Encountering Piers Plowman
Steve Ellis, in his book on Chaucer outside the academy, Chaucer at Large, cites an article from 1915 by Harriet Monroe, in which she criticises the ‘urbane Chaucer’ who ignores ‘the burden-bearing poor’, and suggests that L, with his ‘rougher’ style and his social concerns, may be the medieval poet ‘to bridge the centuries and clasp hands with the poets of the future’. A century on, modern poets have not rushed to make common cause with L, although he would surely find twenty-first century sympathisers with his recognition of the urgency and intractability of social and spiritual problems, the difficulties of reconciling justice and mercy, the problems of poverty, the dangers of institutionalised religion, and the social and moral responsibilities of the individual, the intellectual, the creative artist. L perhaps remains under-read because of the relative difficulties his poetic expression poses. This essay, after a brief survey of contemporary assessments of L’s spiritual affinities, analyses aspects of how PPl fully exploits the poetic resources the alliterative line, Middle English language, and a rhetorically trained mind offer, to give practical solutions to the difficulties of appreciating how the form of PPl is integral to its meaning, and to help the reader engage with this protean, dynamic, psychedelic, richly allusive, multi-layered poem. It concludes with brief mention of Ian Sansom’s 2014 work for radio, ‘Piers the Plowman Revisited’, which meta-textually considers the problems that the modern poet encounters in L, and so constitutes an appropriate homage to a poem that is more about negotiating difficult questions than suggesting their easy solution.