Noise Soundplay, Soundplay, and Langland’s Poetics of Lolling in the Time of Wyclif
This article situates L’s revisions to PPl in relation to a strand of medieval literary theory on vox, which outlined the correct relationship between the sound of language and its meaning. As early as Augustine of Hippo, medieval thinkers worried about sound’s capacity to overtake sense, rendering language into noise. But the issue was particularly animated in L’s own time by the writings of John Wyclif and his followers, also called lollards. Wycliffite writing sought to reform church corruption by teaching that correct spirituality involved attention to rational essences rather than external physical signs. In the interpretation of Scripture, for example, attention to the sounds of language without an emphasis on divine will was a form of undeveloped understanding that was childish and bestial in its irrationality and emphasis on the body. Those who spoke or preached from this position of superficial understanding and focus on outward signs were likewise simply making noise. PPl B responds to centuries of debate about the correct dynamic between sound and sense, offering a complex and ambivalent treatment of sound. L’s depiction of the confession of Sloth registers anxiety about the seductive physicality of sound as the sin’s loud noises betray his excess carnality and lack of reasoned will. Yet the poem also asserts the importance of experiencing the sounds of language uncoupled from the direct communication of meaning. While this recuperation of sound is evident in the B text, it coalesces in the C-text additions on lollares and lunatic lollares, whose slippery use of language is both deceptive and numinous by turns. Here L cultivates a poetics of lolling: a mode of attention or attunement to the ways that the sounds of language can multiply sense, creating a space for slow, associative, and recursive thinking.