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Imitating God: The Allegory of Faith in <i>Piers Plowman</i> B

Imitating God: The Allegory of Faith in Piers Plowman B

Argues that PPl is not representative of a breakdown of the medieval system of thought, that it does not manifest an obsession with the inability of language to express reality, nor that it reflects WL’s moral or spiritual doubts. The cosmos as presented to Will is objectively independent of his understanding; the Creator demands that humanity re-create God in works and truth that imitate his creation. WL does not believe that material reality (as represented by figures such as Meed) has betrayed humanity’s ideals, but rather that people separate themselves from their essential spiritual reality as images of God. The multiplicity of meaning of the three Do’s shows each part whole in itself yet linked in unity with the others; likewise, the linear process of pilgrimage-penance-pardon expresses in each of its parts the whole requirement and guarantee of salvation. Nonsequentiality rather than the temporal chronology of human existence is stressed in the poem, which is epistemological in the particular sense that the sought-for answer is known from the beginning, to be learned only in a single moment of perception. Dowel is the image of God in human nature that pre-exists in everyone; therefore Will’s quest for knowledge must be for self-knowledge, and the function of the entire dream vision is psychic integration. As in Augustine’s Confessions, the “I” is used to signify both an omniscient narrator and a fallible character.The opposition between scientia, understanding or intellectual knowledge, and sapientia, the highest gift of the Holy Spirit, is illuminated in PPl through two metaphors: reading (or listening to) ScripWL’s allegory is meant to be read both literally and figuratively; his allegorical imagery offers a non-developing series of varying reflections of perfect Truth. The non-similitude between tenor and vehicle of figures related to the court, money, and food is designed to show society’s failure to remain a good signifier of love and unity, not the failure of allegory to depict reality.ture, and eating; while knowledge of LaArgues that PPl is not representative of a breakdown of the medieval system of thought, that it does not manifest an obsession with the inability of language to express reality, nor that it reflects WL’s moral or spiritual doubts. The cosmos as presented to Will is objectively independent of his understanding; the Creator demands that humanity re-create God in works and truth that imitate his creation. WL does not believe that material reality (as represented by figures such as Meed) has betrayed humanity’s ideals, but rather that people separate themselves from their essential spiritual reality as images of God. The multiplicity of meaning of the three Do’s shows each part whole in itself yet linked in unity with the others; likewise, the linear process of pilgrimage-penance-pardon expresses in each of its parts the whole requirement and guarantee of salvation. Nonsequentiality rather than the temporal chronology of human existence is stressed in the poem, which is epistemological in the particular sense that the sought-for answer is known from the beginning, to be learned only in a single moment of perception. Dowel is the image of God in human nature that pre-exists in everyone; therefore Will’s quest for knowledge must be for self-knowledge, and the function of the entire dream vision is psychic integration. As in Augustine’s Confessions, the “I” is used to signify both an omniscient narrator and a fallible character.tin and the education it implies function paradoxically, at times to suggest a privileged knowledge of Scripture, at other times to suggest something less important than a natural knowledge of truth. The production and distribution of food can produce temporary social order but no effective moral force, yet Piers at first goes the way of “bely joy.” His turning to a plow of “priere and penaunce” emerges in the Pardon episode, where Piers criticizes the understanding of both priest and church with the authority of sapiential “kynde knowynge.” B 13 illustrates the difference between scientia and sapientia, as the friar misinterprets Scripture to the unlearned and the dreamer’s health is shown to derive from his learning patience, abstemiousness, and perseverance. The biblical text is presented as nourishing for those who have attained the wisdom to read experientially. WL’s allegory is meant to be read both literally and figuratively; his allegorical imagery offers a non-developing series of varying reflections of perfect Truth. The non-similitude between tenor and vehicle of figures related to the court, money, and food is designed to show society’s failure to remain a good signifier of love and unity, not the failure of allegory to depict reality. God’s act of creation is explained by analogy to human writing; the poet’s playful wit is an imitation of divine creation, and the poem is the Life of Dowel that guarantees the poet’s salvation. Corrupt language does not create a corrupt society: people, not language, must be redeemed. The poem continually cautions against both “overskipping”-failure to read the whole text-and “glosing”-failure to interpret the text’s whole meaning-as errors that deny the word’s polysemous significance.

Rev.Lawrence M. Clopper, MLQ 51 (1990): 555-59; Patti Quattrin, Religion & Literature 23 (1991): 99- 100; Daniel F. Pigg, SAC 14 (1992): 198-200; James Simpson, MÆ 60 (1992): 121-23; Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, MLR 88 (1993): 720-21; Joseph S. Wittig, YLS 7 (1993): 168-74;

Volume

Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Author

Raabe, Pamela