Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Walter W. Skeat
William Langland (1332?1400?)
CONTEMPORANEOUSLY with Chaucer there lived and worked one of the most remarkable of our poets, of whom we know little or nothing except from his works. And even these have been so little studied by the generality of readers, that the singular mistake has arisen of confusing the name of the work with the name of the author. It is common to see references made to Piers Plowman as if he were a writer living in the fourteenth century, which is no less confusing than if we should speak of Hamlet as flourishing in the reign of Elizabeth.
Our authors name is not certainly known. That his Christian name was William there can be no doubt, though by some mistake he has sometimes been called Robert. In a note written on the fly-leaf of one of the Dublin MSS., in a hand of the fifteenth century, we are told that a certain Stacy de Rokayle, living at Shipton-under-Wychwood (about four miles from Burford in Oxfordshire), and holding land of Lord le Spenser, was the father of William de Langlond who wrote the book called Piers Plowman. The only difficulty about this testimony is the name Langland, which should rather, perhaps, be read as Langley; since the Langland family was at that date connected with Somersetshire, whilst there is actually a hamlet named Langley at no great distance from Shipton.
By a careful study of the internal evidence afforded us by the poets works, we can make out quite sufficient to give us a clear idea of the man. We gather, chiefly from his own words, that he was born about A.D. 1332, probably at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. His father and his friends put him to school (possibly in the monastery at Great Malvern), made a clerk or scholar of him, and taught him what holy writ meant. In 1362, at the age of about thirty, he first began work upon the poem, which was to occupy him during a great part of his after life. The real subject of the poem is the religious and social condition of the poorer classes of England during the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II. His testimony is invested with a peculiar interest by the fact that he clearly knew what he was talking about. His own experience, and his own keen powers of observation provided him with an abundant supply of material. He saw the necessity of some reform, and endeavoured to realise in his own mind the person of the coming reformer. To this ideal person he gave the name of Piers the Plowman, to signify that great results can often be achieved by comparatively humble means; and perhaps as hinting, at the same time, that if the labouring classes were to expect any great improvement to take place in their condition, they had best consider what they could do to help themselves. As years wore on, Williams supposed reformer seems to have become less actual to him, and assumed, as it were, a more spiritual form to his mind. At last he fully grasps the idea that it is better to turn from any expectation of a reformer to come to the contemplation of the Saviour who has come already. At this point, his mind seizes a bolder conception; he no longer describes Piers Plowman as he had done at first, as if he were no more than what was formerly called a head harvestman, giving directions to the reapers and sowing the corn himself that he might be sure it was sown properly; but he identifies him rather with the Good Samaritan, or personified Love, who is to be of more help to mankind than Faith as typified by Abraham, or than Hope as typified by Moses. The true Good Samaritan is He who told the parable of Himself; the Reformer is no other than Christ. When Christ became incarnate, He was like a warrior doing battle in anothers cause, and wearing his arms and cognisance. He put on the armour of Piers the Plowman when He took upon Himself human nature; and His victory over death was the earnest of the deliverance of mankind from all miseries, and the beginning of the improvement of the condition of the lower orders. Such ideas as these form, in fact, a part of the authors own life; they are essentially an important chapter in his autobiography.
In the first instance, he began his poem under the form of a Vision, which took at last the name of the Vision of Piers the Plowman; though it is rather a succession of visions, in some of which Piers is never seen at all. The poet describes himself as wandering on the Malvern Hills, where he falls asleep beside a murmuring brook, and dreams of a Field full of Folk, i.e., the world, of the Lady Holychurch who acts as his instructress, of the Lady Meed who corrupts justice and is ready to bribe even the king himself, of the Seven Deadly Sins, and of Piers the Plowman. Such was the first draught of his poem, to which a sort of appendix was shortly added, with the title of Do-Well, Do-bet [i.e., Do-better], and Do-best.
It would appear that he had already some acquaintance with London life; and, soon after the writing of the first draught of the poem, he seems to have resided there permanently, taking up his abode in Cornhill, where he lived with his wife Kitte and his daughter Calote, for many long years. About A.D. 1377 he undertook the task of revising his poem; it ended in his completely rewriting it, at the same time expanding it to so great an extent that it grew to three times its former length. Incidentally, he describes himself as a tall man, going by the nickname of Long Will; one loath to reverence lords or ladies, or persons dressed in fur and wearing silver ornaments, and not deigning to say God save you to the serjeants whom he met. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to picture to ourselves the tall gaunt figure of Long Will, in long robes and with shaven crown, striding along Cornhill, saluting no man by the way, and minutely observant of the gay dresses to which he paid no outward reverence. It further appears that he was thoroughly versed in legal forms, and conversant with the writing out of legal documents; such knowledge enabled him to earn small sums as a notary, and he was frequent in his attendance at Westminster Hall.
