Title Background

Literary History and <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Literary History and Piers Plowman

Literary history, rightly practiced, tries to explain the relations of provocation and response, immanent to literary expression, that connect works over time. In this chapter, Justice argues that PPl yields a lot to such inquiry, for the very reason that might seem to make it a difficult case: because L works so hard not to seem literary. In PPl‘s treatment of its known sources, we see how the poem takes the suggestions of their figural language more seriously than they do, and by doing so seems to claim that its distinctive marks are the scars of history rather than the ornaments of poetry. But the divergent history of its influence suggests how artful and carefully shaped is its pose of battered experience and impatient mere art. On the one hand, there are those works – like the rebel letters of 1381, PPl’s Crede, and I, Playne Piers – that take that impatience with full earnestness and with a trust that hard experience and right belief are the stuff of worthy poetry; they capture something of the poem’s feeling of indignation, but none of L’s dialectical energy. On the other, there are those poets like Spenser, Hopkins, and Auden who attend precisely to the poem’s intricate though nearly unavowed verbal art; these all learn something crucial to their own verse, but do not get very close to the energy and distracted immediacy L’s polemical engagement. Something closer to L’s volatile combination of these elements appears at the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth: in Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger, whose art lives from truisms feigned as dangerous urgencies, and in Chaucer, whose deepest Langlandian lesson was how to make incompleteness a badge of honor rather than a mark of immaturity.


The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 50-64.


Justice, Steven