Piers Plowman.- An Introduction to the B-text
PPl, which in general does not observe the social or literary decorum characteristic of the alliterative revival, manifests a development from conservative and authoritative literary, theological, and political positions in the opening vision, in which estates satire and dream vision are exploited for critical and normative purposes, to more reflexive modes of discourse and more affective modes of poetic apprehension and intuitive procedures, as WL progressively turns from external authorities and formal institutions to a sense of the necessity of seeking truth within the self. The second vision (B.5-7), in applying truth to the spiritual sphere, leads WL to attack the institutional models on which the narrative is based, at one of which moments Piers himself emerges. The third vision and in particular the inner dream of B. 11 resolves the problem of virtuous human effort in the context of God’s unknowable decisions in a semi-Pelagian position that acknowledges grace as a gift of God but also affirms the value of good works. From this point WL as a poet is inevitably implicated in the poem’s satiric procedures. The fifth vision (B.15-17) shows the poem’s increasing emphasis on the possibilities of salvation based on God’s free decision to accept repentance as repayment for sin; this emphasis on mercy, however, leads to a critique of the institution of the Church, for charity, with its embodiment in the Incarnation, exists to WL as both a psychological and a historical idea. The renewed apostolic Church with (non-clerical) Piers as pope is put forward in the final vision along with a renewed society of work in which labor can find a place in a scheme of salvation that does not depend wholly on grace.
Rev. Alison Finlay, English 39 (1990): 253-58; Seth Lerer, TLS 4 January 1991: 17; John M. Bowers, MAE 60 (1991): 305-06; Anna Baldwin, YES 22 (1992): 264-65; Steven Justice, YLS 6 (1992): 153-55; Helen Barr, N&Q ns 40 (1993): 520-21; George D. Economou, SAC 16 (1994): 266-71.