Introduction: The Critical Heritage.
Analyzes the six-hundred-year critical history of the poem, considered until this century largely as an English historical document. Though the critical reputation of PPl, like that of Chaucer, was established before its author’s death, the unpopularity of alliterative verse after 1400 appears to have been instrumental in a view of WL as a visionary spokesman for reform rather than a poetic exemplar. Later interpreters have viewed PPl as an illustrative social document, as social and moral exhortation, and as allegorical vision. As an illustration of the life of its time, the poem has often been examined solely for parallels with such matters as the main interests of the Commons in Parliament. More recent historical and literary scholars have been more sensitive to the fictive aspects and generic purposes not only of the poem but also of medieval chronicles and similar reportage. Considered as exhortation intended to influence its contemporaries, PPl has been viewed along a continuum extending from literal satire to more broadly figurative prophetic and apocalyptic concerns, in a way that mirrors the twin penitential objectives of immediate moral reform and ultimate salvation. Manly’s theory of multiple authorship is seen as growing out of Wright’s speculations on the political differences between B and C, and reflecting the late nineteenth-century view of long, complex works of early societies as “layered assemblages of the work of several hands.” Argues that attempts to find unity in the poem by applying ideas drawn from analogous works fail by not sufficiently considering WL’s particular literary procedures. By the mid-twentieth century, allegory was being examined both as a rhetorical device and an interpretative model. Describes the exegetical criticism of Robertson and Hupp6 as based in the “revelatory” or visionary critical tradition in which the poem “is assumed to effect moral or spiritual cognition through symbolic forms” and as moving from the general to the particular in its interpretation. Defines a complementary “hortatory approach” which proceeds from the particular to the general, and can be divided into studies of applied exegesis and poetic method (e.g., the work of Kaske, Alford, Allen) and studies of the social contexts of WL’s literary practice (e.g., the work of Aers).
Alford, Companion to PPl, 1-25.