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The Clerkly Maker: Langland’s Poetic Art.

The Clerkly Maker: Langland’s Poetic Art.

Explores the versecraft, diction, and wordplay of WL, here considered an author conscious of being a practitioner of the maker’s art (treating serious poetic matters rather than scurrilous material) and a real member of the estate of the clergy (hence concerned with the proper use of language for the glory of God and the good of man). WL defends the activity of making and his own involvement in it in B. 11 and B. 12. He distinguishes his making from “spilling of speech,” and as something done for “solace” after study or enjoyment between prayers; thus he redefines in his apologiae the accepted role of both clerk and maker. As a clerk, WL was as concerned about standards in the vernacular art of making as in the art of Latin versemaking. Although Anima’s remarks on the decline of education among the clergy pertain directly to Latin versemaking, his use of the phrase versifye faire (B. 15.372) suggests application in contexts of the vernacular. WL’s line consists of not fewer than four and almost never more than five stressed syllables, separated from each other by a varying number of unstressed syllables, and with optional unstressed syllables at the beginning and end of the line. The two half-lines, separated by a caesura, are not always of equal metrical weight. The smooth-flowing effect generated by the alternation of lifts (stressed syllables) and drops (unstressed syllables in which volume is reduced and pitch falls) is sometimes deliberately interrupted by the omission of the dips between lifts. A full stave is a lift bearing both alliteration and stress; a blank stave lacks alliteration. The common pattern aa / ax (with a denoting a full stave and x a blank stave) often is found in an “enriched” variant, aa / aa. The five-lift line aaa / ax (variant aaa / aa) shows how enrichment can have metrical significance in increasing the weight of the line. The blank extended line aax / ax (variant axa / ax) completes the repertoire of the standard line, or Type 1, within whose limits WL achieves variety by drawing on devices of ornament. Type II lines, of which there are approximately eighty instances in the B text, have three full staves grouped in the a-half (aaa / xx), sometimes with the two lifts of the b-verse alliterating on a second sound (aaa / bb). Type III, a “minimally staved” line that is also found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and P3A, is of the pattern ax / ax; though the C text often revises such lines, they are probably authorial. An enriched ax / aa variant and one featuring crossed alliteration (ab / ab) are also found. While “little words” often carry alliteration in PPl, there are very few examples in which such small words carry stress. These small word staves are thus to be considered “mute,” with a following syllable carrying the stress. Five of every seven of the B text’s mute staves occur in the key position, the first stave of the b-half. A transitional (T-type) line results when a stave is generated through a word alliterating by help of the end-consonant of the word preceding it; this has the effect of heightening the prominence of the b-line lifts. WL is occasionally forced to stress words in a way that probably differs from that of speech or prose; there are approximately seventy-five examples of such “wrenched stress” in the poem. He utilizes enjambment, largely to create an impression of conversational naturalness, on the average of fifteen lines per passus, most often by suspension of the main verb, the subject, or the object. He employs patterns of complex alliteration within individual lines and over two or more lines; the latter may be said to counteract the tendency of enjambment to dissolve the structural autonomy of the individual line. Contrapuntal alliteration (aab / ab) produces greater density of texture within individual lines, and is employed by WL inversely (aba / ab) and in echoic fashion (where the two contrapuntal staves occur at either end of the line, and the first is mute, and echoed by the second). There are over 100 examples of pararhyme in the B text, in which the staves of the a-verse and the b-verse are bound closely by a second alliterating consonant added to each of two words already joined by initial alliteration. Pararhyme in PPl commonly occurs across the caesura; when within the half-line it almost always occurs in the a-verse. WL also employs crosscaesural rhymes, internal half-line rhyme (only in the b-verse), and identical rhyme. For all his mistrust of the ultimate value of learning as an aid to gaining salvation, WL clearly believes in the necessity for some to be able to construwe; B. 14 in particular shows how necessary, and how difficult, it is “In Englissh … wel to expounen.” The action of “kenning” emblematizes the gap between a carnal and a spiritual understanding of religious truth. To construe WL’s words presupposes among his clerkly audience a familiarity with grammatica. Even those Latin quotations that have the character of marginal glosses or footnotes are not extraneous or inessential to the sense. WL’s use of macaronic passages, juxtaposing grammatica and the vulgaris locutio, brings together the transcendent and empirical domains. WL would accept that words operate “sacramentally” in enacting that which they signify, as in the miracle at Cana and in the Eucharist. Through his wordplay he suggests “that ambiguity, the chief (if not the sole) difficulty in ‘expouning’ proper meanings, is not a feature of the ‘vulgar lingo’ only but of language itself.” His fondness for the pun suggests his attitude toward language as something to be trusted as well as suspected. There are over 180 examples of punning in the B text, and 200 in the C text. WL frequently uses the quasi-pun or chime (annominatio) that relies on almost the same word in a different sense. He also employs the anti-chime, in which another sense of a word is called up, only to be rejected. His great strength as a poet is seen to derive from his not confusing the “right” use of a word (its “lele” use) with its “true” meaning. He exploits two senses of bidden, “to pray to God” and “to beg,” as well as the tension between biden and its antichime bidden. And he is particularly conscious of the susceptibility of good to being misused and misdefined; he guards against this by connecting the ethical and property senses of the word with each other and with God.

Rev. John A. Alford, Envoi 1 (1989): 375-81; Derek Pearsall, SAC 11 (1989): 288-90; T. Turville-Petre, RES 40 (1989): 548-49; Rosemarie P. McGerr, ES 71 (1990): 73-74; Willi Erzgräber, Anglia 109 (1991): 197-99; J. S. Wittig, Speculum 66 (1991): 237-39.


Piers Plowman Studies 4. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Wolfeboro, NH: Boydell & Brewer, 1987.


Schmidt, A. V. C.