William Langland’s Piers Plowman
Langland’s Life: Langland is a literary figure about whom little is known. He was probably born in Malvern, in Worcestershire, the son of a poor freeman, and spent his childhood as a shepherd in the fields. Later, he moved to London with his wife and children, where he made a meagre job as a church clerk. Meanwhile, his real life was that of a seer, a prophet after Isaiah’s own heart, if we can judge by the prophecy that soon found a voice in Piers Plowman. After the triumph of his great work, he was presumably drafting another poem called Richard the Redeless, a protest against Richard II, in 1399; however, the authorship of this poem, which was left incomplete by the king’s assassination, remains unknown. After 1399 Langland disappears utterly, and the date of his death is unknown.
Piers Plowman. “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” might well be written at the beginning of this remarkable poem. Truth, sincerity, a direct and practical appeal to conscience, and a vision of right triumphant over wrong,–these are the elements of all prophecy; and it was undoubtedly these elements in Piers Plowman that produced such an impression on the people of England. For centuries literature had been busy in pleasing the upper classes chiefly; but here at last was a great poem which appealed directly to the common people, and its success was enormous. The whole poem is traditionally attributed to Langland; but it is now known to be the work of several different writers. It first appeared in 1362 as a poem of eighteen hundred lines, and this may have been Langland’s work. In the next thirty years, during the desperate social conditions which led to Tyler’s Rebellion, it was repeatedly revised and enlarged by different hands till it reached its final form of about fifteen thousand lines.
The poem as we read it now is in two distinct parts, the first containing the vision of Piers, the second a series of visions called “The Search for Dowel, Dobet, Dobest” (do well, better, best). The entire poem is in strongly accented, alliterative lines, something like Beowulf and its immense popularity shows that the common people still cherished this easily memorized form of Saxon poetry. Its tremendous appeal to justice and common honesty, its clarion call to every man, whether king, priest, noble, or laborer, to do his Christian duty, takes from it any trace of prejudice or bigotry with which such works usually abound. Its loyalty to the Church, while denouncing abuses that had crept into it in that period, was one of the great influences which led to the Reformation in :England. Its two great principles, the equality of men before God and the dignity of honest labor, roused a whole nation of freemen. Altogether it is one of the world’s great works, partly because of its national influence, partly because it is the very best picture we possess of the social life of the fourteenth century:
Briefly, Piers Plowman is an allegory of life. In the first vision, that of the “Field Full of Folk,” the poet lies down on the Malvern Hills on a May morning, and a vision comes to him in sleep. On the plain beneath him gather a multitude of folk, a vast crowd expressing the varied life of the world. All classes and conditions are there; workingmen are toiling that others may seize all the first fruits of their labor and live high on the proceeds; and the genius of the throng is Lady Bribery, a powerfully drawn figure, expressing the corrupt social life of the times.
The next visions are those of the Seven Deadly Sins, allegorical figures, but powerful as those of Pilgrim’s Progress, making the allegories of the Romaunt of the Rose seem like shadows in comparison. These all came to Piers asking the way to Truth; but Piers is plowing his half acre and refuses to leave his work and lead them. He sets them ail to honest toil as the best possible remedy for their vices, and preaches the gospel of work as a preparation for salvation. Throughout the poem Piers bears strong resemblance to John Baptist preaching to the crowds . in the wilderness. The later visions are proclamations of the moral and spiritual life of man. The poem grows dramatic in its intensity, rising to its highest power in Piers’s triumph over Death. And then the poet wakes from his vision with the sound of Easter bells ringing in his ears.
Here are a few lines to illustrate the style and language; but the whole poem must be read if one is to understand its crude strength and prophetic spirit:
In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne,
I schop [clad] me into a shroud, as I a scheep were,
In habite as an heremite, unholy of werkes,
Went wyde in this world, wondres to here.
Bote in a Mayes mornynge, on Malverne hulles,
Me byfel a ferly, [wonder] of fairie me thoughte.
I was wery, forwandred, and went me to reste
Undur a brod banke, bi a bourne [brook] side;
And as I lay and lened, and loked on the watres,
I slumbred in a slepyng–hit swyed [sounded] so murie…
- William J. Long, English Literature, 1909, 1919 Ginn and Company, Boston.