(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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.

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, none of which defines it completely. It is, first, a poem of the alliterative revival. Poetry in English had originally been alliterative and followed strict metrical rules. When English verse began to appear once more in the west and north in the mid-fourteenth century, poets attempted to follow this native tradition. The Middle English alliterative line, however, was much freer than it had been in Old English: Lines had no fixed syllabic content, the number of stressed syllables was not always four, as in classic alliterative verse, but might be three, five, or six, and the alliterated sound was not always governed by the third stressed syllable, as in classic alliterative verse. The alliterative poets did, however, tend to rely on a special poetic diction and to decorate their poetry with elaborate rhetorical figures recommended by the poetic manuals of the time, such as that of Geoffrey of Vinsauf.

Langland, however, differed markedly from other alliterative poets. Possibly because his audience was not the aristocracy, he had no interest in elaborate rhetoric or poetic diction but rather used simple vocabulary and employed only those figures of speech that involved repetition, since his goal was to get his message across clearly. Langland did, however, continue and even furthered the trend toward a freer alliterative line, employing various rhythmic patterns as they suited the tone of his poem, sometimes alliterating a different sound in the second half-line than he had in the first, sometimes not alliterating at all, and often tossing in Latin quotations as nonalliterating half-lines. The overall tendency of Langland’s verse, despite the Latin, is toward a naturalness of vocabulary and rhythm.

Piers Plowman as sermon literature

Piers Plowman also has a great deal in common with sermon literature. G. R. Owst saw Langland as drawing primarily from the pulpits of England his message of social reform, justice for the poor, condemnation for those who pervert the great institution of the Church, and a recommendation of love and work as opposed to revolution. Elizabeth Salter sees Langland’s emphasis on teaching rather than fine writing and his use of metaphors and imagery in a purely functional manner to illustrate his material as consistent with sermon literature; however, Piers Plowman, in scope and complexity, goes far beyond even the most elaborate sermons, so again the label “sermon in verse” is inadequate.

Piers Plowman as a dream vision

The poem also takes the form of a dream vision. For the Middle Ages, influenced as they were by the biblical stories of Joseph and Daniel and by Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius’s famous commentary of Cicero’s “Somnium Scipionis” (“Dream of Scipio”), dreams were profoundly important and could often take on oracular significance. Thus, beginning with Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung’s thirteenth century Le Roman de la rose (The Romance of the Rose, partial translation c. 1370, complete translation 1900), there arose a genre of poetry containing a dreamer-narrator who relates his vision, which may be full of signs that the reader must interpret. Once again, however, Piers Plowman transcends the bounds of the form, for Langland writes not of one vision but of many. There are, in fact, ten separate visions in the poem, two of which are represented as dreams within dreams. Moreover, in contrast with the more typical medieval love visions, Langland seriously presents the visions as divine revelations. Perhaps Morton Bloomfield is more accurate, then, in describing Piers Plowman as an apocalypse: a literary work in the form of a vision revealing a divine message and deeply criticizing contemporary society.

A knowledge of its genre may help to explain some of the confusion in the structure of the poem. Anyone reading Piers Plowman for the first time must be struck by the bewildering plunges into and out of scenes, the unannounced and unexpected comings and goings of a multitude of new characters, the apparently unrelated sequence of events that seem to follow no cause-and-effect relationships. It could be argued that a dream vision would follow the logic of dream—of association and symbol rather than induction and deduction; this may be a partial answer. One could also say that the poem is not intended to be a narrative, which would follow a cause-and-effect pattern. It has, rather (like a sermon), a thematic unity. The Dreamer asks in the beginning, “What must I do to save my soul?,” and the theme that unites the poem is the answer to that question. Essentially, the unifying...

(The entire section is 3550 words.)