Allegory and Piers Plowman
PPl draws on an unusually wide range of allegorical modes – personifications, biblical typology, narrative metaphors – and freely combines them with people, places, and events of the real world. This essay asks how L manages to hold these disparate elements together, and proposes that the answer lies in his sensitivity to the latent potentialities of language. After a brief survey of the major allegorical works preceding L’s, the essay analyzes passus 16 to 18 of PPl in detail. The Tree of Charity begins this section as a static metaphor articulating the relations of various virtues, but slowly acquires typological resonances (the Garden of Eden, the Cross), and forms connections with thematic images that run through the whole poem (agricultural labour, eating and drinking, kinship, natural growth and the passage of time). These inter-connected concepts make the tree more than a figure of speech; the natural world becomes a manifestation of a supra-sensible reality. As the narrative progresses, the Tree, Piers, and the dreamer are caught up in a personal revivification of salvation history endowed with urgency and emotional involvement. The encounters with Faith (Abraham), Hope (Moses), and Charity (the Good Samaritan) show personal nouns and abstract nouns as different dimensions of the same actions. Moses’s ‘patente’ merges the form of the Old Testament commandments (inscription on a rock) with the content of the New Testament commandments (the two given by Christ rather than the ten communicated by Moses). The reduction of the ten commandments to two which nevertheless subsume them is paralleled in the condensation of the lengthy exposition of Truth’s pardon (Passus 7) into two bald lines; what L is showing (in reverse) is the mysterious ability of linguistic formulations to generate new meanings which are nevertheless implicit in the previous ones. In tearing the pardon, Piers dramatically enacts a penetration of the literal formula to the spirit it embodies. But the literal is not rejected: it remains the source of the spiritual. Metaphors and puns reveal new meanings and inter-connections; abstract nouns spring into life through the verbs that turn them into quasi-persons. Language is thus the primary means by which we can grasp the different dimensions of reality, and allegory the means by which we can see them most clearly.
The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 65-82.