Reddere and Refrain: A Meditation on Poetic Procedure in Piers Plowman
This essay considers L’s use of reddere and its cognates as a poetic refrain, which produces ‘accretive and echoic’ patterns of meaning in PPl (p. 5). Reddere is the most commonly reiterated Latin word in PPl, and, like the word ‘refrain’ itself, it gestures at once to an act of withholding (the verb ‘to refrain’, or the original debt) and of giving out (the noun ‘refrain’, or the act of repayment). Thus, Johnson argues, ‘the word reddere becomes a metapoetic figure for refrain, as well as [L’s] most prominent instantiation of one’ (p. 7). For Deleuze and Guattari, and similarly for John Hollander, refrains allow readers to feel at home in a text by establishing stable, legible structures of meaning, only to create a feeling of homelessness and a nostalgic longing for home when these structures decay and deform. Such modern theories of refrain are in some ways illuminating for PPl, since L’s poem invites the reader to anticipate a homeland, to which it never ultimately returns, yet they do not account for the fact that refrains in PPl, as in many medieval poems, are often citations from other texts: medieval refrains are not only intratextual, but also intertextual, and the ‘home’ they imagine is often located in other texts and discourses. When Holy Church and Robert the Robber voice the reddere-refrain in the Visio, alluding to Matthew 22. 18 and Luke 7. 42 respectively, the interplay of intratextual and intertextual reference leaves the reader suspended between optimism and anxiety about repaying debts to God. In the Vita, the reddere-refrain is associated with the parable of the unjust steward, which identifies the individual’s debt to God with their social obligations to other people; L draws out the implications of this parable, some optimistic, others ominous, and invites readers to imagine their social debts specifically in relation to honest labourers like Piers. A ‘refrain-oriented reading’ like this does not assume that L works towards some final, integrated statement on the repayment of debts, but instead ‘affirms a model of understanding the poem as distributed, kaleidoscopic, and echoic’ (p. 23).