Like many a medieval manuscript, Piers the plowman has no title as such. Walter W. Skeat, who gave it that title, notes, however, that, in the manuscript he used as the basis for his Oxford edition, “we find here [in place of the word Prologue] ‘Incipit liber de petro plowman,’ nearly obliterated.”[i] In the introduction to his edition, Skeat spends the first seven pages clarifying his title — a necessary labor in 1869, when he first published his “student’s” edition, but one indicative of a modern preoccupation with titles. Perhaps because we have no titles of nobility in America, we are very particular about the titles of our own works. But Skeat was an Englishman, so my cheap psychologizing doesn’t apply to him anyway. He begins that note, headed Title, thus: “The English title is a translation of the title found in numerous MSS., viz. ‘Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman’.”[ii] Notice, however, that Skeat entitles his book “The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman,” not “Peter the Plowman,” as he might have done (according to Wikipedia, “Piers is an old English Christian name, and has the same origins as Peter,”[iii] and “Pierce is a surname, a cognate of French Pierre (‘Peter’)”[iv]), and he eschews the more contemporary translation used also in Wikipedia, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, in its article “Piers Plowman.”[v] Skeat is using an antiquated form of title for his own purposes, which I will take up in my next post. The Wikipedia article does a good job of summarizing the scholarship about the poem, especially that published since I studied the poem in graduate school in the Seventies, so if you are interested in that, I commend it to your attention.
But more than in its title, I am interested in the poem’s social matrix, and in the strong contrast between it and Chaucer’s work (and I now see that I will return and consider Piers Plowman one more time as a poem). I can remember reading articles back in grad school asserting that Chaucer was the first novelist, because he was so interested in the psychology of his characters, and in their motivations, and in drawing fully-rounded portraits. That is not the nature of allegory, nor of the dream vision, which both tend to draw the world in more stark Manichaean terms. Not to pursue this theme too far, but this view played into my own favorite dichotomy, that between the fantastic and the mimetic, which I would have avoided in this post were it not that I made the mistake of reading the post “Mormon LitCrit: Do We Need New Mormon Literary Theory?” by Scott Hales, and instead of polishing up my prepared posting and publishing it, I had to respond to his query and its implied request, and re-write. So rough and ready though it be, let me begin with the dichotomy I introduced in my first posting to this blog:
Verse and its proper counterpart prose are contrasting conventions for representing speech — speech clarified, speech refined. Each can be used in poems, in short or extended narratives, in essays, in dramatic works, in reports, in précis. They are contrasted primarily in rhythm and compactness: prose tends to be looser, with rhythms governed by the paragraph and little ornamentation; verse tends to be tighter, with rhythms governed by the line, and using repetition emphatically to maintain structure: devices like rhyme, alliteration, repeating patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and, in even the most free of verse, a very tight focus on each word, rather than each sentence.
That is, verse and prose are a proper contrastive pair. So are fiction and non-fiction[vi] for purposes of this taxonomy. Fiction and poetry are not (see last ¶). But in literature, the most reliable contrastive pair is the fantastic and the mimetic,[vii] and the fantastic is the older (but not by much) and more numerous category. The proper contrast to the novel in this my view is the romance. Contributing to the former strain are Chaucer, Defoe, Richardson, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, Joyce, Patrick O’Brian and Dean Hughes. Contributing to the latter — Langland, Sterne, Swift, the sisters Brontë, Byron, Kipling, Joyce, Tolkien and Orson Scott Card. Yes: science fiction is a form of romance, and the only science most of it utilizes is sociology. I know that it used to be called by its practitioners “scientifiction,” but it shares with the mystery, the thriller, the spy novel, the love story we usually designate as a ‘romance,’ Dante’s Commedia and the Revelation of John of Patmos, that larger world not constrained by the world available to our senses only (the proper arena of psychology, philology and sociology). And much of the production of Mormon literature is, I submit, in the realm of fantasy, not mimesis.
