern criticism has begun to concentrate, for the first time, on the artistry of Piers Plowman. With the return of so many modern poets to the free accentual verse similar to William Langland’s, readers are now more able to respond to the verse of Piers Plowman. Further, with the contemporary conviction that everyday themes and language are valid subjects for poetry, readers have become more sympathetic to some of Langland’s finest passages, which treat everyday experiences in the vocabulary of the common man.

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However, it seems, ultimately, that the first readers of Piers Plowman were most correct: The poem’s basic intent is didactic, and for Langland, all artistry was secondary to the message he was trying to convey. Perhaps his greatest achievement is the theme itself, which is at once as simple and as complex as any in literature. Beginning as the Dreamer’s simple question in Passus 2 (B Text), “How may I save my soul?,” the theme turns into a multilayered search for individual salvation, for the perfection of contemporary society, for a mystical union with God, and for a way to put mystical vision to practical use in perfecting society. These searches are set against varied landscapes ranging from the contemporary world to the inner world of the soul, across biblical history, through Hell to Armageddon. For contemporary critics concerned largely with structure in literature, Langland’s most remarkable feat is his ability, in spite of real or apparent digressions and inconsistencies, to put a poem of the encyclopedic range and depth of Piers Plowman together into a structured whole.

Piers Plowman is a difficult poem. One is not likely to find a more complex poem, nor one that poses quite so many problems. An entrance to the poem might best be achieved by an examination of those problems—problems of text, of form, of structure, and of interpretation—one at a time.

First, the poem exists in three totally different versions. The earliest version, known as the A Text, must have been written, or at least begun, about 1362, since it alludes to such things as the plague of 1361 and a certain great windstorm known to have occurred in January, 1362. This first version is a poem of some 2,500 lines, consisting of a prologue and eleven books or “passus.” In the second, or B Text, William Langland revised his poem and added nine new passus, expanding Piers Plowman to more than 7,200 lines. This version must have been written about 1377, since the fable of the cat and mice in the prologue seems to allude to events that occurred in the parliament of 1376-1377.

Langland thoroughly revised the poem one more time, increasing its length by another hundred or so lines, and this final version is known as the C Text. It contains no prologue but twenty-three passus. W. W. Skeat dated the C Text about 1393, believing that it reflected the differences that began in 1392 between the citizens of London and the king. An earlier date may be more accurate, however, since Thomas Usk seems to refer to the C version of Piers Plowman in his Testament of Love (1387), and Usk died in 1388. In the C version, the poet often attempts to clarify ambiguities and at times eliminates some of the social criticisms. He also eliminates some of the more dramatic scenes in B, such as Piers’s tearing of Truth’s pardon in Passus 7. Although the C Text may represent the author’s ultimate intent, and although accurate critical texts of the C Text have made it more universally available, the vast majority of scholars and readers have preferred the B version, and so all references to the poem in this analysis are to George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson’s edition of the B Text.

A poem of the alliterative revival

Having established the B version as the poem, however, one is not at all sure what sort of poem it is. Piers Plowman falls simultaneously into several categories,...

(The entire section contains 3550 words.)

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