Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman.
John But, the first of WL’s readers committed to the “autobiographical fallacy,” appeared to view Will’s visions as authentic spiritual experience, figuratively expressed, not as a literary dream. But’s solicitous making of an “ende” to WL’s work distinguishes his participation above the merely scribal or documentary, yet the phrase he quotes (B.12.16) is found in one of the most devastating indictments of “making” in ME literature, and hence exposes the difference in value and meaning he and WL assign to poetic closure. For But, good works -including poetic making -constitute the just price exacted by God for salvation; for WL, they are only a sign obtained through faith in a transaction in which man is a beholder and partaker, rather than a “maker.” Argues that only A.12.17-33 (Scriptures argument on the virtues of remaining silent in the face of wilful sinfulness) is authentically Langlandian, in its cogent adducing of three Latin texts in nineteen lines and its articulation of a question earlier raised by Study and later developed in B and C: “the value, appropriate manner, and social effectiveness of the public orator’s or writer’s enterprise of moral correction.” An appendix prints a notice (Close Rolls 5 Nov. 1379) of a retirement position in Cornwall for John But, “one of the king’s messengers.” If this refers to the continuator of the poem, it suggests he was more likely to have come from this region than from London or East Anglia. Patent Rolls 30 April 1384 suggests But’s continued residence in the west country, from which the C text appears to have been disseminated 1379-84, and hence slightly strengthens the case for his knowledgeable report-perhaps based on local information-of the poet’s death.
Kennedy et al., Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, 243-66.