Fragmentation and Contradiction in Piers Plowman and Its Implications for the Study of Modern Literature Art and Culture: The Apocalyptic Discourse., Art and Culture: The Apocalyptic Discourse.
A study of PPl in relation to significant cultural, political and economic change and to the crisis of late feudalism in fourteenth-century England, as they are manifest in fragmentation, contradiction, and apocalypticism. “Fragmentation” includes such stylistic traits as paratactic shifts of time, place, action, attitude; abrupt changes in point of view, genre, and tone. These traits are seen to express contradictions in the author’s mind and milieu; to dislocate the reader and serve as a type of rhetoric, a method of persuasion in an urgent situation; and to function as a reflection of the encyclopedic scope of the subject. The structure of the poem is based on the repetition of signs and responses that are progressively developed and elaborated; material that has been presented in a fragmented manner is ordered as it is repeated, dialectically changed until it takes on new meaning. “The poem is a deepening apocalyptic spiral of hope and fear.” Relecting his mixed feelings about the Peasants’ Rebellion, WL chose a utopian solution, phrased in terms of the apocalyptic — an ideal hierarchical society in which pre-capitalist relations (e.g., wage labor) are transmuted into wages-in-kind. Yet in its essential honesty, the poem reveals at its end limitations of the utopian view, as symbols of hope are grossly inverted: WL leaves out the last three optimistic scenes of the traditional apocalypse (resurrection of the dead, Judgment, the Heavenly City), to conclude instead with the Calamaties and Antichrist, which in WL’s inverted order happen after the coming of the Son of Man. Numerous other inversions as signs of the poet’s fear, uncertainty, and perception of history as problematic occur in the latter part of the poem: in B 19 the king reappears and inverts the Coronation Oath; the cardinal virtues re-appear but provide insufficient protection against meed and the Antichrist; Patience is transmuted by trade into Guile (B.19.391-98; 452-53); and in B 20, several sins, rather than recalling the fact they can be overcome by true repentance (B 5), now “riot in a scene of black apocalypse.”
Rev. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, M&H ns 21 (1994): 187-90.