Towards the year 1393, or even a little earlier, we find him again becoming dissatisfied with the wording of his poem. Again he resolved to revise it thoroughly, but this time he is more careful about the form than the matter. Minute corrections and alterations were made in almost every line; a few passages were curtailed, and others somewhat lengthened. Perceiving that one long passage of his poem as it stood in the second draught was, as to its general contents, a repetition of a former passage, he so transposed his material as to bring the two passages together, interweaving them with such ingenuity that the numerous insertions seem to fall into their places naturally enough. The resulting third draught of the poem is not much longer than the second, In some points he made improvements, but the general effect of the whole is less striking and original; this being the inevitable result of his obvious desire to tone down some of the more outspoken passages, and to express a certain leaning towards conservatism such as frequently comes with advancing years. We are bound, perhaps, to consider this latest version of the poem as being, upon the whole, the best; but we cannot but remark that, whilst it is more mature, it is less vigorous.
Thus, during a period of more than thirty years, the poem called the Vision of Piers the Plowman, with its appendix of Do-Well, Do-bet, and Do-best, descriptive of three stages in the Christians life and experience, grew slowly into its final shape under the authors hands. It is a poem of almost unique character, and can hardly be judged by any of the usual standards. In one respect, it reminds us of Butlers Hudibras; it was obviously written rather to give the author an opportunity of saying many things by the way than on such a definite plan as requires a close attention on the part of a reader. The general plan has but slight coherence, and merely aims at considering what improvement can be made in mens characters, and what hope there is for the world from the teachings of Christianity. He who does a kindly action, does well; but he who teaches men to do good, does better; whilst he who combines both, who does good himself and teaches others to do the same, does best. From frequently dwelling on this theme, the poet at last considers the life of Christ; and, following the narrative of the gospels, describes His entry into Jerusalem, His betrayal and crucifixion. At this point, he supplements the gospel narrative from the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus, describing the descent of Christ into hell, His victory over Satan and Lucifer, and His release of the souls of the patriarchs from their long prison. Then follows the glorious Resurrection of the Saviour, the descent of the Holy Ghost, and the bestowal upon men of the gifts of the Spirit. But the progress of Christianity is checked to some extent by the descent of Antichrist and the attack of the Seven Deadly Sins upon the church; and the poem concludes by reminding us that the church is still militant, that corruptions have crept in where only truth should be preached, and that the end is not yet.
In 1399, during the brief space when the deposition of Richard II. was already imminent but had not yet been decided upon, our author wrote a poem, addressed to the king, upon the subject of the misgovernment under which England suffered. This poem, in the only extant manuscript, breaks off abruptly in the middle of a sentence; and, though it is of considerable interest, its immediate application was speedily set aside by the rapid progress of events.
The manuscripts of Piers the Plowman, in all three versions, are very numerous, and it was once an extremely favourite poem. In the reign of Edward VI. it was for the first time printed, and went through three editions in one year. It was familiar to several of our great writers, including Lydgate, Skelton, Gascoigne, Drayton, and Spenser. The authors vocabulary is extremely copious, which occasions one difficulty in understanding his language. Some have imagined that his language contains only words of English origin, but this notion must have originated in extreme ignorance. He uses, in fact, the common midland dialect of the time, into which French words were introduced with great freedom; and the percentage of French words employed by him is slightly greater than that which is to be found in Chaucer. The metre is the usual unrhymed alliterative metre of the older English period; almost the only metre which can rightly be called English, since nearly all others have been borrowed from French or Italian. We commonly find about three syllables in each line, which begin with the same letter; and such syllables are, as a rule, accented ones. The general swing of the lines has been described as anapæstic; it is rather dactylic, with one or more unaccented syllables prefixed. The characters which William describes as appearing to him in consecutive visions have all allegorical names, and some are visionary enough; but others may have been sketched from the life, and are as distinct as a drawing by Hogarth. The chief power of his writing resides in its homely earnestness, and in his hearty hatred of untruth in every form. In treating of theological questions, he is often obscure, minute, and tedious; but in treating of life and manners he is keen, direct, satirical, and vivid. Some portions of the poem could well be spared; others are of much value. It is not suited to all readers; but most of those who explore it must be glad that they have done so. Apart from its literary merit, it is one of the most valuable linguistic monuments in the whole range of our literature.
Instead of giving, as is usual, short scraps of the poem which are almost unintelligible for lack of context, we present here, in a much abridged form, the 21st Passus or canto of the poem, the subject of which will be readily perceived. It deals with Christs entry into Jerusalem, the crucifixion, descent into hell, and resurrection.
In the following extract, the spelling has been modernised, because the language is a little difficult, as is usual in alliterative poems. It is given as a specimen of style, but has no linguistic value in its modern dress.