William Langland Revisited
A student’s introduction to PPl. Conceived as a single poem, the poet named L wrote for a lay and clerical middle class audience. The generic similarity between PPl and the chanson d’aventure suggests L and his readers would consider the poem a literary work rather than one merely pious or didactic. Over the course of the three versions, L perfects the technique of using the persona of Will as a distinctive though not simply individual satiric voice. L portrays his society in terms of dysfunctional, individual sin, the result of disordered choice, being seen as an offense against society as well as against God. The only pardon a poena et a culpa is through individual cooperation with the Redemption, not only through baptism but confession and penance as well. The dominant problems confronted in PPl are not problems of knowing, but of willing and doing. L addresses the total behavior of individuals who, acting in love of neighbor and of God, might form a just community: for L, the practice of charity requires a sense of community. The poem is organized according to a strategy of contrasting different forms of goods, juxtaposed as good and bad, secular and religious. The discourse of Holy Church in passus 1 provides the pattern for the entire poem, as Kaske has pointed out. Passûs 2-4 consider the use and abuse of artificial goods, and the corruption of secular society by money and greed. Passus 6 considers the agrarian community’s struggle to provide the natural goods which sustain life. Passûs 8-20 concern the goods of the spirit, 8-13 truth, 13-20 love. In the economy of PPl, “truth” means being willingly responsive to the facts of one’s nature, the model for which is God. “Kynde knowyng” implies reacting naturally to what is known, and to manifest love. Knowledge surpasses mere conceptualization, passing from apprehension to response, i.e., to feeling, desire, and love. The allegorical strategy incorporates two different modes, the picture model and the disclosure model. With the former, a static image provides abstract meanings which are “read out” as exegesis decodes an encoded truth. The latter begins with a discursive poposition, using figurative language as part of the process of discovering truth, and is more commonly used by L in the climactic passûs 16-20. In the personifications, L employs a bidirectional dynamic: he makes the general vividly comprehensible while identifying the particular as belonging to the general category. Piers’s tearing of the pardon does not reject the Redemption, but is directed toward the Priest’s expectation of a blanket dismissal to sin. Piers recognizes that God has presented a path to forgiveness, but that he must respond to the offer effortfully. At this point the poem shifts in perspective from natural to spriritual goods, toward the quest for Dowel. The poem urges that although the truth about Dowel can be clearly stated, in order to know it kyndeliche, people need to be taught by example. Piers himself represents the best in human nature. After Clergy’s definition of Dowel in passus 13, Piers is increasingly associated with an expression of truth which emphasizes the love adumbrated by Clergy and described by Anima. The realization of Piers ultimately points to Christ, the only total manifestation of selfless love in human form. But he remains the best of human nature, so that after the Ascension, when the new church is being “sown” and “tilled,” Piers is associated with Peter, the apostles, and their successors. In the siege of Unity, L portrays the Christian community as so morally devastated that no unity remains, no hope of easily finding Piers, its moral leader. Conscience, having no nurturing community, needs to call to God for luck and grace in order to find a new Piers Plowman.
Rev. Anna P. Baldwin, YLS 12 (1998): 222-23.