Langland’s Patience and Reading Piers Plowman
Hanna responds to David Aers and Nicholas Watson, who have read L’s Patience as an advocate for spiritual perfectionism. Their readings of Patience depend in turn on an account of the moment when Piers Plowman embraces a life of patient poverty, abandoning his work at the plough, and pursuing the contemplative life. Yet, Hanna finds that Aers and Watson have misinterpreted this moment, ‘perhaps distracted by Kane and Donaldson’s copiously and unprincipledly rewritten text here’ (p. 526): when Piers says he will ‘swynke noȝt so harde’ and not be ‘so bisy’ about his ‘bely-ioye,’ he in fact proposes a turn to the ‘mixed life,’ tempering his obsessive work ethic, making time for penance and contemplation, and accepting the resulting hardships with patience. These misreadings prompt further reflections on three characteristic forms of difficulty that L’s writing presents, and the recuperative strategies by which they might be addressed. The first arises from L’s ‘ceaseless investment in “voice”‘ (p. 527): as speaking characters proliferate in the poem, it is hard to know how much credence they should each be given. Yet, Hanna finds that the poem offers clear contextual signals to guide the attentive reader, and demonstrates these through a reading of Recklessness, whose statements should not be taken seriously. The second is a question of ‘tone’: for example, how should we account for the ‘playfully riddling quality’ that characterizes much of what Patience says? (p. 528). Hanna suggests that biblical proof texts on patience can guide us in interpreting statements of this kind. The third concerns the poem’s relation to ‘a range of circumambient discursive worlds’ (p. 528). Using ‘prosaic parallels’ from other, related texts to clarify the meanings of PPl risks overlooking the complex ways in which L assimilates and repurposes the materials he appropriates from elsewhere.