Stability and the Reading of Piers Plowman
This is a revised text of Benson’s plenary lecture for the Sixth International Piers Plowman Society conference, held at the University of Washington, Seattle, in July 2015. The lecture has two parts. In the first, Benson discusses two ways of approaching PPl. One is what he describes as the search for stability in the poem, the desire to identify a consistent design or coherent, developing pattern in PPl, which was especially strong during the second part of the last century. The other, which seems more prevalent at present, calls attention to the poem’s instability, lack of design, and irresolution. While Benson is generally more sympathetic with the second approach, he acknowledges that both have taught us much about PPl and often overlap in practice. The second part of the lecture suggests that contemporary Langlandians might profit from an increased awareness of the critical accomplishments of the 1970s, especially the close analysis of the poetic texture of particular moments in PPl. Without advocating a return to the 1970s, Benson proposes that critics might want to revisit reading techniques used then that could be applied to new questions today. The lecture does not presume to imagine what these new results will be, but hopes to encourage others to seek them.