The Making of Piers Plowrnan
In tracing the development of the poem in its four versions, this study finds the Z text to be a relatively simple poem of two visions mainly concerned with social and political questions which ends as society is being purged of the corrupting power of wealth. The pardon represents the ideals of Truth, Piers, and much of the first two visions; WL’s dissatisfaction with these ideals is displaced onto Piers in the new scene, in A, of tearing the pardon. The third vision of the A text-the least satisfactory of WL’s work-denigrates the value of productive labor and elevates religious aspects, as well as explores WL’s concerns regarding knowledge, learning and authority. A.11 ends with the third dream unfinished, but the fact that nine manuscripts have no more of A after that point may indicate that the author allowed it to circulate in that form. WL’s role as a poet-a topic suggested in the third vision-becomes one of the concerns of the B text. The main structure of A is retained, but the critique of contemporary society is focused on kingship and the Church, and the idea of trusting in divine indulgence is emphasized. The confrontation with Haukyn dramatizes rejection of the values associated with the active life in favor of an eremitic life of voluntary hardship; as in the tearing of the pardon, “plowing” is repudiated in favor of prayer. The fifth vision (B.15-17) articulates WL’s beliefs in the necessity of messianic salvation from outside mankind; the sixth vision similarly emphasizes the power of God in the depiction of the Redemption and in the placement of the Debate of the Four Daughters of God after the Crucifixion. The revision of B into the C text involves expansion (as in the confession of sins) and, elsewhere, a radical critique of the earlier version (for instance, the conception of Piers). New arguments are sometimes interpolated along with old ones that they counter, or old arguments are undermined by a new context (e.g., Recklessness’s attack on learning). Overall, the C text exhibits a greater detachment on WL’s part and a more balanced assertion of his ideals.
Rev, E. J. Milowicki, Choice 27 (1990): 1825-26; Alison Finlay, English 39 (1990): 253-58; Seth Lerer, TLS 4 January 1991: 17; A. A. MacDonald, ES 72 (199 1): 562-63; Lawrence M. Clopper, YLS 6 (1992): 146-51; Barry Windeatt, MÆ 60 (1992): 120-21.