Voice in Later Medieval English Literature: Public Interiorities
This study approaches later medieval English vernacular culture in terms of voice. As texts and discourses shift in translation and in use from one language to another, antecedent texts are revoiced in ways that recreate them (as ‘public interiorities’) without effacing their history or future. The approach yields important insights into the voice work of late medieval poets, especially L and Chaucer, and also their fifteenth-century successors, who treat their work as they have treated their precursors. It also helps illuminate vernacular religious writing and its aspirations, and it addresses literary and cultural change, such as the effect of censorship and increasing political instability in and beyond the fifteenth century. An emphasis on voice as a literary tool of broad application is proposed, and this book has a bold and comparative sweep that encompasses the Pauline letters, Augustine’s Confessions, the classical precedents of Virgil and Ovid, medieval contemporaries such as Machaut and Petrarch, extra-literary artists like Monteverdi, later poets such as Wordsworth, Heaney, and Paul Valéry, and moderns such as Jarry and Proust. What justifies such parallels, Lawton argues, is that late medieval texts constitute the foundation of a literary history of voice that extends to modernity. The book’s energy is therefore devoted to the transformative reading of later medieval texts, in order to show their original and ongoing importance as voice work.
Chapter 5, ‘Voice as Confession: Piers Plowman and the Culture of Memory’ is devoted to the voice work of PPl, prefaced by an initial reading of Bakhtin’s notion of polyphonic, dialogic, and open discourse. The history of the poem is one in which its voices are open to confusion, but even that is a response to the dialogue it opens with its readers. It is a poem that sets itself up as a place for the interior voice to be heard. The chapter concentrates on problems of confession in the poem, both poetic and sacramental. It therefore ranges from PPl to Augustine’s Confessions, whose voice helps shape L’s; and it considers L in comparison to another poet for whom Augustine made an essential difference, Petrarch. For L, the work of writing, and of confession, activates both memory and prayer. His poem’s resistance to closure, however, is not always mirrored in his critics, as in the attempt to prove that he also wrote William of Palerne.