Piers Plowman: A Modern Verse Translation
The stated aim of this translation is ‘to provide a version that retains the energy, alliteration, imagery and intentions of the original and can be read with pleasure for its own sake … although it can also be used as an introduction to the original.’
In the introduction, Sutton describes PPl as ‘a moving, disturbing and often amusing commentary on corruption and greed that is still apposite today … Conscience, Fidelity, Gluttony, Pride and the other human strengths and weaknesses named as characters in the poem are timeless, and are recognizable as our present-day politicians and celebrities, friends and neighbors.’ The introduction goes on to identify major themes in the poem, explain its structure, and discuss the likely dates of the different versions. The inferred rules of L’s alliterative verse form are discussed, with an explanation of how these rules are applied in the translation. The introduction concludes with remarks on particular difficulties, and on the imagery of the poem. The chapter on the identity of the author describes the limited sources of information about L, placing the emphasis on inferences from the poem itself: his degree of education, associations with Worcestershire, and experience of life. Evidence recently put forward by Robert Adams and Michael Bennett is discussed, and the question of L’s marital and clerical status is addressed.
Sutton’s version is based on the B text, in the editions by Skeat and Schmidt. Three sections of C are also included, separated from the remainder of the text by the suspension of line numbering: Langland’s sympathy for the poor (IX 71-97), the ‘autobiographical’ lines (V, 1-5, 7-9, 11-83, 89-93, 105-107), and an addition to the harrowing of hell (XX 281-294). The footnotes are taken from Skeat and Schmidt (1995 and 2011), with the addition of further remarks. All L’s Latin quotations are referenced and are either freshly translated or taken from the Douay-Rheims Bible, while footnotes point to differences from the King James Version. At a couple of points, a jumble of Latin, French and high-flown English is used to simulate the alienating effect of the original. As for the style, a few random lines from Step V will give a flavor of the attempt to avoid both ‘poetic’ and excessively ‘contemporary’ language:
‘For sure,’ he said, ‘I shared once with merchants,
And I bounced up and burgled their bags in the night.’
‘But that was theft, not making restitution.
You ought to be hanged,’ Repentance answered,
‘For that and the things you’ve already told.’
The bibliography lists the 70 or so works consulted by the translator, and the index contains over 400 entries that demonstrate the breadth of the poem.