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William Langland's Poem Piers Plowman

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1690 words Published: 17th May 2017

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The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman is an allegorical poem written in alliterative verse in the form of a dream vision, which depicts in great detail the structure and moral values of the English society during the fifteenth century. It provides a perspective on the social matters during that period and poses questions concerning the spiritual life and moral values of the various social classes, offering profound insight into the problematic issues of the time. The power of its narrative lies in the strong satire directed at the corruptness and depravity of the social system which stems from the individual’s lack of true understanding of the moral values represented in the biblical text. The poem states the author’s indignation and discontent with the immoral practices on all levels of social hierarchy, criticizing the corruptive nature of all classes, including the peasantry, the merchants and above all the clergy, and exposing their representatives as lacking the basic human morality and whose existence is deprived of any spiritual value.

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The popularity of the poem during the fourteenth century accounts for the power of its moral and political satire. It remained popular throughout the fifteenth century and it was regarded in the sixteenth by the leaders of the reformation as an inspiration and a prophecy, and, in modern times, has been quoted by every historian of the fourteenth century as the most vivid and trustworthy source for the social and economic history of the time (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature). This has often led to its misinterpretation as a call for social reformation and an expression of overall dissatisfaction with the social organization of the time. The poem, though used for the rebels’ propaganda during the peasant revolts, is not revolutionary in its essence. It does not suggest a reorganization of the social structure but rather expresses “criticism of the existing conditions…and condemnation of the life led by practically all the classes: blame of friars, of lawyers, of the clergy, of bishops, of nobles, of the poor who will not work” (Mincoff, 126). Throughout the narrative we encounter multiple references to the inadequate performance of their individual duties and the inability to fulfill their social role. The social corruptness is a direct result of man’s moral depravity, which is at the bottom of all misfortunes and the primary cause for the malfunction of the social system as a whole (Mincoff, 126).

A panoramic view of the English medieval society is offered in the very first part of the poem, the Prologue. It offers a general description of the major class representatives, thus providing the reader with a holistic perspective on the English society. There is a certain irony in this initial description which sets the satiric tone that can be felt later on throughout the text of the poem. Many of those in the crowd walking through the valley are subjected to the satire and moral condemnation of the author, regardless of their social status. The rich and the poor are criticized equally – beggars, friars, the pardoner, the priest and the lawyers

… Bidderes and beggeres faste aboute yede

[Til] hire bely and hire bagge [were] bredful ycrammed,

Faiteden for hire foode, foughten at the ale…

… I fond there freres, alle the foure ordres,

Prechynge the peple for profit of [the wombe]:

Glosed the gospel as hem good liked;

For coveitise of copes construwed it as thei wolde…

But many others deserve praising and they are praised equally regardless their class or wealth – the ploughmen, the nuns and hermits, the honest merchants and the minstrels (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature). The author’s criterion for evaluation is not the social class, the possession or lack of wealth, but the fulfillment of one’s duties and one’s honest life. There is no fault in the hierarchical structure of society, what is faulty is man who has lapsed into idleness and vice, therefore the change should take place within man’s heart first. The recipe is simple and it’s given to the dreamer in the form of advice by the Holy Church (Mincoff, 127):

Love is leche of lif and next Oure Lord selve,

And also the graithe gate that goth into hevene.

Forthi I seye as I seide er by sighte of the textes:

Whan alle tresors ben tried, Treuthe is the beste.

The author’s satire can be felt particularly strong through the skillful use of the grotesque in the depiction of the wedding company setting off for Westminster. The journey of the laughable party is by no means an exception to the poem, it is only one of the numerous episodes where caricature is used to convey the author’s strong disapproval and discontent. Due to the lack of horses the party rides on the backs of saddled sheriffs, assessors, notaries and all sorts of officials (Mincoff, 127).

And Favel fette forth thanne foles ynowe

And sette Mede upon a sherreve shoed al newe,

And Fals sat on a sisour that softeli trotted

And Favel on a flaterere fetisly atired.

Some of the most impressive examples of this characteristic use of the grotesque we find in the confessions of the Seven Deadly Sins (Mincoff, 128). They are described with such a great skill that their appearance speaks more than their words.

And thanne cam Coveitise, I kan hym naght discryve–

So hungrily and holwe Sire Hervy hym loked.

He was bitelbrowed and baberlipped, with two blered eighen

And as a letheren purs lolled hise chekes–

Wel sidder than his chyn thei chyveled for elde;

And as a bondeman of his bacon his berd was bidraveled;

With an hood on his heed, a lousy hat above,

In a [torn] tabard of twelf wynter age;

But if a lous couthe lepe the bettre,

She sholde noght wa[ndr]e on that Welche, so was it thredbare!

Meed is the character who embodies to the greatest degree the author’s satire. She brings confusion and corruption to the world and the love for Meed is spread through all classes of society and is deeply rooted in the viciousness of man’s nature. There are no satirical attacks against any class in particular, because they are all equally poisoned by the love of Meed. The power of the satire lies in the skillful use of allegory. The personified characters are not mere one-dimension abstractions employed to speak the author’s mind, they are fully fledged characters, vividly depicted, moving and breathing, participating in various situations and characterized by a distinctive speech manner. The author very rarely interferes directly to criticize or moralize, which makes the poem more objective. We may say that the poem’s satire works on subconscious level, influencing the reader through powerful and memorable images and the portrayal of colourful characters instead of imposing his views and ideas directly (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature). His satire is almost exclusively conveyed through the speech of his characters and the interaction between them. In that sense, it’s implicit rather than explicit, more subtle and far more effective.

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The evil-doers in society are not the only ones subjected to the author’s satire, the wasters who spend all their lives in idleness and who are not willing to work are also severely criticized for they all fail in performing their social roles. The passive existence of the idlers is as unacceptable as the existence of those who do harm and indulge in immoral activities. The author’s view on the labour organization within society is clearly stated by Piers’ refusal to feed those who do not work, except for those who are physically disabled. Every part of the society has to make its contribution and perform its duties. The only possible solution is Hunger, who is the only one capable of forcing the wasters to work. The author of the poem is well aware that the beggars and all the rest who refuse to work disrupt the balance is society and pose a threat to the social order. One should not rely on others’ effort and hard work. Decisive measures should be undertaken in order to compel them to earn their living. The idlers must be refused any kind of food except for bread and water.

But the author seems rather unwilling to accept hard work as a primary virtue as it is evident from the pardon that Piers receives.

“-Do wel and have wel. and God shal have thi soule,’

And ” Do yvel and have yvel, and hope thow noon oother

That after thi deeth day the devel shal have thi soule!’

Everything should be applied in moderation. Excess is the actual subject to his fierce criticism. Every man should dedicate sufficient amount of his time not only to work but to prayer and penance, and to spiritual contemplation, or, as Mincoff put it, it is “a warning not to let oneself be carried away too completely by worldly cares, to remember that there is the spiritual life as well” (132).

The ultimate moral lesson of the poem is that those who are guided by their conscience have a chance for salvation. Conscience is the only one who stays to guard the Church of Unity and search for Christ in the person of Piers at the end of the poem. Conscience appears in the poem as early as in the first vision when the author clearly states his views concerning the government of the country which should be based on Conscience and Reason. Therefore, we may conclude that both the moral growth of the individual and the well-being of the whole society are rooted in human conscience, which is the guiding principle for a good honest life as well as prosperous society while the allegoric treatment of the matter increases the power of suggestion and contributes to the author’s trenchant satire.


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