Figural’ Mode of Expression in Piers Plowman.
In figural symbolism, characters and events reveal their spiritual tenor in time without losing their vivid historical actuality. In PPl, the debate among the personified abstractions often assumes a linguistic mode emptied of its proper temporal and spatial dimension. Thus it represents Will’s intellectual and affective journey to be stagnant. The figural image or event, however, by positing itself in a new spiritual-historical nexus, gives dynamism to the stagnant narrative, which denotes Will’s spiritual growth to be under progression. The figural perspective is most pertinent to the transforming image of Piers in the poem. Initially, Piers is a faithful peasant who works hard within the half-acre. As the poem unfolds, he appears as the human nature of Christ and then, after the Resurrection, as St. Peter who leads the primitive Church, Unitas. In this varying figural image, Piers’s human attributes are never entirely replaced by the Scriptural figures or their allegorical meanings. The best and true human being, Piers, is an ordinary person, but one capable of Christ’s human nature. The essay then moves to discuss in figural terms why it is that, at the half-acre and at Unitas, Piers’s followers relapse from their initial zeal to do well into the sin of sloth: the same process of spiritual fluctuation can be found in Moses’s and the Israelites’ life in the wilderness. [MY, adapted from the abstract provided in the original]
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 11 (2003): 259–82.