Title Background

Personification in <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

Personification in Piers Plowman.

That WL uses personification is scarcely surprising. However, the range of items personified, the variety of types of personification, and the frequency of their occurrence are all quite extraordinary. Over eighty inanimate and abstract nouns are personified in the B and C versions of PPl. Classical gods and such traditional figures as Fortuna or Natura are not primary. Rather PPl is populated with figures from Christian history and mythology which often telescope into personifications (e.g., Abraham = Faith). WL uses other linguistic resources besides abstract nouns to produce his personifications: verbal phrases, scriptural tags, and even imperatives (e.g., “agite penitenciam”) can assume an active role in the poem. Many of WL’s personifications, however, never take on any role in the fable of the poem and remain isolated features of the dreamer’s discourse about the fable. What should be investigated is the question of how personified terms in PPl acquire the “semic density” that allows them to become “actants” in the narrative and why it is that some acquire this density while others do not, A related problem is posed by the fact that, “even once a proper name has been established, there can be no confidence that it will continue to refer to the same person” (e.g., Truth in passus 1 versus Truth in passus 18). Often it is not easy to determine whether a given personification is a constituent of the dream itself or merely part of an evaluation of that vision (e.g., B.Prol. 100-11, describing Peter’s having left the power of the keys to the cardinal virtues). Accurate description of these phenomena invites the structuralist distinction between speech acts in a narrative text supporting “story” and those acting as vehicles for “discourse.” WL’s discourse “monopolizes the narrative” so that his personifications are not sustained as characters and “their readiness to revert to discourse undermines the completeness of the represented world.” Chapters 1 and 2 deal with situations where personifications (Holy Church, Truth, Meed) can be usefully analyzed in terms of rhetorical or grammatical categories. Chapter 3 discusses the personification of WL’s Seven Deadly Sins within the logic of an Ockhamist position far-removed from the neo-Platonism of Prudentius; Chapters 4 and 5 seek to develop hermeneutic strategies for addressing some of the most obscure of WL’s personifications (i.e., those associated with the Tree of Charity and allegory of the Good Samaritan), episodes where gloss is always threatening to become story and story is on the brink of collapsing back into commentary.

Rev. Elizabeth D. Kirk, SAC 8 (1986): 195-96; Judith D. Anderson, Speculum 62 (1987): 419-21; Richard Kenneth Emmerson, YLS 1 (1987): 144-45; James Simpson, N&Q ns 34 (1987): 63-64; Guy Bourquin, Etudes Anglais 42 (1989): 2 10-11