Langland’s Last Words
After having spent much of his waking life composing and revising PPl, L offers, in C.20.350–58, the final revised speech of Will in the final revised passus of the final version of his poem. Perhaps it is better to call such revisions ‘intrusions’ into the poem, and Will’s words in C.20 do indeed have an intrusive feel, for Will is more than aware here that he has become over-excited in his commentary and that he needs to rein himself in. Calabrese reads this dramatic intrusion in relation to two other significant intrusions in the C-text, Conscience’s speech on clerical corruption in C.Prol.95–124 and Will’s exposition on the clergy in the Pardon Scene, at C.9.255–79. In these three instances, he argues, we come as close as possible to hearing the voice of the poet himself. These are not the only intrusions, large or small, in the complexly revised C-text, but they do reflect a coherence of attitude and an authorial disposition displayed by the poet in his final moments of creation, composition, and contemplation, however murky the archaeological status of the poem’s textual history may remain. Seeing these passages as a series of linked and intentional elaborations and as integral parts of L’s C-text work supports the contention that L in the C text increases the intensity and the frequency of direct speech in propria persona. No one can claim, from internal nor external evidence, nor from a critical or textual perspective, to know L’s ‘last words’, but his bit of ‘overleaping’ here in passus 20 into matters of God’s judgement ‘at the laste’ could well qualify, if we compel ourselves to find a candidate. For, here and in the sequence of related intrusions, L writes about himself, his struggles, and his sinful world with an increasing urgency and intensity, as his poem becomes ever more indistinguishable from the poet’s own salvific longings.
Readings in Medieval Textuality: Essays in Honour of A. C. Spearing, ed. by Cristina Maria Cervone and D. Vance Smith (Cambridge: Brewer, 2016), pp. 65–81.