Piers Plowman : by William Langland - Summary and Analysis

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      Piers Plowman by William Langland is one of the significant works in the middle English period before Chaucer. 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. On the plain beneath him gather a multitude of folk, a vast crowd expressing the varied life of the world. He sees also a vision of higher tower (Truth), a deep dungeon (wrong). All classes and conditions of People-beggars, friars, priests, lawyers, labourers, hermits and nuns assemble. There follows a vision in which Lady Meed, Reason, Conscience and other abstractions are confronted. Lady Meed, a powerfully drawn figure expresses the corrupt social life of the time. In the confusion appears the Lady Holy Church who exhorts them all to seek the best thing-Truth. Then we have conscience preaching to people and indignation is expressed for the friars and pardoners who practised worst possible hypocrisy in the name of religion.

Piers Plowman is the most important work in Middle English with the exception of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
Piers Plowman

      The next vision is about The Confession of Seven Deadly Sins and a thousand of men moving to seek Truth. But the way is difficult to find and here Piers Plowman makes his appearance and offers to guide the pilgrims if they will help him plough his half acre of land. There follows a discussion of the labour problem of the day. Piers sets them all to honest labour as the best possible remedy for their vices and preaches the gospel of work as a preparation for salvation.

      At the end of the poem there is a search for Do-well, Do-better and Do-best who are vainly looked for among the friars, the priests and in scripture with the help of thought, wit and study.

Critical Analysis

      Piers Plowman is the most important work in Middle English with the exception of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. This is an alliterative poem of which the three vision of very different length are attributed to William Langland. To the degenerate Christians of his day Langland offers the essential virtue of work and love. This desire and his choice of a ploughman as a hero makes him appear as a rebel against social inequality, but in truth his one aim was that all should live a Christian life. For centuries, literature had been pleasing the upper class and so its appeal to the common people made its success enormous. Its loyalty to the church while denouncing the abuses is one of the great influences which led to the reformation in England. Its two great principles the equality of man before God and the dignity of honest labour roused a whole nation of freemen. The greatness of the poem is due to the A and B versions.

      In the vivid delineation of scenes and the realistic painting of characters, the poem bears comparison on with the best of mediaeval allegories, with the Roman De La Rose and the Divine Comedy. Its distinguishing characteristic is its bitter satire which is evident both in its side-long glances as well as direct attacks against the Christians of the time. It should be noted that the vice against which Langland's satire is specially directed is not Hypocrisy. Idleness and avarice are the objects of his satire. His satire is accompanied by an intense religious fervour which is absent in Chaucer. The real preoccupation of Langland is with the Christian life: the poor are nearer to Christ than others less removed from Him by the vices to which idleness leads. Piers, who is a ploughman is also a Christian. He is one of the lonely of mankind in whom Christ became incarnate. In its attacks on the abuses of the church, in its choice of a ploughman as the hero, in its stress on the equality of man and in its emphasis on labour as a way to salvation, the poem has a radical tone in it.

      It is one of the world's greatest works, partly for its national influence and partly for the picture it gives of the social life of the fourteenth century. As regards the form of the poem, Langland shows himself powerless to build up a harmonious whole. The first two visions are connected but the last vision is incoherent. Langland could create animated scenes, either comic or deeply pious, but he is neither an artist nor a musician. His verses do not thrill the sensibilities as poetry should. Thus his work has a social value, but no artistic merit. This explains why he has no descendants.

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