Why is this so? I think it is because of the same forces that drove Langland to write, and revise, and revise again[viii] over a period of perhaps 30 years, perhaps less. As I pointed out in “in verse # 15 : the alliterative resuscitation”, King John lost Normandy to France in 1204 and signed the Magna Carta in 1215, beginning the long process of separation between England and France, a process that had run its course by 1509, with the death of Henry VII. Perhaps the earliest alliterative poem in Middle English, Laȝamon’s Brut, runs to 16,095 lines, expanding on its sources with, among other things, “an enlarged section on the life and exploits of King Arthur.”[ix] I speculated then that the resurrection of Arthur as an English (and perhaps British) hero, one who features heavily in the poems of the Alliterative Revival, may result from the disgust of King John’s subjects with his perceived fecklessness as a leader, and a more generalized discontent with Norman rule. I don’t believe that Laȝamon thought he was writing history; I think he thought he was creating myth, much as Vergil did in his great fantasy Aeneid wherein he creates an origin myth for Rome. This idea of mine finds an echo, but not its source, in that Wikipedia article: “Several original passages in the poem — at least in accordance with the present knowledge of extant texts from the Middle Ages — suggest Layamon was interested in carving out the history of the Britons as the people ‘who first possessed the land of the English.’”[x] That is just to say that Laȝamon, in revising his sources — one of which was the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut of Wace, a 15,000-line poem[xi] — was drawing on Anglo-Saxon and Welsh and Cornish heroes and ideas and traditions, then deliberately casting them in an old-fashioned verse form that hadn’t been favored in the courts of rulers for over 200 years. Brut, his long poem, is dated by Baugh and Malone to circa 1189-1206, and in the Wikipedia article to between 1190 and 1215,[xii] right at the end of John Lackland’s reign (I argued all this more extensively in “in verse # 15”). Chaucer, one hundred and fifty years later, by contrast, is a court poet more comfortable with his contemporary society than Laȝamon,
“So,” you say, or is that sigh, “what?” Well, let me posit with Baugh and Malone that the fantastic is the response of the outsider to a world (s)he is not comfortable in, and the mimetic of the insider to a world where (s)he is more at ease. That might explain why so much of contemporary Mormon literature is expressed in one or another of the forms of fantasy, and why so much less of it occupies the mimetic sphere. Let me be clear: I am talking about works here, not authors. I am talking about trends, in a fluid environment, drawing on my investigation of Piers the Ploughman and other poems of the Alliterative Revival, in the context of a blog about the uses of verse, to suggest a theory of Mormon lit. None of these ideas are original with me, none of this is new. But Mormon literature begins with a new mythology[xiii] resonant with an earlier world, providing a new history of the foundation of its nation, offering a sharp critique of the nation’s culture, attempting to restore an old form to useful life, offering dream visions of alienation and histories of the clash of civilizations on a grand scale.
But hold on, I hear you say; does that really describe my world?
[i] The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman / by William Langland (or Langley), according to the version revised and enlarged by the author about A.D. 1377. — Edited by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat. 10th edition, revised. — Oxford : at the Clarendon Press, 1923; p. 91.
[ii] Ibid. And speaking of titles, I stole my title for this blog from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, chapter 45, and will again the next time around.
[iii] “Piers,” Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers, accessed 28 June 2012.
[iv] “Pierce (surname)”, Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierce (surname), accessed 28 June 2012.
[v] “Piers Plowman”, Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Plowman, accessed 28 June 2012.
[vi] Yeah, I’m an old librarian, but we are not the only people who divide up a universe between one category and its absence.
[vii] Those of you who know Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis : Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (or Mimesis : The Representation of Reality in Western Literature) will recognize where I’m drawing this distinction from.
[viii] Here I am accepting Skeat’s hypothesis of single authorship and revision, which some more recent scholars reject (again, see the Wikipedia article on Piers Plowman).
[ix] “Layamon’s Brut,” Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Layamon’s_Brut, accessed 28 June 2012. This is a more recent overview than the sources in my earlier post referred to above.
[x] Yup, Ibid.
[xi] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967. From that work’s “Book I, The Middle Ages (to 1500)” by Kemp Malone and Albert C. Baugh, pp. 170-171.
[xii] Op. cit.
[xiii] If a certain commenter frequenting the Salt Lake Tribune’s pages under the handle “Joseph’s Myth” only understood the uses of mythology, he would drop that handle like a hot potato — but he’s a mimetic mind confronting a fantastic world.