Articulating the Psalms in Middle English Alliterative Poetry: Some Passages of Piers Plowman St. Erkenwald and Pearl, St. Erkenwald and Pearl
The essay, part of a volume exploring the use of the Psalms in both Old and Middle English Literature, focuses on the deployment of Psalmic texts in Middle English alliterative poetry. Differing from Michael P. Kuczynski’s formative work in Prophetic Song (1995), which considered the powerful, unmediated or Davidic uses of psalms in this corpus, this essay instead explores the wealth of passages which use the psalms in highly mediated ways. Reading PPl, St. Erkenwald, and Pearl, Rodman Jones notes that these poems often present passages from the psalms in exegetical and disputational contexts. He focuses in particular on the thematically- and rhetorically-related ways in which these poems deploys psalms 14 and 23. In PPl, while we do sometimes witness a powerfully ‘prophetic’ articulation of psalm texts – as in the ‘Tearing of the Pardon’ scene – more often we see the appearance of psalm texts couched in the rhetoric of exegetical argumentation. In Conscience’s debates with Meed, for example, this process produces a highly authoritative disputational performance, a kind of scholastic tour de force. In both St. Erkenwald and Pearl, though, apparently similar passages of psalmic exegesis produce far-reaching questions about the poems’ thematic preoccupations with salvific decision-making, divine justice and human reward. The awkward (mis-)use of psalm exegesis in St. Erkenwald is key to the negotiation of hagiographical status and sacramentalism in the poem. In Pearl, similar key-psalm texts are central (in both thematic and literal ways) to the debate about the Parable of the Vineyard which lies at the heart of the poem, in a the highly sophisticated rehearsal of psalmic exegesis and disputation between Pearl-Maiden and dreamer.