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Piers Plowman

by William Langland

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,55998,977 (3.66)1 / 37
Notes by the translator and an introduction by Nevil Coghill supplement this handsomely produced version of the masterpiece of social protest literature in the Middle Ages.
  1. 00
    The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (myshelves)
    myshelves: Some similar themes are covered, especially with regard to religious issues.
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» See also 37 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Alliterative poem presumed to have been written by William Langland. Three versions of Piers Plowman are extant: A, the poem’s short early form, dating from the 1360s; B, a major revision and extension of A made in the late 1370s; and C, a less “literary” version of B dating from the 1380s and apparently intended to focus the work’s doctrinal issues. Some scholars think that version C may not be entirely attributable to Langland.

The poem takes the form of a series of dream visions dealing with the social and spiritual predicament of late 14th-century England. In general, the language is simple and colloquial, but some of the imagery is powerful and direct. Realistic and allegorical elements are mingled in a phantasmagoric way, and both the poetic medium and the structure are frequently subverted by the writer’s spiritual and didactic impulses. His bitter attacks on political and ecclesiastical corruption (especially among the friars) quickly struck a chord with his contemporaries. In the 16th century Piers Plowman was issued as a printed book and was used for apologetic purposes by the early Protestants. ( )
  Marcos_Augusto | Oct 18, 2021 |
After approximately a year of wading through Middle-English alliterative verse at an average rate of approximately one page per day, I have finally come to the end of The Vision of Piers Plowman. So was it worth it?

Yes! It is by some stretch my most ambitious undertaking in regard to reading Middle-English; I have not read two of the Canterbury Tales together and have only read about half of it (by number of lines - many fewer than half the Tales) and that's the limit of my Chaucer. I've never tackled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original and although I have read most of Malory, it is prose and more recent and again, not read as one big lump. Piers Plowman is not merely longer, though - it is, despite Langland being contemporary with Chaucer, fundamentally more difficult because the dialect is not Chaucer's. The London dialect went on to become the dominant one in the development from Middle to Modern English and is therefore somewhat easier for the modern reader. The concentration required and necessary time spent reading glosses and notes was rewarded, however. (It is slow going when one can only tackle it before going to sleep - hence one year to do it justice.)

The Vision of Piers Plowman is a Christian allegory and a deeply serious, heart-felt as well as intellectual one. Langland uses the older Alliterative verse style rather than adopting the new-fangled rhyming, iambic schemes as Chaucer did. I am a fan of this approach to narrative verse as it adds colour and interest (makes the story poetic!) without the risk of the unvaried rhythm of iambic metre sending one to snooze-land prematurely. Alliterative verse forms have strict rules, just as iambic metres do and it takes considerable skill to compose in them.

The seriousness and evident profound feeling behind the poem stands in stark contrast to the Canterbury Tales (insofar as I've read them) even though there are some themes in common. No matter where one stands regarding the debate about whether Chaucer's "very parfit gentle knyght" is being satirised or not, it is clear that the Tales in general are full of satire and humour and the various types of clergy are presented as a corrupt, greedy, hypocritical lot. Chaucer seems not to have much anger behind his satire, though - the Tales seem something of a frivolous entertainment. When Langland tackles such folk as friers and pardoners they come in for a metaphorical roasting and it is plain that he expects most of them to experience a literal one after Judgement Day. The only other Middle English poem I've read (in Tolkien's translation) that competes for expressing deep feeling on the part of its author is Pearl - another dream-vision, about the author's grief at the loss of a young daughter. Piers Plowman is on an altogether bigger scale, though. In a series of dreams (and dreams within dreams, which can get tricky to keep track of at one page a day) not only is a Utopian society envisaged, but every major question of Christian theology is addressed as the spiritual progress of both Piers and the dreamer are chronicled right up to the final battle between good and evil forces within humanity...

The prologue starts things of with an exciting little story where rats, mice and a cat take the place of nobles, commoners and the King. Matters continue apace and rather wittily with the Marriage of Mede, which gets tangled up in legal battles and corrupt practice. Later Piers sets up his farm and barn, eventually to be the scene of the dramatic finale. Most of this is lively and the narrative helps drag one through the worst difficulties of the language. (One learns as one progresses - once you know that "ac" means "but" it isn't a problem at future encounters, for example.)

Piers wanders off on a pilgrimage at about the half-way point as he believes he needs to understand the Biblical message better. The proceeding third or so of the poem is easily the most dull and dry as it descends into a series of theological discussions usually expounded by various characters quoting liberal quantities of Latin at each other. These matters were evidently important to Langland (and to many intellectual Christians, I suspect) but the excitement of the initial quarter of the poem becomes a distant memory. Things pick up again with the appearance of the Actyf Man (I love that name) and steadily accelerate to an Apocalyptic conclusion worthy of a poem of such scale and ambition.

We are lucky to have as much Middle English literature as we do and this work is a fine example of it: read it if you are a Christian, or if your interest in poetry will withstand 362 pages requiring total focus. ( )
1 vote Arbieroo | Jul 17, 2020 |
Strive for "do best." ( )
  LindaLeeJacobs | Feb 15, 2020 |
This is one of the last major poems (along with the work of the Gawain-poet) to use the old alliterative verse forms inherited from the Germanic past for a major poem. Despite using a shade more freedom than, say, the author of Beowulf did, this is firmly within that tradition, not a nostalgic or antiquarian harking-back: the old poetic tradition clearly had survived organically in the North, and this is its last flowering before English poetry becomes defined by the French-influenced verse of Chaucer, Gower, and their successors.

The content, however, is sui generis: a tapestry of devotional and homiletic elements tied together by a depiction of general lived experience.

It represents the general weaknesses of mediaeval architectonics: "I have made a heap of all that I could find", says Nennius, and this is as much a heap as any other kind of structure. The dream/vision model helps to justify the transitions, however, and it has thorough thematic unity.

It may also be the most liturgical of all major poems: the Latin verses which appear throughout would have been familiar to the devout reader, as they are not so much biblical (most of them are biblical, but not all: the Vexilla Regis, for example, gets a look in in the Harrowing of Hell passage) as drawn from the propers, both major and minor, of the missal.

There are, accordingly, threshold issues for the typical modern reader, but this is nevertheless well worth taking the effort to read.

(Review is of Skeat's edition of the B-text.) ( )
2 vote jsburbidge | Sep 20, 2016 |
I read this for its historical importance. Langland's poem is a quest: How to lead a good Catholic life in Medieval England. It was a little difficult to read, but if done shortly after you read Chaucer, it is far easier. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Langland, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Anderson, Judith H.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Coghill, NevillIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Donaldson, E. TalbotEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freeman, JohnPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goodridge, J. F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kane, GeorgeEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pearsall, DerekEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Salter, ElizabethEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schmidt, A. V. C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In a summer season when the sun was mild
I clad myself in clothes as I'd become a sheep;
In the habit of a hermit unholy of works
Walked wide in this world, watching for wonders. (Donaldson Translation)
(C-Text)
In a somur sesoun whan softe was the sonne
Y shope me into shroudes as y a shep were;
In abite as an heremite, vnholy of werkes,
Wente forth in the world wondres to here,
And say many sellies and selkouthe thynges.
(C-Text, Pearsall/Salter edition)
In a somur sesoun, whan softe was the sonne
I shope me into shroudes, as I a shep were,
In abite as an heremite, unholy of werkes,
Wente forth in the world wondres to here,
And saw many selles and selcouthe thynges.
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Notes by the translator and an introduction by Nevil Coghill supplement this handsomely produced version of the masterpiece of social protest literature in the Middle Ages.

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