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Langland’s Poetics of Animation: Body Soul, Soul, Personification

Langland’s Poetics of Animation: Body Soul, Soul, Personification

In medieval homiletic writings, body and soul were less often objects of explicit theorization than they were representational devices, deployed to make subjectivity thinkable and malleable in new ways. The fractious pairing of body and soul asked medieval Christians to make a distinction not self-evident in living creatures—between animating principle and material substrate, between what is immortal and what is perishable, between spirit and flesh. Body and soul together acted like a conceptual machine, churning through portrayals of human life to introduce difference and, so, occasions for that difference’s management. As this essay observes, the incision between body and soul opened a field of representational invention, where what exactly the two terms designated—and so the topology of the Christian subject—were mediated through interminable circuits of distinction and analogy, metaphor and metonymy.

At several points in PPl, L sets the protean meanings of body and soul at odds with the operations of personification. Their misalignment creates dizzying effects in part because personification and the “body-soul machine” share a similar structure: each presumes a conceptual incision, a cut, distinguishing between matter and spirit (that is, between literal and figurative senses, body and soul), and each generates its own restless movement by refining and mediating that division. PPl’s poetics of animation emerges from the distinctive manner in which the poem entangles the logics of corporeal and allegorical animation, to drive itself toward crisis. The present essay draws on the idea of the metaphoric and metonymic axes, formulated by Roman Jakobson, to analyze this effect.

Three episodes of the B text best illustrate the fraught Langlandian interplay of body and soul: the confession of the Sins, revolving around the vices’ contradictory personifications; the exchange between Haukyn and Patience, which troubles the structuring analogy between religious language and food; and the infiltration of the Barn of Unity, which ironizes the metaphors organized around Christus medicus. From Envy’s hollowed cheeks to Shrift’s sharp salves, these personifications both presume the analytical similarity of body and soul and turn against that similarity as a dangerous confusion. The clashing of literal and allegorical levels in these scenes stages the poem’s profound ambivalence about the legitimacy of bodily need, the resources of personification, and the possibility of doing well in a fallen world, of which the human body is the most immediate concretization. (JO)


Yearbook of Langland Studies, 33 (2019), 159–84


Orlemanski, Julie