Issues of Personification and Debate in Wynnere and Wastoure.
“The narrative structure of L’s poem develops and proceeds” through the exposition of the different and frequently contradictory “layers of meaning” associated with personified characters such as Meed. This essay examines the similar blurring of the distinct identities of Wynnere and Wastoure in this poem with which L may have been familiar. By deliberately undercutting the “fixed, a priori identities and codes of behaviour” expected by readers of these personifications “the poet is making a sophisticated statement about the semantic status of . . . personifications.” The purpose of the essay is to explore how these modes of signification work rather than what these personifications signify ideally, which has been the concern of earlier criticism. Nominalist philosophy provides a useful “philosophical analogue” for this exploration which is not to suggest that the poem is a prototypical nominalist text. Rather, the poem shows an engagement with the nominalistrealist complex without drawing any formal conclusions. The nominalist rejection of universals, while eroding the epistemological basis for allegory, nonetheless explains the experimentation with that form as observed in the literature of the period. At the start of the debate the personifications of Wynnere and Wastoure may be described as “simple types,” and the debate centers around differing opinions about the proper use of resources and “the social implications of winning and wasting.” As both abstractions define themselves along polarized economic and moral grounds and seemingly refuse to learn from each other, the question is begged as to whether there can be sustained dialogue between these axiomatic, “static codes.” The debate, however, is furthered by the increasing ambiguity of the personifications, and in this the poem’s strategy would seem to be similar to that of PPl (as noted by Simpson). The next section of the essay analyzes the ways in which both Wynnere and Wastoure deviate from the absolutist positions with which they seek to identify: by highlighting the uncertainties and the relativity of the two voices the poet shows his distrust of the “persistence of ideological absolutes.” The final section concludes that given the unsatisfactory natures of the economic categories of both Wynnere and Wastoure—categories that nonetheless seek to assert unproblematic moral superiority over each other—it should not be surprising that no agency within the poem is able to bring about an acceptable resolution to the dispute. Ultimately, the two personifications correspond to “nothing real or knowable” and thinking in such reductive, polarized terms is “judged wanting.”
ES 82.6 (2001). 481–96.
Westphall, Allan F.