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Langland’s Mighty Line

Langland’s Mighty Line

This essay examines some characteristics of L’s poetic lines by comparing them with variously parallel lines in Chaucer. A first section treats closely matched lines in the two poets on the themes of poetics itself, authority, the poet’s self-consciousness, and their special genre of dream-vision, finding in Will a “tormented egotistic humility” and in Geffrey a “comic humble egotism.” Chaucer satirizes by indirection, L by derision. The lexemic density of L’s lines contrasts with Chaucer’s easy colloquialism; L’s style follows from the resources of the alliterative line and enables the surfeited busy-ness of expression characteristic of Juvenalian satire. The metrical rules requiring imbalance at the end of the alliterative line give L’s poetry a periodic, energetic, indeed tumbling quality alien to Chaucer’s poise and sense of closure, as symbolized by the couplet itself. The second section inspects the diction of indignation and vulgarity in the two poets, and L’s savagery is contrasted with Chaucer’s sly wit. Chaucer exploits churls’ terms as subtle class distinctions, where L uses them in anger, and knows Chaucer’s (Frenchy) language of courtly manners only in its earlier form from the English romances, which he parodies. Where Chaucer condescends, L rages. Finally, L’s lines are viewed against Matthew Arnold’s critique of Chaucer as lacking high seriousness. A dozen lines from PPl are proffered as exhibiting a kind of sublimity outside of Chaucer’s view, a holy simplicity: “humble lines of religious intensity.” [SAB]


Hewett-Smith, Book of Essays : 103-17

Cross Reference



Barney, Stephen A