Title Background

The Subject of <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

The Subject of Piers Plowman.

Traditional criticism of PPl is hampered by methodological assumptions and a critical vocabulary that approach the first-person subject as a narrative and discursive continuity, attempt to find a unity and authorial intention through an understanding of the poem’s subject and dream-vision genre, and defend the orthodoxy and univalence of WL’s work. Modern theory, on the other hand, allows us to approach the text as “concerned with contradictions in the social formation and the subject, and with the discourses of power whose intersection conveys those contradictions,” as well as to view the poem as a dialogic text that admits several voices, discourses, and subjectivities, as an analysis of subjectivity itself. First person singular asides in the poem at times appear to belong to the Dreamer, at times to the author, at times to neither. The subject persona is presented with many, sometimes contradictory attributes; he exists as an unstable analogy, standing in metonymic relation to the world in its problems and contradictions. As a character in a narrative, Will responds differently in different discourses: as dreamer, penitent, scholar, etc. As actant Will functions mainly in terms of disjunction and deferment and “the sudden substitution of one sort of discourse for another.” PPl does not move from a failed attempt to reform society to an acknowledgment that social reform is achieved only through reform of the individual, for the poem’s values are collective throughout. WL employs monologic penitential manuals in a dialogic fashion, in which they are put in competition with other discourses, and what was designed to mediate subjectivity is itself mediated and de-authorized. PPl reverses the normal and expected order of its structure, in that it asserts through the inspiration of the poet and the lay mediator Piers that the mediation of divinely sanctioned authority for man to gain transcendent knowledge may not be necessary. As such, there are affinities to the via positiva of late medieval lay piety. WL can be compared with Margery Kempe: the works of both are dialogic accounts of subjectivity; they aim at perfection and have a strongly social concern; they attempt to maintain an uneasy subjection to ecclesiastical power; and they center on subjects who “appear to be preposterous vessels of unmediated divine grace.”


YLS 1 (1987): 1-30.


Lawton, David.